Peekskill Riots: An American Folk Revival Essay

 

Leading up to the Civil rights congress benefit concert, Paul Robeson approached the House committee on unamerican activities to oppose a proposed bill that would require communists to register as foreign agents; the year proceeding Robeson had made the transformation from a primary singer to a civil rights activist, known for his domestic and international vocal action against the Ku Klux Klan and other forms of white supremacy. However, Robeson’s new political persona sparked controversy as his objectives for the decolonization of Africa, anti-crow legislation, pro-trade union stance, civil rights and peace with the USSR were considered to be communist causes at the time.

Robeson did indeed share many communist values but never labelled himself to the party. Months before the Peekskill concerts in 1949, Robeson had appeared at the soviet-sponsored world peace conference in Paris, stating: ‘ We in America do not forget that it was the backs of white workers from Europe and on the backs of millions of blacks that the wealth of America was built, and we resolved to share it equally. We reject any hysterical raving that urges us to make war on anyone. Our will to right for peace is strong…we shall support peace and friendship among all nations, with Soviet Russia and the people’s Republics.’ This was what the city of Paris heard, but not what the United States heard. Via the AP in the US Robeson’s speech had been fabricated; ‘We colonial peoples have contributed to the building of the united states and are determined to share its wealth. We denounce the policy of the united states government which is similar to Hitler and Goebbels…it is unthinkable that American negroes would go to war on behalf of those who have oppressed us for generations against the soviet union which in one generation has lifted our people to full human dignity.’ It was only later discovered by historians that the AP had put the dispatch on the wires as Robeson was beginning his speech. The comment was not investigated by the American press for its veracity and Robeson received nationwide condemnation upon his return to the US; seen as anti-American during the early stages of the cold war. A local newspaper, The Peekskill Evening Star, condemned the concert; pressing titles in their articles (‘Robeson concert here aids ‘subversive’ unit’, and ‘The Discordant Note’) that did not encourage violence but did encourage action; ’Americans should not be duped into accepting communism in their own communities.’

Paul Robeson sings on stage for May Day Rally, Queen's Park,  Gl

Paul Robeson

The concert was to take place in Lakeland Acres, just north of Peekskill, on August 27th but was later postponed to September 4th following the response of local mobs that had gathered in waits of Robeson’s appearance. Concert-goers were also attacked by these local mobs with baseball bats and rocks, though local police did arrive at the scene it was hours later and they conducted minimal interference and 13 people were seriously injured. Robeson had travelled to the concert site with three friends, one being Helen Rosen. Met with mobs of youngsters, a burning cross on a nearby hill, thrown rocks and chants of ‘dirty commie, dirty kikes’, Robeson made multiple attempts to get out of the car and confront the crowd but was restrained by his friends. On the site Robeson was lynched in effigy.

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Peekskill riots

After the first attempted concert, requests for Klan memberships from the Peekskill area numbered 748 persons and a media frenzy was born; flooded with reactions and charges. The Joint veterans council of Peekskill denied any involvement in the riots, instead describing its activities as a ‘protest parade…held without disorder and…perfectly disbanded.’ Reports with Peekskill police officials had stated that the picnic grounds had been outside of their jurisdiction and no requests for state troopers. The commander of Peekskill Post 274 of the American legion also stated ‘our objective was to prevent the Paul Robeson concert and I think our objective was reached.’

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Union members assemble a non-violent line of resistance

The second concert itself was free from violence; there was security from the communist party and labour unions; creating a human wall around the outer edge of the concert area and around Robeson’s stage. The aftermath of the concert, however, was far from Robeson’s dreams of peace among all. A collage of violence was led by anti-communist members and white supremacy members.  Union members, alongside writer Howard Fast, assembled a non-violent line of resistance, locked arms, and sang the song ‘we shall not be moved’. Some concert-goers were even dragged from their vehicles and beaten. Over 140 people were injured and numerous vehicles were severely damaged as police stood by. Outraged by the police’s response, more than 300 people went to Albany to voice their indignation to governor Thomas Dewey, but were refused a meeting as Dewey blamed communists for provoking the violence. Twenty seven plaintiffs filed a civil suit against Westchester county and two veterans’ groups, but these charges were dismissed three years later.

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The Peekskill riots media coverage brought police brutality to mainstream light

Republican New York Congressman Jacob Javits spoke to the United States House Of Representatives, disgusting with the violations of freedom of speech and free assembly, yet was met with communist accusations of his own. Over 80 scheduled concert dates of Robeson’s were cancelled following mainstream press and local official’s accusations that it was Robeson and his fans who provoke the violence, but what the riots did do was highlight the failure of State Police to protect the lives and property of citizens, probably the first recognition of police brutality on a mainstream level.

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