Turn! Turn! Turn!: School Board Apologizes to Pete Seeger!

“To everything (turn, turn, turn)
To everything (turn, turn, turn)
There is a season (turn, turn, turn)
And a time for every purpose, under heaven
A time to gain, a time to lose
A time to rend, a time to sew
A time to love, a time to hate
A time for peace, I swear its not too late”
Turn! Turn! Turn!
by Peter Seeger, adapted from the Book of Ecclesiastes.

This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender
Inscription on Pete Seeger’s banjo.

The Obama inauguration had an unexpected consequence this week as the San Diego School Board formally apologized to folk-singer Pete Seeger for attempting to force him to sign a loyalty oath nearly fifty years ago.

banjoseeger

In May 1960, Seeger was scheduled to perform at Herbert Hoover High School. Already a controversial figure as a supporter of unions, civil rights, and racial justice, Seeger was anathema to the right-wingers on the San Diego School Board.

In addition, Seeger was facing federal charges for his 1957 refusal to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee: “I am not going to answer any questions as to my association, my philosophical or religious beliefs or my political beliefs, or how I voted in any election, or any of these private affairs.” Seeger told the committee. “I think these are very improper questions for any American to be asked, especially under such compulsion as this.” (Seeger was convicted of contempt in March 1961 and sentenced to 10 years in jail; an appeals court overturned his conviction a year later.)

The local chapter of the American Legion heard about the concert that Seeger was scheduled to give at Hoover High School and told the School Board to stop it.

The San Diego School Board then told Seeger that the concert would be cancelled unless he signed a statement saying that it would not promote communism or an overthrow of the government.

When Seeger refused to sign the statement on First Amendment grounds, the School Board cancelled the concert. Seeger then got a court order allowing the concert to proceed.

Last month, San Diego School Board member Katherine Nakamura watched Pete Seeger perform Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” at the Lincoln Memorial during the Obama inauguration and decided to right the wrong that her predecessors had done to Seeger (and the Constitution) so many years ago.

On Tuesday, Nakamura introduced a resolution declaring that the San Diego School Board “deeply regrets its predecessors’ actions” and offering an apology to Seeger, whom it described as “one of our dearest national treasures.”

The apology resolution passed 5-0.

“It just seemed to me to be the right thing to do, and I had an opportunity to do it,” Nakamura said. “You don’t always get a chance to reflect on these things and the way they might have been or should have been.”

Nakamura and her colleagues on the San Diego School Board certainly deserve our praise for being inspired by Barack Obama’s inauguration to make amends to Pete Seeger.

Even more praise should go to the brave students of Hoover Senior High School’s Class of 1960 — who invited Seeger to perform at a time when an African-American President of the United States did not seem possible and people went to prison for insisting on racial equality, workers’ rights, social justice, and the freedom of speech guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.

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