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Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Reflections On The Death Of Pete Seeger

If I Had A Hammer, I'd Hammer In The Morning
Pete Seeger, a genuine America hero, is dead.  I never knew Pete Seeger but we had one friend in common, the Appalachian poet and social activist Don West.  Pete Seeger and Don West had a great deal in common.  Both were hauled in front of the Senate Un-American Activities Committee which was chaired by Wisconsin's right wing radical Senator Joseph McCarthy.  Both Pete Seeger and Don West stood up to Senator McCarthy and his right wing minions with unflinching persistence and refused to be cowed by a classic example of a small minded, black hearted, egocentric man who had managed to accumulate far more power than he was capable of handling in a responsible manner.   Both Pete Seeger and Don West walked out of the McCarthy Hearings with new, ironclad determination to exercise their right to free speech and to dedicate their lives anew to the causes of the poor, minorities, elderly, infirm, and the working class.  Both men faced persistent problems throughout the rest of their lives due to this work for good, right, just causes.  They were frequently defamed, belittled, and pilloried by the forces in America which have always fought to prevent just causes from being successful.  But neither of them ever gave up on the fight and went to their graves after speaking about injustices as long as it was physically possible for them to do so. 

Pete Seeger was a shining example of a public figure who knew how to use his fame to help others.  He spoke out in songs, speeches, and written prose on nearly a daily basis for more than seventy years.  Since his death, I have read quotes from him as recently as 2011 in which he was still seeking to right wrongs, repair injustices, and change the world for the better.  Don West did the same until his death at age 86 in 1992. I was also lucky enough to meet two others who were interrogated and  pilloried by the McCarthy Committee, Florence and Sam Reese, and to spend one day in their company in November 1974 at a workshop at the Highlander Center in New Market, TN, which was co-founded by Don West.  Sam Reese was a union member and organizer during the UMWA strikes in Harlan County Kentucky during the 1920's and his wife Florence was a songwriter and singer who wrote the classic union song, "Which Side Are You On", during those union efforts.  Just like Pete Seeger and Don West, Florence and Sam Reese never stopped speaking out against injustice and working to right wrongs and improve living conditions for the working class, the poor, minorities, ill, and elderly.  They also travelled the country as long as it was physically possible for them to do so and Sam  Reese was actually in poor health when I met the Reese's but he was still working and speaking out to the best of his ability to do so. 

I have learned a great deal from knowing Don West, knowing the work of Pete Seeger, and learning for one day at the feet of Florence and Sam Reese.  The most important thing I learned from them all was that freedom of speech is a sacred right given to us by the founding fathers and should never be abridged or endangered and should also be exercised at every opportunity especially in the presence of those like Senator Joseph McCarthy who would seek to impair, endanger, or infringe upon it.  I learned that there will always be people like Joseph McCarthy who are willing to ignore and even run roughshod over the constitution in order to promote their own interests and opinions.  I also learned that speaking out in support of the best interests of the poor, minorities, elderly, infirm, and working class can be an expensive and painful habit.  But I also learned that there must be those of us who are persistently and unceasingly willing to speak out and to suffer whatever consequences might occur in order to promote the truth, to fight injustices, and to seek to make the world a better place for all who live in it no matter how vocal, venomous, or virulent the opposition may become. 

It is particularly interesting that Pete Seeger died in these current times when a particularly vocal, venomous, and virulent group of people have risen to some serious levels of power in this country and are totally devoted to destroying the rights and lives of those less fortunate than themselves.  A Right Wing Radical Fringe of the Republican Party is once again holding sway with millions of attentive listeners and they are working to impair voting rights; destroy trade unionism;  reverse important gains such as minimum wage, overtime pay, health care reform, gay marriage, and women's rights.   This group is led by several members of congress including, but not limited to, Senators Rand Paul and Ted Cruz, Representative Paul Ryan, former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, and a handful of other slightly less vocal and virulent public figures.  These are particularly dangerous people and these are the most dangerous times for human rights and free speech in America since the McCarthy Era.  This group of public figures have managed to gain the support of several hundred thousand to a few million Americans and to promote a number of various assaults on voting rights, free speech, universal religious freedom, health care accessibility, and a plethora of lesser social contracts which have been forged by voters and workers over the last 50 to 100 years. 

There has never been a more important time for socially responsible individuals to stand up, speak out, and work to promote the best interests of all Americans.  I ask each of you who reads this piece to spend some time in reading, study, and observation in order to prepare yourselves to support the common good just as Thomas Paine and the founding fathers did.  Work to develop the unceasing and unflinching fearlessness Pete Seeger and the others I have mentioned developed in the face of Joseph McCarthy.  Stand up, speak out, and never cease to do so until the day they bury you just as Pete Seeger, Don West, Florence Reese, and Sam Reese did.  

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