School board to say sorry to folk icon after 49 years
2:00 a.m. February 10, 2009
It took a half century, but the San Diego Unified school board wants to apologize to Pete Seeger.
In 1960, Seeger was nearly barred from playing a concert at Hoover High School. At the time, the now-legendary folk singer was under indictment for refusing to answer questions from a McCarthy-era congressional committee about his left-leaning politics and membership in the Communist Party.
The school board insisted that Seeger sign a loyalty oath before he could perform.
The effort failed, thanks to quick work by lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union in San Diego and a ruling by a judge against the school board at a rare Saturday session in his downtown court chambers.
Tonight, board member Katherine Nakamura will introduce a resolution declaring that the board “deeply regrets its predecessors’ actions” and offering a hand of formal friendship to Seeger.
The resolution offers an apology to a man who is “one of our dearest national treasures.”
For his part, Seeger, 89, said in a statement that he appreciated the gesture.
“It is a measure of justice that our right to freedom of expression has been vindicated,” he said.
Seeger urged support for a bill in the state Legislature regarding an oath that state employees are required to take. The change would allow those who have religious or moral objections to recite an alternate oath.
“Let’s read the 1st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution,” he wrote.
ACLU of San Diego Executive Director Kevin Keenan had told Nakamura about the 1960 incident about two years ago, but Nakamura said it was Seeger’s appearance at a pre-inauguration concert for Barack Obama that provided the final spark for the resolution.
Seeger, joined by his grandson and Bruce Springsteen, led the Lincoln Memorial throng in “This Land Is Your Land,” a song written by his friend Woody Guthrie.
Seeger’s troubles in San Diego occurred while he was blacklisted and shunned by major entertainment venues.
In 1955, Seeger had declined to answer questions in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee, a McCarthy-era committee that probed real or alleged members of the Communist Party, citing his First Amendment rights.
He spent years performing mostly at schools and small venues, and one of those was Hoover High School. His agent signed a rental agreement for the concert, but the local American Legion heard of it and pressured the school board to act.
The board passed a resolution that said Seeger had to first sign a pledge stating the concert would not be used to promote the overthrow of the government, and was not part of a “Communist-action organization or Communist-front organization.”
The action came two days before the Saturday night concert, recalled Louis Katz, one of two ACLU lawyers who represented Seeger that May. He and his partner Irwin Gostin spent all day Friday drafting a motion asking for an injunction against the district.
Superior Court Judge Clarence Harden heard the case in his chambers on Saturday morning, about 10 hours before the show was to go on. Katz said the lawyers argued that Seeger had signed a valid contract with the district, and the oath was an illegal new condition.
“It was interference with his civil liberties, and with a contract that had been made and signed,” Katz said. “It was all political.”
Harden agreed with the ACLU and issued the order barring the school district from forcing Seeger to sign the pledge. Seeger invited the judge to the show, but Katz wasn’t sure if he showed.
That night about 1,400 people did go to the auditorium to hear Seeger perform.
Nakamura has her own memory of Seeger. As a student in 1975 she attended a folk music festival in Los Angeles where Seeger played to a decidedly smaller crowd. She said only about a half dozen or so people showed up for what she described as a memorable half-hour performance.
“I remember he was so talented, and so warm and such a kind person even in that small of a crowd,” Nakamura said.
The resolution is a small gesture but needed to be done, she said.
“It’s an opportunity to say, this shouldn’t have happened,” Nakamura said. “It’s closing the book on that particular chapter.”