[Editor’s Note: Our special guest today is Lori Clune. Professor Clune is an instructor in the history department at Fresno State and a graduate student in our program. Thanks, Lori, for doing this. We appreciate it.]
On this day in 1949, just north of Peekskill, New York, Paul Robeson attempted to stage a concert — again. The performance scheduled for August 27th to benefit the Civil Rights Congress had never happened; violence had prevented Robeson from even getting within a mile of the stage. Even though the Westchester County community (just up the road from the Clintons’ current digs in Chappaqua) had enjoyed three previous, peaceful Robeson concerts in as many years, 1949 proved different. Communism, and fear of it, was on the rise. The Cold War — 1949 style — included hydrogen bomb testing, Chinese communists marching, and American CP leaders trialing. Things really heated up on John McCain’s thirteenth birthday that year, when the Soviet Union shocked the world and tested its first atomic bomb. Fear of nuclear empowered communists — and of their followers — permeated the thick, summer air of 1949.
Paul Robeson was one of them. A Rutgers athlete, class valedictorian, and Columbia Law graduate, he was famous as an actor (especially Othello in England and on Broadway) and baritone singer (“Old Man River” written for him in Show Boat). However, his political activism made him infamous. He spoke out in favor of civil and labor rights and helped found the American Crusade Against Lynching. His left-leaning interests caused many to accuse Robeson of being a member of the Communist Party. As a result, the FBI conducted constant surveillance from 1941 to 1974 (two years before Robeson’s death), resulting in a massive 2,863 page FBI file. To add further to his controversial reputation, just prior to the Peekskill concert Robeson traveled throughout Europe making provocative statements such as, “Blacks will never fight against the Soviet Union, where racial discrimination is prohibited and where the people live freely!” HUAC deemed these statements “unpatriotic” and grilled him before the committee in June.
Throughout the summer, threats of violence against Robeson and the scheduled August concert filled The Peekskill Evening Star. The night of the 27th sheriffs watched as 300 men — many American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars members — used clubs, rocks, bottles, knives, and fence posts to smash cars, destroy the stage and seating, and attack concertgoers. A dozen victims were rushed to the hospital. Protesters even set a cross alight on a nearby hill. During the nearly three hour attack, the mob shouted, “We’re Hitler’s boys,” “Lynch Robeson,” “Kill every Commie bastard in America,” and “Every N—- and Jew bastard dies here tonight.” Meanwhile the authorities did nothing and arrested no one. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover declined to investigate the incident unless officials at the Justice Department compelled him to. They didn’t.
Robeson rescheduled the concert for Sunday afternoon, September 4th. A mob of several thousand heckled and taunted the 20,000 concertgoers as they entered the park. As Robeson sang, eyewitnesses sighted guns on a ridge pointed at the stage below. It wasn’t until the end of the concert that the taunts turned violent. Traffic was forced to a crawl on the only exit, a four-mile, narrow dirt road. Protesters lined the way, throwing rocks at cars and busses, sending broken glass everywhere. Some of the mob pushed vehicles over and attacked frantic passengers with bats and clubs, yelling “Go back to Russia you n—–!” Police again stood by as over 140 men, women, and children suffered broken bones, lacerated faces, and fractured skulls (see the video above).
The violence — expected! — escalated and the authorities still did nothing. A lawsuit filed by Robeson and many of the victims went nowhere, while debate over Peekskill raged on for months. Eleanor Roosevelt explained that she disagreed with everything Robeson stood for, but condemned the “lawlessness” of the events. A. Philip Randolph similarly deplored the violence but questioned Robeson’s self-appointed role as spokesman for black people. Langston Hughes supported Robeson’s right to voice his political opinions.
Yet, the shocking violence reflected entrenched racism and anti-communism that compelled international attention. Several European countries, disturbed by the riot itself, expressed particular alarm at the ubiquitous signs plastered by protesters throughout Westchester County reading: “Wake Up, America – Peekskill Did!” The signs reminded many Europeans of similar posters signaling Hitler’s rise to power in Germany.
Robeson himself spoke out against the atrocities committed in Peekskill, and he was subsequently blacklisted from American television and record companies. The FBI investigation of Robeson heated up, resulting in the revocation of his passport in 1950. “Let Paul Robeson Sing” campaigns cropped up all over the world as he continued to speak out demanding his right to travel and earn a living. The efforts were unsuccessful. His 1956 appearance before HUAC proved to be one of the most confrontational in the committee’s history; Robeson refused to comment on possible CP membership, and called committee members “neo-fascists.” His passport was not returned until 1958.
Civil Rights Congress leader William L. Patterson referred to Peekskill as “almost the great day of American fascism.” Pete Seeger — who along with Woody Guthrie performed with Robeson — wondered, “Is America going fascist?” In contrast, and perhaps more importantly, those individuals who had been trampled and mutilated called it a modern tragedy.