The concert scheduled for Aug. 27, 1949, in Peekskill, N.Y., was supposed to be routine. Though it had been organized by People's Artists, a brand new spin-off organization of the People's Songs formation that had launched the Weavers into the top-40 charts, it was the fourth such concert to benefit the Harlem Chapter of the Civil Rights Congress.
With the backing of people like Pete Seeger, and headlining the world-renowned Paul Robeson, it promised to be an extraordinary event.
However, the year 1949 was not one of ordinary times. The year before, Progressive Party candidate Henry Wallace's run for president, as the mantle-bearer of the New Deal-era Popular Front coalition of progressive forces in American politics, had been trounced by readily anticommunist Democrat Harry Truman, who embraced rapid preparations for a nuclear war with the Soviet Union, if it could not be "contained" in its "Iron Curtain."
Precursors to the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee were already issuing subpoenas designed to make prominent radicals "name names," so that progressives could be blacklisted out of their career fields, and especially out of the left-led CIO unions.
In 1946, Winston Churchill at Fulton, Mo., proclaimed the start of the Cold War and the arms race with the Soviet Union. In 1947, the anti-union Taft Hartley bill became law coupled with its non-Communist oaths forced on unionists, the Hollywood 10 hearings before HUAC began as did the Soviet spy hysteria.
Twelve leaders of the Communist Party were indicted in 1948 shortly before the elections, which placed a pall over the left and the Wallace campaign.
Furthermore, early that year in Paris, France, Robeson had made an unrecorded but much misquoted observation that it was ridiculous to expect African Americans, who were subjected to Jim Crow discrimination, to blindly follow into a war on the Soviet Union, a country that had eradicated legal discrimination in its borders within a generation. This had been turned, in the early Cold War press, into a statement of disloyalty against the United States.
Despite the best efforts and highest hopes of the progressive forces, post-war America was not headed for a new age of global peace, democratic cooperation and social progress, but rather for an era of witch hunts, nuclear arms race, a stifling of democracy and an attempt to project a compliant culture exemplified by the mythical "Leave It To Beaver" image of consumer-driven, suburban contentment.
Cutting edge of reaction
And the People's Artists show at Peekskill was about to bear the full brunt of a consciously-organized reactionary attack against progressive social forces.
Author Howard Fast arrived early for the concert, only to find him and the handful of other early arrivals vastly outnumbered by an unruly mob of hundreds of already-drunk Legionnaires, Klansmen and local business leaders. Fast helped organize the 40 or so men and boys there to stave off physical assault of the campsite and its inhabitants.
While the police stood by doing nothing and two FBI agents impassively took notes, these few brave souls held a line at the entrance against several assaults by the rock-throwing, epithet-spewing, anti-communist mob, who were screaming, "We're Hitler's boys! We'll finish his job!"
Most concertgoers never made it to the campgrounds, nor did any of the performers. Those few who had come early did not make it out of the besieged site all night. The mob burned the 2,000 rented chairs, as well as books and records intended for sale to the concert audience. Thirteen people were seriously injured in the course of the right-wing riot.
‘We shall not be moved'
Concert organizers were not going to take this lying down. Regrouping in New York City, Robeson spoke to a crowd of thousands of people at the Golden Gate Ballroom in Harlem, promising to sing wherever people wanted to hear him. The pro-concert Westchester Committee for Law and Order played its part by issuing an invitation for Robeson to return on Sept. 4 to perform.
Volunteers from unions like the Fur and Leather Workers, the United Electrical Workers and District 65, Retail, Wholesale and Distributive Workers, many of whom were veterans, along with other World War II and Abraham Lincoln Brigade veterans were organized to form a human chain around the entirety of the campgrounds to secure the concert.
Some 25,000 people showed up. Just going to the concert was like a mass collective message by progressives and democracy-loving people, saying "We shall not be moved."
The concert goers saw Hope Foye, Pete Seeger and others perform. But the show was headlined by Robeson, and organizers were concerned for his safety in particular.
While the whole perimeter of the concert -- a huge area -- was protected in big stretches, veterans and unionists standing shoulder-to-shoulder, it was too big to do that through the overhanging hills. The stage had a special guard of black and white veterans in uniform who surrounded it in a way that there was no way for a sniper to hit Robeson without hitting a guard first.
Mobs attacked cars, shattering windshields with rocks and bats. More than 160 concert goers were injured.
Yet, the concert went on without incident, until people returned to their cars and buses to leave when the show was over. Police directed exiting traffic into an ambush. Departing vehicles were sent into a gauntlet of rock-throwing thugs screaming racial epithets against Blacks and Jews, as well as Communists. Windows were smashed. Cars overturned. People were dragged out of vehicles and beaten by the organized mob under police protection.
Concert goers were arrested instead of the violent mobs
When the police did move in, it was to arrest the unionists, particularly targeting African Americans, who were part of the concert security detail. Over 160 people were hospitalized, yet no one was ever brought to justice for these outrageous acts of violence. A lawsuit against the authorities who had failed to uphold public order, as well as against two groups involved in perpetrating violence on concert-goers, was eventually thrown out of court.
Estelle Katz was living in the Bronx at the time, and attended the Sept. 4 concert. She was well aware of events because her husband Max, an Abraham Lincoln Brigade veteran, was one of those present to defend the campsite on Aug. 27.
"Frankly, I was not frightened," recalls Katz. "I was so angry, I walked up and down the aisle of the bus to make sure that everyone was safe, and the young man who was driving told me that he'd make sure everyone got home."
Seymour Joseph was there as well. He'd gone up with several other youths, in a car one of them had borrowed from his father. "We felt that when the concert was on, that we were accomplishing something," says Joseph. "We were holding this concert at the beginning of the McCarthy period, and the Cold War was on."
However, Joseph adds, leaving through a gauntlet of rioting reactionaries was "one of the most frightening experiences of my life. It was obvious the police were on the side of those attacking us. If they wanted to, they could have arrested the rioters in masse. The car was damaged severely."
A compelling, concise retelling of events may be found in the song "Hold the Line" available in the 10 CD set "Songs for Political Action." The audio recording includes Robeson, some of the Weavers and others singing, as well as narrations by Fast, Seeger, and others. It even includes a chilling audio snippet of reactionary rioters screaming racial epithets and the perennial classic, "Go back to Russia!"
Westchester County has formally apologized to survivors of the Peekskill Riots and participated in a 50th anniversary "Remembrance and Reconciliation Ceremony" that included the participation of Pete Seeger, Paul Robeson Jr. and others in 1999.
This Sept. 4, several 60th anniversary events are being held around the country, including one at Peekskill. Kenneth Anderson, the bass-baritone whose voice bears an uncanny resemblance to Robeson's will be part of the Peekskill event. (For tickets, http://www.robesoncelebration.org/)
"Paul was a giant. He was a Renaissance man. An artist, a statesman. He spoke truth to power and was prescient in terms of U.S. foreign and domestic policy. He was unafraid," he said.
Peekskill and the courage shown by Robeson and the concert-goers remain an important part of progressive history.
Daniel Rubin and John Pietaro contributed to this article.
September 4, 2009 8:00pm
at Paramount Center for the Arts
An Evening with Friends, A Celebration of the Legacy of Paul Robeson
A benefit concert featuring David Amram
Roy Haynes, Ty Jones, Tao Rodriguez-Seeger, Kenneth Anderson, Beth Lamont, Jon Batiste Band, Ray Blue and more special guests