Category Archives: Red Scare

Pete Seeger Does Not Testify

Pete Seeger Does Not Testify

August 18, 1955

Pete Seeger Does Not Testify

McCarthyism

      Despite its importance in the Allied victory in World War II, after the war most  Americans viewed Communist Soviet Union as a dangerous enemy.
                A number of American politicians, most notably Senator Joe McCarthy of Wisconsin, said that many Americans were sympathetic to Communism, worked for Communists, or were  spies for Communists.      

               In February 1950, McCarthy charged that there were over 200 “known communists” in the Department of State. 

House on Un-American Activities

       Established in 1938, the House on Un-American Activities Committee subpoenaed citizens to testify before Congress about possible or imagined Communist sympathies.

      Many felt that HUAC was simply a political tool used by the Republicans. In 1947, HUAC had decided not to investigate the Ku Klux Klan. HUAC’s chief counsel, Ernest Adamson, announced: "The committee has decided that it lacks sufficient data on which to base a probe," HUAC member John Rankin added: "After all, the KKK is an old American institution.” 

      That same year, Ronald Reagan, along with his wife Jane Wyman, provided the FBI with a list of names of Screen Actors Guild members they believed were or had been Communists. 

      On October 20, 1947, HUAC opened hearings into alleged Communist influence in Hollywood. A “friendly” witness included President of Screen Actors Guild Ronald Reagan.

      On November 24, 1947 the House of Representatives issued citations for Contempt of Congress to the so-called Hollywood Ten—John Howard Lawson, Alvah Bessie, Herbert Biberman, Lester Cole, Edward Dmytryk, Ring Lardner Jr., Albert Maltz, Samuel Ornitz, Adrian Scott, and Dalton Trumbo. They had refused to cooperate at hearings dealing with communism in the movie industry. The men were sentenced to one year in jail. The Supreme Court later upheld the contempt charges.

Other artists targeted

      On September 4, 1949  racists injured more than 140 attendees after a benefit for a civil rights group in Peekskill, N.Y.
       The victims were among the 20,000 people leaving a concert featuring African-American Paul Robeson, well-known for his strong pro-unionism, civil rights activism and left-wing affiliations.
              The departing concert-goers had to drive through a miles-long gauntlet of rock-throwing racists and others chanting "go on back to Russia, you niggers" and "white niggers."
                 On February 6, 1952, a former Communist Party member and now an FBI informant,  named members of the popular folk singing group The Weavers as Communists. Pete Seeger was a member of the group.

Pete Seeger Does Not Testify

      On this date, HUAC called Pete Seeger to testify. 

      Seeger refused to invoke the Fifth Amendment, protecting citizens from self-incrimination. Instead he insisted that the Committee had no right to question him regarding his political beliefs or associations. 

      HUAC cited Seeger for contempt of court and in March 1961 he stood trial. The court found him guilty of obstructing HUAC’s work. At his sentencing he asked if he could sing, “Wasn’t That a Time”? The judge refused Seeger’s request and sentenced him to a year and a day in prison.

      A court overturned the verdict in May 1962. The same week Peter, Paul, and Mary's cover of Seeger's "Where Have All the Flowers Gone" hit the top 40 list.

      That same year, Seeger used words from the Book of Ecclesiastes to write "Turn Turn Turn."

Blacklisted

      Though the Court had overturned his conviction, TV and other media continued to blacklist Seeger. It would not be until September 10, 1967, on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Show that Pete Seeger appeared for the first time on television. It had been 17 years since blacklisting. He sang Waist Deep in the Big Muddy, but CBS dropped the performance when Seeger refused to edit the obviously the song's anti-Vietnam sentiments. 

      On February 25, 1968, CBS allowed Seeger to return to the show and sing the song among others.

Pete Seeger Does Not Testify, Pete Seeger Does Not Testify, Pete Seeger Does Not Testify, Pete Seeger Does Not Testify, Pete Seeger Does Not Testify, 

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Princeton Riot Blackboard Jungle

Princeton Riot Blackboard Jungle

Bill Haley & His Comets singing “Rock Around the Clock”

Princeton Riot Blackboard Jungle
L-R: Louis Calhern, Glenn Ford Sidney Poitier in Blackboard Jungle
Princeton Riot Blackboard Jungle

 Communists everywhere

In the 1950s many Americans thought they saw Communists in every nook and cranny. And Americans blamed what they defined as social ills on Communism’s influence.

Civil Rights? Communism.

Folk music? Communism.

Homosexuality? Communism.

The Beat Generation? Communism.

Juvenile delinquency? Communism.

Rock and Roll? Communism.

Princeton Riot Blackboard Jungle

Ed McBain

           The novel Blackboard Jungle was published in 1954. Ed McBain, using the pseudonym Evan Hunter,  wrote the book.  The following year Richard Brooks directed the film.

The film reinforced the popular view that teenagers, particularly those who lived in the cities, were out of control. Disrespectful. Lazy. Intemperate.

The movie opened with Bill Haley & the Comets “Rock Around the Clock.” The song was actually the B-side of a single the band had released in May 1954, “Thirteen Women (and Only One Man in Town).” The single didn’t go far on the charts. Not until its now-famous B-side opened the movie.

Princeton Riot Blackboard Jungle

Rock Around the Clock

           On July 9, 1955, “Rock Around the Clock” became the first rock and roll recording to hit the top of Billboard’s Pop charts. The song stayed there for eight weeks.

Princeton Riot Blackboard Jungle

10 Times the Clock

It was on this date, May 17, in 1955 that the so-called Princeton Riot occurred.

According to Princeton dot edu, “On May 17, 1955, the juvenile delinquency drama Blackboard Jungle closed its run at Princeton’s Garden Theater. That night, 10 enterprising students met at a local record shop to purchase copies of the film’s groundbreaking theme song, “Rock Around the Clock.” The plan, as revealed in the next day’s “Prince”: to blare Bill Haley’s hit single at 11 p.m. from “key places” on campus “in hopes of triggering an outburst.

Blackboard Jungle
NYT article
Princeton Riot Blackboard Jungle

Earlier Memphis Ban

That Blackboard Jungle was in the news was not new. On March 28, 1955, Memphis, Tennessee’s censor board had banned the film.

In fact 1955 was a tough year for rock and roll promoters. On May 22,  Bridgeport, Connecticut authorities had cancelled a Fats Domino concert because of the dangers of “Rock and Roll.”  Similar rock and roll concert cancellations due to local officials’ fear of possible violence occurred in Boston, Atlanta, Newark, Asbury Park, New Jersey, and Burbank, California.

And remember that the Ed Sullivan Show had presented only the top half of Elvis Presley’s first appearance.

As for that Princeton riot, the faculty committee suspended four students.

Princeton Riot Blackboard Jungle

Princeton Four

Blackboard Jungle
NYT article
Princeton Riot Blackboard Jungle

Clare Boothe Luce objects

On August 26,  Blackboard Jungle was removed from consideration at the Venice Film Festival because of objections by the U.S. Ambassador to Italy, Clare Boothe Luce, but the movie received four Oscar nominations (won none).

Today considered a landmark film about the 1950s. And though Bill Haley’s song was not the first rock and roll song, it is often credited with making rock and roll popular far beyond its 1950 boundaries.

Princeton Riot Blackboard Jungle
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