First, I should explain my own personal interest in the 1949 Peekskill riots. My maternal grandmother’s and grandfather’s families settled in Peekskill sometime before 1920 and I still have a few family members who live there. As a child, I spent lots of time there visiting my dad’s family. I always felt especially close to my great uncle Izzy (Isadore) Goldsand, who was a leader of the local Jewish community, owned a major real estate title company, and was grandee of the local Democratic Party. My former state senator here in Seattle, Adam Kline, once told me that Uncle Izzy had written him a recommendation letter that secured him entrance to West Point. Kline was a Peekskill native as well.
My grandfather, Marcy Silverstein, used to drive with Jim Farley, Haverstraw’s Democratic Party boss and future U.S. postmaster general under Franklin Roosevelt, into NYC to see “the fights” at Madison Square Garden. My Uncle Izzy is long gone as is my father and grandfather, but I’d love to ask them what they thought of the riots and how they reacted when they happened. One or both of them might have even been there for all I know!
Peekskill’s Place in American Cold War History
On August 29, 1949, People’s Artists (a folk music concert organizer formed by Pete Seeger) attempted to host a benefit concert for Paul Robeson’s Civil Rights Congress at the Lakeland Picnic Ground just outside Peekskill, NY. Hundreds of locally-based demonstrators prevented the concert from taking place by viciously assaulting Robeson’s followers who had gathered to help organize the event. While a second concert on September 4th, drew 25,000 to hear Robeson sing, at least 500 right-wing demonstrators assaulted the exiting cars of concertgoers with rocks sending scores to the hospital.
The Peekskill riots were a pivotal moment in American Cold Way history. They also significantly impacted the nascent civil rights movement. To understand the ingredients that combined to ignite this conflagration, one must look to social conditions in the town itself. The Standard Brands-Fleischman’s plant was headquartered there along the Hudson. Plant managers were in the midst of a serious downsizing from wartime employment levels, bringing the plant’s employee rolls down from 1,200 to under 800. In addition, they were hardcore anti-unionists and anti-Communists. There was also “an active [Peekskill] Ku Klux Klan chapter” (The Peekskill Story).
Peekskill’s scenic setting in the Hudson River Valley encouraged the development of a a resort colony, Mohegan Lake, that attracted thousands to the area each summer and catered to vacationing workers from New York City, some of whom were affiliated with the labor movement and Communist causes. Pete Seeger himself lived a short drive up the road in Beacon. So there was a strong pro-labor contingent in the local community as well.
At the end of World War II, the Black soldiers and unionists returning home hoped to find a nation more sympathetic to their concerns. FDR and the New Deal had given them great hope that things were changing for the better for the working class and minorities. But once the Iron Curtain closed, Stalin tested the hydrogen bomb (1949) and China fell into the hands of the Communists (also 1949), a severe anti-Communist, racist backlash developed. Groups like the American Legion, the Ku Klux Klan and others attempted to spearhead the reaction against all they saw as threatening the “American way of life.”
If you add to this social mix a local newspaper editor (Peekskill Evening Star) who hobnobbed with the Standard Brand executives and curried favor with them in the pages of his paper (in which they were major advertisers), it’s not hard to see that Peekskill was a combustible community waiting to explode.
The right-wing counter-reaction to the concerts might also be seen to have the support of the Catholic Church (many of the veterans protesting were affiliated with Catholic veterans groups) and the federal government. Shortly before Robeson’s second concert, Secretary of Defense Louis Johnson (in the Truman Administration) spoke to the Peekskill American Legion. His speech was covered in the Evening Star:
Peace Through Power
“We will build our ramparts so strong that no aggressor will dare attack us.”
That was the declaration of Defense Secretary Louis Johnson before the American Legion. It may be taken as the policy of the national administration. Secretary Johnson did not mince words.
Twice in our lifetime we have had peace within our hands and twice we lost it. If we make the same mistake the third time it may be our last chance. Secretary Johnson made no mystery as to what possible aggressor he had in mind. He named Russia bluntly. Into every political vacuum which developed after World War ll, she has pushed with propaganda and military force, dropping the Iron Curtain to envelop each new conquest.
