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The folk rebellion that preserved free speech in Washington Square Park

They carried guitars, banjos and autoharps. They sang lilting folk songs that seemed as dangerous as doves. Their ever-larger Beatnik and interracial followers crowded the iconic Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village for informal Sunday concerts.

Yet the popularity of seemingly mild mannered folk musicians in the park sparked one of the city's most legendary free-speech fights in 1961. It was a battle, as reporters put it at the time, "over man's inalienable right to strum and sing outdoors."

Since the 1940s, musicians had received permits to sing or play at Washington Square Park. Legendary musicians such as Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger and Dave Van Ronk would show up for the Sunday concerts.

But on March 27, 1961, Parks Commissioner Newbold Morris -- a fan of high culture represented by Lincoln Center but no fan of folk music -- authorized a ban on the musicians' permits. The "unsavory appearance" of the musicians was among the reasons he cited for his action. In response, hundreds of folk musicians gathered in the square to protest the ban on April 9. They were met by 50 police officers, who stood by and let them hold a songfest against the parks commissioner, but then moved in as the folk singers and their supporters began to march to a nearby church. Ten people were arrested.

Morris later said he wasn't against the folk musicians but that their supporters brought "adverse conditions to the park" and that it ought to be a "neighborhood park." "You can't grow grass with people walking all over it," he said.

The protests endured six weeks before the ban was repealed.

Stephen Petrus, the curator of "Folk City," an exhibition now on view at the Museum of the City of New York that recounts this important historical moment, said the protests raised a bigger question: What is appropriate in a public space? "It is kind of seen as a victory of the counterculture of the freer use of public space," he said. "It was a turning point."

Here are some recently rediscovered rare images of the protest as well as years that followed, when the square continued to serve as a focal point of Beatnik and folk music cultures.

Police officers attempt to enforce a ban on
Photo Credit: Dick Kraus

Police officers attempt to enforce a ban on folk singing in Washington Square Park as a crowd of protesters gathered. (April 9, 1961)

Police officers stand under the arch at Washington
Photo Credit: Dick Kraus

Police officers stand under the arch at Washington Square Park while villagers gather to protest the ban on musicians in the park. (April 9, 1961)

Folklorist Israel Young leads a protest against the
Photo Credit: Dick Kraus

Folklorist Israel Young leads a protest against the banning of folk music in Washington Square Park on April 9, 1961. Protest signs read "Folk singers here, not Long Island."

Musician Theo Rothstein, 17, of Brooklyn, defies a
Photo Credit: Dick Kraus

Musician Theo Rothstein, 17, of Brooklyn, defies a ban on folk singing in Washington Square Park. (April 9, 1961)

Autoharpist Robert Easton of Greenwich Village is arrested
Photo Credit: Dick Kraus

Autoharpist Robert Easton of Greenwich Village is arrested by police for defying a ban against singing folk songs in Washington Square Park. (April 9, 1961)

Activist Harold L.
Photo Credit: Dick Kraus

Activist Harold L. "HL" Humes shouts to the crowd during his arrest at a protest over the ban on folk singing in Washington Square Park. (April 9, 1961)

A musician performs in Washington Square Park after
Photo Credit: Dick Morseman

A musician performs in Washington Square Park after a ban against songfests in the park had been lifted. (May 14, 1961)

A young family listens to music in Washington
Photo Credit: Dick Morseman

A young family listens to music in Washington Square Park. (May 14, 1961)

A musician carries his cello in search of
Photo Credit: Dick Morseman

A musician carries his cello in search of a band in Washington Square Park. (May 14, 1961)

Two women in curlers take in the sights
Photo Credit: Bob Luckey

Two women in curlers take in the sights at Washington Square Park. The photographer says these women are not beatniks, since beatniks are known for their straight hair. (August 2, 1964)

A poet recites in Washington Square Park. (August
Photo Credit: Bob Luckey

A poet recites in Washington Square Park. (August 2, 1964)

A folk singer in Washington Square Park gets
Photo Credit: Bob Luckey

A folk singer in Washington Square Park gets accompaniment from woman holding his music. (August 2, 1964)

Musicians in Washington Square Park. (August 2, 1964)
Photo Credit: Bob Luckey

Musicians in Washington Square Park. (August 2, 1964)

A trio of high school students jam in
Photo Credit: Bob Luckey

A trio of high school students jam in Washington Square Park. (August 2, 1964)

A young man sits in on a folk
Photo Credit: Bob Luckey

A young man sits in on a folk music festival in Washington Square Park. (August 2, 1964)

A foot-stomping jug band puts on a show
Photo Credit: Bob Luckey

A foot-stomping jug band puts on a show in Washington Square Park. (August 2, 1964)

A musician plays the jug in Washington Square
Photo Credit: Bob Luckey

A musician plays the jug in Washington Square Park. (August 2, 1964)

People flock around the ice cream man on
Photo Credit: Bob Luckey

People flock around the ice cream man on a summer afternoon in Washington Square Park. (August 2, 1964)

An ice cream vendor in Washington Square Park
Photo Credit: Bob Luckey

An ice cream vendor in Washington Square Park takes time out from his weekend duties to down a fast one. (August 2, 1964)

A beatnik woman bends a beer can out
Photo Credit: Bob Luckey

A beatnik woman bends a beer can out of shape in Washington Square Park. (August 2, 1964)

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