Pete Seeger, Richard Morgan, and the Limits of Dissent
By Guest Blogger Jeff Gill ____________ The recent death of folk singer and social activist Pete Seeger at 94 was a loss for the nation, and for the world. His rendition of “We Shall Overcome” became the signature anthem of the civil rights movement. But what does Pete Seeger have to do with Ohio archaeology? You may have read a previous post here based on a letter found by OHS volunteer Sara Nuber Thomas, that tells a bit of the story about how Curator of Archaeology Richard G. Morgan was forced out of his position after claims that he was involved with the Communist Party USA (CPUSA).
Richard G. Morgan
That entry also reminded us of the David Price book Threatening Anthropology: McCarthyism and the FBIs Surveillance of Activist Anthropologists. The title neatly sums up the tensions of that era in the late 1940s and 1950s. The FBI and conservative forces in the culture of the day were putting intense pressure on liberal and activist groups, even as the practice of social sciences in particular had the potential to “threaten” established narratives about race, class, and gender. In the McCarthy era, there were powerful forces at work on both sides of the debate. During the economic collapse of the Great Depression, an estimated 80,000 Americans joined the CPUSA. In the build up to World War II, the relationship between Soviet Russia and the CPUSA grew closer, with some critics claiming that Moscow controlled and directed the American party. When Stalin made alliance with Hitler in 1938, the vast majority of CPUSA members left the party. Pete Seeger, who had joined as an idealistic young college student at Harvard, said later in life that he wished he had left the party at that time, but always considered himself “a small ‘c’ communist.” The pressures on the remaining CPUSA members increased through the Cold War, between the U.S. & Soviet Union beginning almost the moment World War II ended, with claims of Communist domination of various unions and the entertainment industry leading to Congressional hearings and demands for former members to “name names” even though membership in the CPUSA was not illegal under federal law until 1954. Somewhere between social justice concerns in the 1930s and global geopolitics in the 1950s was where Richard Morgan was pinned. My own guess is that Morgan might well have been in agreement with Pete Seeger that he was more of “a small ‘c’ communist” and possibly even wished he had broken with the CPUSA after Stalins pact with Hitler. That connection has some likelihood in that Pete Seeger was good friends with, and stayed at the home of Richard and Anna Morgan. Anna was a professional nurse, and treasurer of the Midwestern branch of the CPUSA; she had sons from a previous marriage who had a progressive book store near campus, whose activities became the target of right-wing mobs in 1948. No one was arrested for the vandalism and damage at the riot near campus, but it became the trigger for what became a two year stalemate before Morgan’s ultimate resignation under pressure in 1950. The board of the Ohio Historical Society (OHS) took steps after the public pressure to make former membership in the CPUSA grounds for dismissal, but Morgan rightly fought termination on those grounds, given that it was not the case when he had been hired. Around the country, similar battles raged in settings large and small, by implication and revelation. The “Blacklisting” era came about when in 1950 various publications put out lists of known or suspected Communists, and pressure was put on recording artists, radio broadcasters, the movie business and the early television industry to not hire people so listed. The debate was between the illegal “seeking the violent overthrow of the government” possibility among some in the 30s, and the perfectly legal (until 1954) membership in the CPSUA. Congress and the House Un-American Activities Committee played their part in using their subpoena power to try to force entertainment industry figures and academics to “name names” and put people under the same sort of in-between cloud. Morgan did not name names, and he did his best to make OHS fire him, even as director Erwin Zepp worked to get Morgan to step down. The details of the final arrangement will probably never be known, but Morgan retreated to a chicken farm in Worthington, continuing to work with his wife on civil rights and Progressive Party activities. The FBI surveillance of Morgan continued, ironically giving us a keyhole into life on that chicken farm from 1951 to 1956. Anna continued to work as a nurse in Columbus. In Price’s book, he notes “A Cincinnati FBI agent noted that a 1951 meeting of the Franklin County Communist Party held at Anna and Richard Morgans house ‘featured Pete Seegar [sic], who sang progressive songs,’ and that Pete Seeger and his wife spent the night at the Morgans’ farmhouse.” Morgan died in 1968. Seeger’s death may mark the last living link to Morgan and this sad chapter in our history. Jeff Gill Jeff Gill is a program assistant at the Newark Earthworks Center and interpreter for sites around the Licking County region.