Already we have gone a long way to correct the mistake of our demobilization stampede. We can have peace, said Secretary Johnson, if we want it – but only if we are prepared to fight for it. Now that we are fully awake, we are grimly determined that history shall not repeat itself.
With all the institutional forces (police, press, federal/state/local governments and Church) aligned against Robeson and his followers, it is no wonder that the reactionary forces felt emboldened to act as brutally as they did.
Paul Robeson’s Role
Paul Robeson had already performed several noneventful benefit concerts in Peekskill for his organization, the Civil Rights Congress. But in April, 1949, Robeson attended the World Peace Conference in Paris. After singing at the Conference, he gave an interview to AP in which he said:
“It is unthinkable that American Negroes will go to war in behalf of those who have oppressed us for generations…against a country (the Soviet Union) which in one generation has raised our people to the full dignity of mankind.”
The Highlands.com site goes on to say: “He was misquoted in newspapers across the country as saying ‘Negroes won’t fight for US.'” I beg to differ. I think it is reasonable to assume that this is not only what he said, but what he meant. Not that I’m saying that his comments warranted the right-wing response. After all, Martin Luther King said much the same regarding the Vietnam War in 1964. But history demands that we whitewash neither our friends nor our enemies. The plain fact is that Robeson’s views and public comments (especially considering the chilly times in which they were formed) could be tremendously confrontational and provocative (not to mention flat out wrong as in his comment about the Soviet Union restoring Blacks to the “full dignity of mankind”). One thing one must say is that Martin Luther King, while he blazed an equally revoluntionary path, learned a few things from Robeson’s experience about how to address and persuade a white audience of the benefits of his viewpoint over their own.
This interview was taken up by right wing forces and trumpeted far and wide, stirring immense racist and political hatred against Robeson, American Communism and the civil rights movement. By the time Robeson and People’s Artists announced the August 27th concert, the anti-Communist forces were ready to make their stand.
Howard Fast has produced the most compelling account of that first concert in Being Red (1990) his memoir of a life on the Left. In this passage, he describes his first inkling of trouble brewing on the night of the first concert:
A boy running. I watched as he came in sight around the bend of the road, running frantically, and then we crowded around him and he told us that there was trouble and would some of us come– because the trouble looked bad; he was frightened too.
We started back with him. There were twenty-five or thirty of us, I suppose; you don’t count at a moment like that, although I did later. There were men and boys, almost all the men and boys. I thought that this would be no more than foul names and fouler insults. So we ran on up to the entrance, and as we appeared, they poured onto us from the road, at least a hundred of them with billies and brass knuckles and rocks and clenched fists, and American Legion caps, and sud- denly my disbelief was washed away in a wild melee. Such fights don’t last long; there were three or four minutes of this, and because the road was narrow and embanked, we were able to beat them back, but the mass of them filled the entranceway, and behind them were hundreds more, and up and down the road, still more.
I said that we beat them back and held the road for the moment, panting, hot with sweat and dust, bleeding only a little now; but they would have come at us again had not three deputy sheriffs appeared. They hefted their holstered guns, and they turned and spread their arms benignly at the mob. “Now, boys,” they said, “now take it easy, because we can do this just as well legal, and it always pays to do it legal.”
“Give us five minutes and we’ll murder the white niggers,” the boys answered.
Fast then describes how he readied his forty-two volunteers to fend off the mob’s second attack:
Now the remaining men from below appeared and I counted what we had. All told, including myself, there were forty-two men and boys. I divided them into seven groups of six, three lines of two groups each–in other words, three lines of twelve–formed across the road where the embankment began, each line anchored on a wooden fence, our flanks protected by the ditch and the water below. The seventh group was held in reserve in our rear.
The mob was rolling toward us for the second attack. This was, in a way, the worst of that night. For one thing, it was still daylight; later, when night fell, our own sense of organization helped us much more, but this was daylight and they poured down the road and into us, swinging broken fenceposts, billies, bottles, and wielding knives. Their leaders had been drinking from pocket flasks and bottles right up to the moment of the attack, and now as they beat and clawed at our line, they poured out a torrent of obscene words and slogans. “We’ll finish Hitler’s job! Fuck you white niggers! Give us Robeson! We’ll string that big nigger up!” and more and more of the same.
