Singer Peter Yarrow tells University of Hong Kong lack of respect at root of protests

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 17 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 17 November, 2012, 4:23am

A puff of 1960s magic blew through the University of Hong Kong yesterday as Peter Yarrow, one part of American folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary, held a concert and rally at the university's Sun Yat-sen square.

The 74-year-old folk singer and activist made his name as a symbol of the civil-rights movement in the 1960s. He sang songs from that era, such as If I Had a Hammer and Bob Dylan's Blowin' in the Wind, as well as the more recent Don't Laugh at Me.

The co-writer of '60s hit Puff the Magic Dragon told his young audience that issues like women's rights, climate change and civil rights all stemmed from a common source.

"Each movement is about respect or the lack of it," he said, adding: "Selfishness is the handmaiden of disrespect, and that starts with the kids in school."

Speaking of his experience at Cornell University, where he was a student in the late 1950s, he said it was a place where women were treated like objects, and people put too much emphasis on money and power.

Genocide, religious intolerance, violence and discrimination all started from an initial refusal to sit down with someone different, the singer said.

With his non-profit Operation Respect, Yammer has since 1999 advocated tolerance and allowing room for people to question things without facing ridicule.

The organisation provides resources to help reduce the emotional and physical cruelty some children inflict upon each other.

In 1963, Yarrow stood with band mates Noel Stookey and Mary Travers and a quarter of a million people in Washington, calling for civil rights for black Americans.

They were part of the march on Washington in which Martin Luther King made his legendary "I have a dream" speech.

"There were a quarter of a million of people, because we were there to make a promise to each other to stop this. A person who was of colour in the South could be lynched, and there would be no legal recourse," he said.

"The genius of a country is not when it says: 'Whatever we do, it's right.' The genius is the ability to grow and say we can change.

"And today in America, we have a president of colour, who could very well have been chased by a lynch mob."