The Poetry of Protest

ImageAlice Paul

Today’s posting has nothing to do with my book.  Instead I am moved to comment on today’s news.

The news of Pete Seeger’s passing is popping up everywhere on all my personal media settings.  And I, as millions of others loved the music of Pete Seeger.  I always have.  The beauty of his voice alone, or with his group, “The Weavers” still echoes compellingly in my mind.

Yet, today, with his passing, I’m not thinking of the silenced music.  As essentially American as his voice and lyrics resonated, the lessons I learned from Pete Seeger are more linked to political conviction and courage.  His was the voice of the non-conformist, the social and political critic who challenged conventional beliefs.

Seeger served in uniform during World War Two.  Though he was a young man when he soldiered, his participation says a great deal about the justness of America’s struggle against totalitarianism.  But after the war, Seeger seems to have instantly grasped the politics of the Cold War for was it was, an excuse to stifle the voice of opposition.  Seeger suffered for his convictions.  When popular thought demanded unified anti-Communist behavior, Seeger did not comply.  It was justice he sought, and in the days of racism and blind war mongering, Seeger would not close his eyes and pretend America practiced equality and liberty.  And his beliefs landed him in political hot water.

His banjo and singing voice were his only sword and sidearm– yet still he made himself a dangerous man to an American government that demanded wall to wall consensus.  This troubadour appeared to be fearless in expressing his thoughts, singing anywhere and everywhere he saw injustice.

The Vietnam War provided Seeger and a growing segment of Americans a broader platform to protest Johnson-Nixon policies in Southeast Asia.

I remember that he was to appear on “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour,” and sing Waist Deep in the Big Muddy, an anti-war song.  Such a powerful message!  The lyrics at bottom called out the man in the White House as a “big fool.”  CBS pulled Seeger from the show out of fear of retribution from stock holders, sponsors and hawkish politicians.  To their credit, the Smothers Brothers refused to go on until Seeger was allowed back on the show.  CBS caved, Seeger appeared, the feelings of America soured more on the war, and for a wide variety of reasons America withdrew from that nightmarish miasma.

This blog is a tribute to other voices of opposition across many generations of Americans.  The list is long of patriotic citizens who understood the First Amendment meant what it said.  We should honor the lives of those who resisted the tyranny of a majority they believed misguided.

William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Margaret Fuller, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Helen Hunt Jackson, Homer Plessy, Jacob Riis, Henry George, Lewis Hine, “Mother” Mary Harris Jones, Ida Tarbell, Ida B. Wells, Eugene V. Debs, Alice Paul, Big Bill Haywood, Phil Ochs, Mario Savio, Cesar Chavez, Bobby Kennedy, Diane Nash, Bayard Rustin, Daniel Ellsberg, Harvey Milk, and the other thousands of names left off this list.

Hoist one tonight for Pete Seeger and the multitude of others who braved the currents of popular thought, for there is nothing more American than to question the status quo.