I was driving through Klamath on Monday last week when I heard that Pete Seeger had died. I listened as the station played Pete and Bruce Springsteen’s duet on “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” an ode to the dispossessed of Steinbeck’s Depression-era Dust Bowl of the 1930s.
As the river mist parted, the pages turned back to July of 1997 and I was approaching a podium to give closing argument in Orange County’s North Court in pro bono defense of Pastor Wylie Drake, who was being criminally prosecuted for housing the homeless in his First Southern Baptist Church of Buena Park.
Our defense of “necessity” had been denied by the judge, all but gutting our case. It still deserved voice — as opposed to a last-minute, trial-saving, yet principle-bereft prosecutor’s plea bargain we respectfully rejected.
As I looked into the audience at the rows of homeless that had come to support Pastor Drake, I abandoned my prepared closing and began by telling the jury how ironic that a young poet from my home state of New Jersey, just the year before, had written a song about the case before them and how sadly it addressed in uncannily painful imitation, thousands of similar ones, 60 years old in America.
The words I extemporaneously quoted that day in Fullerton, Calif., returned on the south bank of the Klamath River.
“Men walkin’ long the railroad track, goin’ someplace there’s no goin’ back. Highway patrol choppers comin’ up over the bridge, hot soup on a campfire under the bridge. Shelter line stretchin’ around the corner, welcome to the new world order. Families sleepin’ in their cars in the Southwest, no home, no job, no peace, no rest. The highway is alive tonite, nobody’s kiddin’ nobody about where it goes. I’m sittin’ out here in the campfire light, searchin’ for the ghost of Tom Joad.”
Taking the dispensation or withholding of justice dearly, and never an impostor to punch a clock just to pick up a paycheck in its pursuit, for over 70 of his 94 years, Pete Seeger sang and spoke out against the enemies of freedom like Hitler, the ’50s witch hunts and the House on Un-American Activities Committee, for which he was blacklisted, to the polluters of his beloved Hudson River and later on behalf of the civil rights movement and working men and women.
On the skin of his ever-present banjo were the words, “This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.” As much as any, they bore testament to the man who for more than seven decades and across two centuries held America up to her promise.
Blessed, I had similar thoughts only the day before as I drove home from celebrating the life of Yurok elder and tribal council member Bonnie Green. Friends and family had spilled out into Eureka’s 7th Street at the Pierce Mortuary, bearing witness to Bonnie’s tireless efforts on behalf of the Yurok Tribe and people.
From the Jessie Short litigation to education, economic development, health care and tribal rights that encompassed fishing, gaming and timber harvest, her energy and voice were boundless and resolute, yet always wise and kind .
Much like Pete Seeger, Bonnie Green was a peaceful warrior, going back to her participation in the “Fish Wars” of the 1970s, when the federal government sent in an armed National Guard to stop the tribe from fishing. Bonnie Green and others commenced a campaign of civil disobedience against that cessation, eventually resulting in the restoration of the tribe’s historical fishing rights.
As I drove back across the Klamath, I thought of the culture that it embraces. I thought of the working men and women of this country. I thought of the social outcasts and those who live one check away on the other side of midnight. I thought of the battles and causes those champions had embraced and engaged in, many on behalf of the least of us, which had gifted and shined upon all of us.
And last, I thought of the dream of something called America, and that as long as the spirit of Pete Seeger and Bonnie Green lives on, so will the her dream.
Jon Alexander is a Fort Dick resident and the suspended Del Norte County district attorney.