When folk singer Pete Seeger came to campus on this day in 1962, his visit was preceded by weeks of controversy.
In November, the Daily Tar Heel first reported that Seeger was scheduled to perform a concert in Memorial Hall sponsored by UNC’s New Left Club. It would be one of many concerts Seeger performed across the South to raise funds for the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) – his only in North Carolina.
Founded in 1960, SNCC was a vital civil rights organization that used community organizing and direct action to combat voter suppression, segregation, and racial violence. (Learn more about SNCC at the SNCC Digital Gateway.) The organization was involved in many of the most iconic events of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s – including the Freedom Rides, Mississippi Freedom Summer, the March on Washington, and the Selma to Montgomery Marches.
The New Left Club, which sponsored the show, was an active but short-lived student organization of the early 1960s dedicated to the study and discussion of leftist politics and labor issues, often inviting speakers to lead discussion on topics of interest.
Seeger himself was the target of some of the controversy – he had been subpoenaed by the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1955 and convicted of contempt of Congress for refusing to answer questions about his political beliefs and affiliations with communist organizations. (The conviction was overturned on appeal.) Amid the era’s panic over communism on university campuses, some considered him a dangerous leftist influence. However, it was not Seeger’s first time in Memorial Hall – he had performed a Carolina Union-sponsored show there just three years prior, without any controversy. It seems the New Left Club’s sponsorship of the concert, the proceeds going to SNCC, and the escalation of fears over communism at universities converged to draw the ire of opponents on campus and beyond. Alum Spencer Everett (class of 1960) wrote in a letter to the Daily Tar Heel:
I hope that students, who might be tempted to view the appearance of Pete Seeger as a harmless affair, worth the price of admission, will consider the left-wing, un-American causes to which the admission proceeds will be applied. With this in mind, I am sure that on December 5 the entertainment will be better and the air a good bit fresher anywhere but in the company of Mr. Seeger and the New Left. (Daily Tar Heel, 11/18/1962)
The day of the show, the Daily Tar Heel published an editorial in support of the performance. The author wrote:
Of what party or cell or country club or lodge or whatever, Pete Seeger is a member will have little relevance to his performance tonight. As students, more than any other section of the citizenry, we should not be confused by false arguments and spurious logic. What you will hear is the folk songs of the nation’s leading folk writer and composer – there will be no cell meeting, no band of conspirators taking oaths in sheep’s blood.
The overwhelmingly logical path is not to be frightened away from the Seeger concert by the muddled words of those who are afraid of men who sing songs praising peace and scorning war….not be frightened by the words of those who shudder at the thought of a “hammer of justice.” The logical path leads to Memorial Hall to see and hear the controversial Mr. Seeger, and decide for yourself. (Daily Tar Heel, 12/05/1962).
That night, Seeger performed before a crowd of over 1,000, while 10 picketers marched outside Memorial Hall bearing signs with messages like “Give your money to Easter Seals, and not to SNCC,” “Watch from outside the windows,” “Do not go to this red-inspired concert,” and “Don’t support the silent sponsor.” Some of the protesters were from the conservative group Young Americans for Freedom, while others marched independently. A crowd of 30-40 students watched the protest. (Daily Tar Heel, 12/06/1962)
One protester reflected in the Daily Tar Heel (12/16/1962) that their purpose was to “make sure that people were well-informed about his sponsor (the New Left), his record (many Communist-front affiliations) and the probable destination of their money (a freedom rider’s pocket).” He reported that “the people did not turn away in droves but enough did to give us some satisfaction.”
Jesse Helms, then an executive and commentator for Capitol Broadcasting Company (later North Carolina senator) lashed out in his nightly Viewpoint segment on WRAL-TV later that week:
The University campus has welcomed this Fall just about every conceivable type of extreme leftwinger. One night last week there was a folk-singer whose loyalty to his country has been at serious question…The folk-singer, a fellow named Pete Seeger, is not reported as having dispensed any of his political philosophy, and therefore we presume that he was invited merely for the purpose of adding to the University’s cultural life. It was mere coincidence, the academic freedom set will assure you, that Seeger’s appearance on the University campus was sponsored by the so-called “New Left Club.” Still, let’s tell it all: Seeger has been clearly identified as a known Communist; he refused to answer questions regarding his affiliation with the Communist Party; he has marched in Communist May Day parades; he was described in the 1961 report of the House of UnAmerican Activities Committee as ‘….without question, the best-known of the Communist Party’s entertainers.
The controversy on and off campus did little to dampen the spirit of Seeger or the audience. The Daily Tar Heel reported the day after the concert that “Seeger performed a program of old and contemporary folk songs that include several songs that have arisen from the desegregation movement. The greatest audience participation of the evening came on one of these, “We Shall Overcome,” theme song of CORE [Congress of Racial Equality].” (12/06/1962)
Sources and Further Reading
The Daily Tar Heel (dates cited in text), accessed via DigitalNC