We concentrated on holding our lines. The first line took the brunt of the fighting, the brunt of the rocks and the clubs. The second line linked arms, as did the third, forming a human wall to the mob. In that fight, four of our first line were badly injured. When they went down, we pulled them back, and men in the second line moved into their places. Here were forty-two men and boys who had never seen each other before, and they were fighting like a well-oiled machine, and the full weight of the screaming madmen did not panic them or cause them to break. By sheer weight, we were forced back foot by foot, but they never broke the line.
Fast proceeds to describe how press reporters and photographers, state and local police and even Department of Justice investigators stood by while the riot proceeded apace:
Though the police and state troopers were remarkably, conspicuously absent, the press were on the scene. Newspaper photographers were everywhere, taking picture after picture, and reporters crouched in the headlights, taking notes of all that went on. In particular, my attention was drawn to three quiet, well-dressed, good-looking men who stood just to one side at the entrance; two of them had notebooks in which they wrote methodically and steadily. When I first saw them I decided that they were newspapermen and dismissed them from my mind. But I saw them again and again, and later talked to them, as you will see. Subsequently, I discovered they were agents of the Department of Justice. Whether they were assigned to a left-wing concert or to an attempted mass murder, I don’t know. They were polite, aloof, neutral, and at one point decently helpful. They were always neutral–even though what they saw was attempted murder, a strangely brutal terrible attempt.
He then describes the third wave of mob violence:
I had not fought this way in twenty years, not since my days in the slums where I was raised, not since the gang fights of a kid in the New York streets; but now it was for our lives, for all that the cameras were flashing and the newspapermen taking it down blow by blow, so you could read in your morning papers how a few reds in Westchester County were lynched.
It was night now, and now for the first time I understood our situation completely and could guess what the odds were that we would all die in this way, so uselessly and stupidly.
And the FBI men watched calmly and took notes.
I looked at my watch–still less than two hours since I had kissed my little daughter.
As Fast and his men beat a retreat with the help of a truck, its headlights lit up the onrushing crowd:
These lit the whole of the meadow, and as we swung around at the bottom, we saw the mob of screaming, swearing patriots, chanting their new war cry, “Kill a commie for Christ,” and their lust to kill the “white niggers,” break over the hillside and pour down into the light.
Fast’s group of men counterattacked:
then we drove into them because there was nothing else to do. At this point, we were half crazy, as full of hate as they were, and so violent was our fury and our own screams that they broke and ran. They turned at forty or fifty yards, formed a wide circle, and stared at us and swore at us with every filthy word they could remember. We, on the other hand, climbed onto the platform and made a line in front of the women and kids. Here, at least, we could use our feet to kick. The children, half frozen with terror, watched all this. The women began to sing the Star-Spangled Banner, urging the children, most of them in tears, to join in.
Then the lights went out. Someone had cut the line from the generator, and now the mob, in utter frustration at finding a handful of “commies” so hard to kill, seemed to go absolutely crazy. They attacked the chairs. We couldn’t see them, but through the darkness we heard them raging among the folding chairs, throwing them around, splintering and splashing them. It was not only senseless, it was sick– horrible and pathological. Then one of them lit a fire, about thirty or forty yards from the platform. A chair went on the fire, and then another and another, and then a whole pile of the chairs. Then they discovered our table of books and pamphlets, and then, to properly crown the evening, they reenacted the Nuremberg book burning, which had become a world symbol of fascism. Standing there, arms linked, we watched the Nuremberg memory come alive again. The fire roared up and the defenders of the “American way of life” seized piles of our books and danced around the blaze, flinging the books into the fire as they danced.
Fast closes his narrative with the odd, surrealistic touch of the FBI agents approaching his group and commending them on their fortitude and bravery and then offering to take the seriously wounded among them to the hospital. And because of their desperation, they do the even odder thing of accepting the offer. Such horrible events can make for very strange bedfellows.
Fast sums up the moral lesson to be learned from the Riots:
I have included the above, not only because it deeply affected my own life and my thinking, but also because it illustrates how easily, when terror is unleashed in a nation, it can take hold, and how thin the line is that separates constitutional government from tyranny and dictatorship.
