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Saturday, April 19, 2014
Pete Seeger, at W.T. Clarke
’67 concert sparked First Amendment controversy
Courtesy Creative Commons
Pete Seeger, many years after his local appearance, which was delayed by legal wrangling.

When Pete Seeger died on Jan. 27, at age 94, the world mourned the loss of an American folk icon and activist. Seeger wrote classics including “Turn! Turn! Turn!” and “If I Had a Hammer,” was a founder of the Newport Folk Festival, and gave countless memorable performances over the decades — including one at W.T. Clarke High School in 1967.

Seeger was one of three concerts booked by the East Meadow Concert Association for its 1965-66 season. He was originally scheduled to play on March 12, 1966, but the show was canceled by the district’s Board of Education when it looked into Seeger’s controversial career. He had performed a Vietnam protest ballad in October 1965 in Moscow, and his subsequent concerts were often met with protests.

The concert association filed suit against the Board of Education in Nassau County Supreme Court, where a judge upheld the school board’s decision. Four months later, a New York State Court of Appeals judge overturned the ruling, determining that the board could not discriminate based on a performer’s political views.

The story was recounted in the Los Angeles Times on Jan. 28 by Michael Hiltzik, a 1969 Clarke graduate and a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who has written for the Times since 1981. In his story, “How Pete Seeger (1919-2014) made my high school famous,” Hiltzik wrote, “Seeger finally performed at Clarke, four days short of one year late. There were 300 protesters outside, and 1,100 fans inside.”

A ‘frothy’ political climate

“[Seeger] gets up, he takes out his banjo,” recalled Jonathan Jackson, a Valley Stream Central alum who attended the concert, in March 1967, at Clarke with his parents and a friend, Peter Robinson. “And first thing I remember him saying was, ‘Will you all stand up and sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” with me?’

“Kind of a chill went through everybody,” said Jackson, who was 15 at the time. “Opening the concert with the national anthem. That was his way of saying, ‘I’m safe. We’re all Americans. It’s OK.’”

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