By Anne Pyburn Craig
The Hudson Valley is shaping up as a stronghold of resistance to regressive, punitive policy.The website Indivisible19.com links to over 30 active progressive groups within the 19th congressional district, all focused on issues related to peace, justice and human rights, and there are many more that aren’t linked — the active New Paltz chapter of Food, Not Bombs, for example. Clearly, it’s fertile ground for progressive thought and action.
And this has been true for centuries now. New York was still New Netherlands when religious rebel Anne Hutchinson made a home in what’s now Westchester County, and the Brits didn’t burn Kingston because it was a meek assemblage of uninvolved sheeple. Ever since, the Valley has continued to be birthing ground and incubator for rebels and change-makers.
Radical roots round here get interwoven, curving in unexpected directions Boughton Place in Highland, for example, hosted a recent gathering led by indigenous author Evan Pritchard “bringing together environmental visionaries, indigenous elders, musicians, scholars, activists, and peacemakers to discuss and unite in creating a plan of action for the on-going protection of the Hudson River and its people.” Founded by Dr. Clare Danielsson, a red diaper baby who romped the Platte Clove woods with the proto-hippie anti-fascist Nature Friends before becoming goddaughter to Dorothy Day and a psychodrama educator/ conflict resolution expert, the community center is named for John Boughton, hero of the Anti-Rent Wars of the 1830s Catskills.
In 1895, thought leaders gathered at Mohonk to talk about international arbitration as a replacement for war; the tradition continues, with Mohonk Consultations conferences addressing peace, food security, resilience and more. In the early 1960s, locals mustered to the sounds of Pete Seeger’s banjo and joined hands to protect Storm King Mountain, a force which ultimately birthed Clearwater, Scenic Hudson, Riverkeeper, and U.S. environmentalism.
During the 20th century, revolutionary forces gathered here like magnetized iron filings. In 1920, the United Communist Party convened near Kingston in “a big farmhouse on a lonely road somewhere in the hills” guarded by “huge Great Danes.” The Overlook Hotel in Woodstock was the scene of a secret 1921 meeting at which two groups joined to form the Communist Party of America; two months after news of this became public in 1923, the hotel was burned to the ground.
And through the middle of the century, the Cats were a haven full of “red diaper camps,” places where leftist and Communist parents knew that their children would be safe among the like-minded. One of the better known, Camp Woodland in Phoenicia, held a reunion of sorts in 2010 sponsored by SUNY New Paltz. “I spent many happy summers at Woodland where Pete Seeger came to play every year; where the Rosenberg kids went to camp undercover, as well as Morton Sobell’s son, and the children of other luminaries and regular folk that made up the Old Left,” reminisces Charles Light of Massachusetts in an online discussion of the event.
Also in mid-century, Ulster County served as the Northern outpost for Father Divine, the flamboyant and outspoken spiritual leader whose Peace Missions sought an end to debt, hunger and segregation in American society.
On August 27, 1949, violence broke out when concertgoers eager to hear activist musician Paul Robeson were attacked by a mob with baseball bats and rocks, and a cross was burned on a hillside nearby. “Our objective was to prevent the Paul Robeson concert and I think our objective was reached,” commented the head of the local American Legion. Organizers regrouped and successfully held the concert on September 4, with an audience of 20,000 protected by a wall of union members.
In 1964, Students for a Democratic Society held their annual convention in Pine Hill. And in 1966, at Peg Leg Bates Resort in Kerhonkson, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee gathered to “grapple with the impact of black power on the organization;” in a 2 a.m. vote, 19 for and 18 against, whites were ejected from the group.
In the 1970s, Weather Underground member Jeff Jones hid from the law in the Catskills for a while, falling in love and creating his son Thai, who would later pen a family history entitled A Radical Line: From the Labor Movement to the Weather Underground, One Family’s Century of Conscience
In the mid-to-late 60s, the towns of New Paltz and Woodstock became havens for musicians and the hippies that loved them; “the” 1969 concert may have happened in Bethel, but its roots were firmly planted in the Woodstock scene. As for collegiate New Paltz, the “Berkeley of the East Coast” with its front page fame as “A Town Torn By Too Much Youth,” it was the scene of antiwar protests and an ahead-of-its-time on-campus ecovillage, torn down in 1980 by an incoming conservative administration. Winds change. But it’s perhaps worth noting that New Paltz was founded by religious rebels in the first place, that the New Paltz Women in Black still stand in silent protest each Saturday noon by the library, and that the college has had a major sustainability program in place since 2010.
As great ideas gradually percolate into the mainstream and become accepted, there’s some danger of people becoming complacent about the need for deeper systemic change. “What happened to the radical left?” muses Vernon Benjamin, author of a two-volume History of the Hudson Valley. Like many locals, Benjamin found himself traveling to Standing Rock with a load of supplies late last fall. “Is there any room for them anymore? This region has seen, not a radicalization, but a liberalization. Industrialization gave way to heritage tourism and the arts, and some ideas that were once radical have become the new norm. But true radicalism springs eternal in the youthful heart.”
When it springs in the Valley and the Cats, it continues to find fertile ground and infrastructure. Vocal advocates for peace were speaking out within hours of September 11, 2001 and continued to do so throughout the Bush administration (some, such as the Women in Black, have never stopped.) In 2004, New Paltz Green Party Mayor Jason West rocked the nation with his very public gay weddings. Organizations such as Ulstercorps and Family, born in the hippie spirit and shepherded into 501(c)3 status with loving care, are revered local institutions, art flourishes, as do sustainability, anti-hunger, anti-racist and immigrants’ rights organizations. During the encampment phase of the Occupy movement, local chapters thrived.
“Seeger also provided rousing performances at the summer ‘commie camps’ in the Catskills where the New York faithful sent their children to study the gospel according to Marx,” hissed Dr. Paul Kengor, executive director of the conservative Center for Vision and Values in Pennsylvania, on the occasion of Pete Seeger’s death. “These surreal spectacles were a sort of twisted red version of Vacation Bible School.”
The Bible school that birthed Kengoir’s think tank, Grove City College, objected strenuously to Title IX regulations, forbids federal financial aid and was censured for lack of due process in dismissing professors. Seeger, meanwhile, died with four Grammy awards and a rejuvenated river to his credit.
Meanwhile, Newburgh-based hip-hop artist Decora — whose rap take on Seeger’s Where Have All the Flowers Gone blew minds a couple of years ago — just celebrated his new album Beyond Belief at Lincoln Center. You can catch him at the Rosendale Theatre on April 14 or at BSP Kingston on April 22.