You may read another moving firsthand account by Virginia Hirsch (compiled in 1998) at The First Peekskill “riot”: August 27, 1949. Some of the details of her account conflict with Fast’s but she also corroborates his account in other significant ways. The differences are to be expected in the aftermath of such a harrowing and traumatic event which might easily distort recollections.
The Second Concert–September 4, 1949
The second concert proceeded differently. Concert organizers planned well for security before and during the concert with thousands of union members and soldiers volunteering to provide security. From this account, we can see the very real and ominous danger that the anti-concert protestors posed:
Other teams patrolled the hills and found two sniper nests. The men in them had rifles with telescopic sights. The rifles were destroyed, the men roughed up and escorted from the grounds (from The Second Robeson Concert). In an interview with Cathy Golden, Howard Fast revealed that Paul Robeson was their intended target.
25,000 people (according to Irwin Silber’s 1951 SingOut! review of Peekskill, U.S.A.) heard Robeson sing that night. But the organizers made a terrible error in not ensuring a peaceful and secure exit for concertgoers after the concert. They allowed the police to close all but one exit road–and this was a narrow “country lane” (as Fast calls it) several miles long alongside which thugs stood hurling rocks at each passing car. This, of course caused many serious injuries and filled local hospital emergency rooms. One attendee even lost the sight in an eye from the rock throwing.
Today, we may know that there is anti-Semitism and racism smoldering within this country. But it lurks beneath a veneer of civility and is rarely expressed openly. What is extraordinary about Peekskill is that the riots laid bare the ugly, seething hatred within a typical American community. I have rarely heard an overt anti-Semitic remark in my life. I have never had to raise my fists to protect my own honor or that of my religion. In Peekskill, Jews and Blacks had to do all of that and more. The mind boggles at the courage, bravery and physical prowess Fast and his colleagues had to muster to protect themselves and the ideas they believed in. For an amazing first-hand audio testament to their bravery, I invite you to listen to Hold the Line, which contains actual audiotape of the ranting, raging crowd at the Riots (from The Peekskill Story).
We should add to this, the shameful role played by not only the local press, but local and state politicians going as high as Gov. Thomas Dewey, all of whom whitewashed the pogrom that had engulfed Peekskill. All of this combines to make Peekskill a watershed moment in mid-20th century American history.
Now we can look back from the comfort of our liviing rooms and ‘civilized’ society at a time when civil rights, workers rights, and freedom of expression stood in the balance. Luckily, history turned against such reactionary thinking and embraced many of the ideas represented by Fast, Robeson and the other concertgoers at those two events. I am by no means saying that the struggle for tolerance and equal opportunity is over and won (all we have to do is look at the front page of the newspaper to tell us this is not so). But if the Peekskill Evening Stars of the world had had their way, this nation would be an even more stifling, repressive and ugly place than it is.
I began thinking of writing this post when my brother, Marc, sent me a link to the Hudson Highlands site. He wrote to me: “Isn’t it a shame no one’s made this into a movie!” In doing research for this article, I discovered that Barbara Kopple (Harland County, USA) is shooting a film about the Riots titled Joe Glory. Knowing the quality of her previous films, it will undoubtedly do the event justice and place it within it’s proper context in American history. Not enough Americans know about Peekskill. Barbara Kopple should change that.
Several novels have told the story as part of a larger narrative: E.L. Doctorow’s Book of Daniel and T.C. Boyle’s World’s End. Non-fiction writers as well have portrayed the events: Howard Fast’s Peekskill U.S.A. and Joseph Walwik‘s The Peekskill, New York, Anti-Communist Riots of 1949. You can also hear Margo Adler’s NPR 50th anniversary commemoration of Peekskill riots. The Voices of History Video Project also chronicles the riots in this 1979 production. The Maryknoll Sisters (whose headquarters is near Peekskill) produced The Peekskill Riots, an audio documentary. I just found this amazing 1950 article from Commentary Magazine about the riots. It’s from the pre-Podhoretz era when Commentary was still a leftie publication.