Pete Seeger and Art as a Form of Protest for Civil Rights

I wanted to focus this blog on a fellow Unitarian Universalist and civil rights advocate, Pete Seeger. For those who don’t know, Pete Seeger was a popular folk singer who died recently at the age of ninety-four. Looking back at his life, I was reminded of how art–literature, film, television, painting, and of course, music–can be used to protest bigotry and injustice. Armed with a banjo and guitar, Seeger began singing about the evils of racism at a young age. In his twenties, he sang a song entitled, “Dear Mr. President,” which included his hope for an America with, “no more Jim Crow, and no more rules like / “You can’t ride on this train ’cause you’re a Negro,” / “You can’t live here ’cause you’re a Jew.” He was an early participant in the international movement against South African apartheid, and in 1960, he participated in a musical protest against apartheid by helping sing songs in Zulu. Seeger played a major role in popularizing the spiritual, “We Shall Overcome,” which became an anthem for the Civil Rights Movement. In 1965, he and his wife, Toshi, marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma, Alabama. While the left-wing folk singer had little direct involvement in the Gay Rights Movement, he expressed a wish in 2010 that the country would begin, “allowing gays to marry. And to raise families.” For Seeger, music and civil rights activism were not separate areas of interest. They were intertwined. As someone blessed with exceptional artistic skills and concerned about the suffering of African Americans in this country, he found a way to use his music to promote racial equality. He reminds me a lot of the rapper Macklemore, who gained notoriety last year for his song, “Same Love,” a call for acceptance and equal rights for gays and lesbians. (Macklemore, it should be noted, has also spoken out firmly against racism.) The night before Seeger passed away, Macklemore performed “Same Love” at the Grammys Queen Latifah read marriage vows for a group of same-sex and opposite-sex couples. Like Seeger, Macklemore uses his musical talents to advocate for a future with less discrimination and more fairness. And it’s hard not to find that incredibly beautiful.

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