September 4, 1949 – The Peekskill Riots
In early summer 1949, famous Black singer-actor Paul Robeson, with other musicians Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, announced an open-air concert in Peekskill, New York. It was to be the fourth Robeson summer concert in as many years. Mohegan Colony, a cooperative egalitarian community hosted the concert in 1946. In 1947, the site was Peekskill Stadium, and in 1948 it was in nearby Crompond, NY.
Guthrie, Seeger and Robeson were all prominent, popular progressives. After World War II, Robeson’s politics moved farther to the left, and he used his considerable public voice to protest Fascism, and America’s failure to fully integrate society in the aftermath of the war, in which many Black servicemen had given their lives.
Two months before the concert, Robeson had given a speech at the Paris Peace Conference, where he noted:
“It is unthinkable that the Negro people of America or elsewhere… would be drawn into war with the Soviet Union.”
The USSR, our ally during the war, was the only nation on the planet to outlaw race discrimination. But anti-Communist agitation grew in the USA, and so did the rage against Robeson’s perceived Communist loyalties. The slur was common: Robeson owed his allegiance to the USSR and the FBI was building a file about his comings and goings.
Peekskill and its neighboring communities were filled in the the summer with people, mostly weekenders, and many of them were middle-class left-leaning Jews from New York City. But the year-round residents, were mostly working-class conservatives, whose resentment and open hostility to the “summer people” had been growing.
Because of Robeson’s radical politics, local groups railed against the very idea of the concert as un-American. An editorial in The Peekskill Evening Star stated: “…the illustrious name of Paul Robeson is now almost hidden by political tarnish“.
The American Legion post, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, and the Catholic Veterans announced that they would picket the concert. The Peekskill Joint Veterans’ Council and the newspaper called for a peaceful demonstration.
But during the concert, local mobs blocked the entrance to the venue and harassed the concertgoers. Groups paraded along the highway, automobile horns honked and the high school band played. The crowd chanted: “We’re Hitler’s boys here to finish his job“.
The mob grew to more than 1,000 people. They burned a 12-foot cross on the grounds, then they progressed to burning books, sheet music and chairs, while the performers and their fans linked arms, and sang The Star-Spangled Banner, God Bless America and Solidarity Forever. The concertgoers, artists and organizers tried to defend the concert site, but by the time the evening was over, nearly everyone had been attacked and injured.
In other Hudson River towns, signs and bumper stickers appeared: “Wake Up America — Peekskill Did!” “Communism Is Treason”, “Behind Communism Stands the Jew!”
Vacationers and weekend visitors fled, many forever, abandoning the area as a vacation spot because of the fascist influences. A Jewish resort in the area organized an around-the-clock vigil against attack. Local Jewish residents were terrorized; it was, for some, like living through a pogrom again.
The organizers re-scheduled the Robeson concert for Sunday, September 4. It was to be held in the afternoon a half-mile from the earlier concert site, three miles northeast of Peekskill. 25,000 people attended. Many of them were trade union members; about 40 percent of the crowd were women.
The program opened with an hour of classical music. Then, Guthrie and Seeger appeared, singing American folk songs and protest songs. Then, Robeson came on, singing a medley of Civil Rights anthems. He performed the last aria from Boris Godunov, and finished with his popular version of Old Man River from the musical Show Boat which he had performed on Broadway.
The concert ended at four o’clock in the afternoon. As cars and buses departed the concert grounds, local police routed the vehicles through the woods and up a steep, winding road. Crowds of men and boys were waiting. They hurled rocks at the vehicles. More than 50 buses and more than a hundred automobiles had their windows smashed; at least 15 cars were overturned. Bus drivers abandoned their vehicles and fled on foot, leaving 1,000 of their passengers stranded.
The violence was contagious. Mobs of white people attacked a bus traveling along the highway; its passengers were black people on their way back to New York City from a tour of the Roosevelt home at Hyde Park. At least 150 people were injured badly.
Leslie Matthews, a correspondent on the scene for the now-gone Black community newspaper New York Age, wrote:
“I hear the wails of women, the impassioned screams of children, the jeers and taunts of wild-eyed youths. I still smell the sickening odor of blood flowing from freshly opened wounds, gasoline fumes from autos and buses valiantly trying to carry their loads of human targets out of the range of bricks, bottles, stones, sticks.”
Years later, Seeger met a young folk singer who admitted to the American Folk music hero that his father had been a police officer in Peekskill. He told Seeger:
“That riot was all arranged by the Ku Klux Klan and the police. They had walkie-talkies all through the woods. They had that place surrounded like a battlefield.”
The hatred that fueled the Peekskill riots became entrepreneurial. Bill Hendrix, a Klansman in Tallahassee, used it to extend his new empire, the Original Southern Klans, Inc., which had split off from the Association of Georgia Klans. He told the press that the Peekskill violence was:
“…only the beginning. The crosses will begin to burn north of the Mason-Dixon Line tonight as soon as the order gets through.”
He got right to it. On the night of the Peekskill concert, six burning crosses had already appeared in Tallahassee. Each cross had a sign on it:
“We protest Paul Robeson and Communism.”
James Edward Smythe, chairman of the Protestant War Veterans of the United States, Inc., who had been accused of Nazi collaboration in 1944, warned that:
“Jewish race has worn out its welcome in this country. Some of your highest officials and big business executives in Westchester will join the Klan in its fight against Judeo-Communism.”
You may not have heard of the Peekskill Riots, but they are a significant chapter in American Political History. Former vice-president Henry Wallace ran for president on the leftist Progressive Party ticket in 1948, with Robeson and Seeger’s endorsement. Shaken by the riots, and afraid that the Progressive Party had drifted too far to the Left, Wallace left the party, and it soon folded. The riots served as the musical prelude to the Red Scare career of Senator Joseph McCarthy.
McCarthy in the following year, using the hysteria stirred up by fear of the “Red Menace” to persecute Democrats, intellectuals and the Hollywood elites. Robeson, for his part, had his passport withdrawn. McCarthy began a campaign claim that there was a Communist infiltration into the State Department. The repercussions and implications of “McCarthyism” are still felt today.
Seeger immortalized the event in the song Hold The Line:
Let me tell you the story of a line that was held,Seeger, 1949
And many brave men and women whose courage we know well,
How we held the line at Peekskill on that long September day!
We will hold the line forever till the people have their way.Hold the line!
Hold the line!
As we held the line at Peekskill
We will hold it everywhere.
Hold the line!
Hold the line!
We will hold the line forever
Till there’s freedom ev’rywhere.
The heat and volume of the presidential election of 2020, has America’s new fascists tossing around terms like “Marxist”, “Communist” and “Socialist” around gratuitously, which reminds me of that anti-Communist hysteria that ruined lives and killed careers. It is a reminder that the Communist card and the race card are still being played. Rage is seductive and fanaticism is always a temptation.