Having gone to Carolina, I freely admit how little I know of Duke’s or Durham’s history. Since moving to Durham two years ago though, I also have no shame admitting how much I’ve grown to love this town and take interest in its history and politics then and now.
In school, I often heard the quotation “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” These days, reading David King Dunaway’s biography of Pete Seeger, How Can I Keep From Singing, it’s remarkable how the songs he sang at union workers’ rallies in the 1930s were just as applicable at civil rights marches in the ’50s and anti-Vietnam protests in the ’60s.
This repetition of history in Seeger’s lifetime disheartened and weakened him over the years. He began to realize that society’s problems could not always be solved through song alone; there were forces too strong.
From the biography, I learned that just after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination on April 4, 1968, about 200 Duke students marched to the house of the then-president of the university. They were scared, sad and upset, and they longed for someone of authority to do something, or at least help them to understand. The president did not speak with the students, even though they waited outside his house for two days. According to Dunaway, the president then had a breakdown and was hospitalized. The student group headed to a central part of campus and their numbers grew to around 1,500. Poet John Beecher was there, and he begged Seeger to join him. Beecher read poems to the students and Seeger sang with them, both hoping to soothe and inspire them.
At this point in his life, Seeger had more anger in him than optimism, but something in him knew he had to do his best for these kids. At one point while he was singing, he asked the students why there had been no national press coverage of such an emotional outcry. One said, “Oh, the local papers have been full of it, but the wire services hardly mention it. When we called up the TV networks they said they didn’t have any cameramen to spare, ‘but let us know if there is any violencewe’ll send someone down.’”
After an inspiring show, Seeger told the crowd: “You read today about crime in the streets! I say there’s crime in the New York offices of CBS and NBC! Crime! I’d like to make a pledge to you here tonight … Before I leave Duke I’m going to take a stone with me, and put it in my banjo case, and if I ever meet a TV man up there who says he won’t cover a story like this because there’s no violence, something is going to get hurt.”
There has been violence in Durham and at Duke, and there are bad things that happen here. There are also peace rallies, and wonderful artists, and other great people doing great things against strong forces.
History repeats itself, good and bad. Seeger was right, though: It would be nice if the good stuff got more exposure.