For those of you who haven’t heard Pete Seeger died yesterday at the age of 94. He was not only a renowned balladeer, but a working person’s hero and a legend to any of us who grew up in the cultural revolutions of the 1950s through the 1970s on everything from poverty and labor rights to the opposition of war and US adventurism, to the protection of the environment and the opposition to nuclear power – to the Occupy movement.
Recently, I agreed to represent an organization, the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, he founded with his wife Toshi to protect his beloved Hudson River, in its opposition to the extension of the NRC license of the Indian Point Nuclear facility on the Hudson River 38 miles north of New York City. A few months ago, Clearwater obtained a ground-breaking environmental justice decision finding that the plant put low income communities and communities of color at unequal risk of harm from radiation leaks and violated the Executive Order on Environmental Justice. I have to admit, a major reason I agreed to handle the case from Denver was Pete’s history with Clearwater and an opportunity to maybe spend some time with him.
About 35 years ago, as a young attorney I put together a lawsuit on a shoestring budget for a Lakota family in South Dakota who had suffered chronic exposure to radon gas from uranium mill tailings – the case established nationally the right to sue for damages from an increased risk of future cancer from a current exposure to a carcinogen. Because we had no money for the litigation, we formed a support group and did fundraising, including a letter to a list of about 100 prominent people (movie stars, etc.). The letter only got 2 donations, $10 from Ali McGraw, and $25 from Pete Seeger. I’ve always wanted to pay Pete back, with interest. Perhaps I’ll be able to do that with Clearwater.
He will be missed dearly… and I am sure more than one ballad will be composed and sung about his own life.
Andy is a longtime Guild member and former chair of the NLG’s Environmental Human Rights Committee.
Editor’s Note: In 1953, Pete Seeger played a (then rare) racially integrated concert (or “Town Hall Show”) sponsored by the NLG New York City Chapter, with acts including Sonny Terry, Leon Bibb, and Jack Gilford.
In 1955, Seeger was called before the notorious House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), and in his testimony, reprimanded the Committee, refusing to discuss his political affiliations and activities. He was criminally convicted of Contempt of Congress.
NLG lawyers Paul Ross and Leonard Boudin represented Seeger in the District Court where he was convicted. Later in the Second Circuit, where the conviction was overturned, he was represented once more by Paul Ross and another Guild attorney, Samuel Koenigsburg.