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The Peekskill Riots

Cathleen White
NEH Seminar

Peekskill was and is a town popular with vacationers on the Hudson River about 90 minutes north of New York City.  In 1949, the town was the scene of a violent confrontation.  The sides were complex and the issues were complicated as well.  In brief, the confrontation erupted over a concert sponsored by a group with communist ties backed by Paul Robeson.  This gathering was opposed by many local residents and others who did not want the concert to take place.

The original date of the concert was to be August 27, 1949.  This was the fourth Peekskill concert sponsored by Robeson.  He had helped found two organizations later declared subversive by HUAC:  the Council on African Affairs and the Civil Rights Congress.  The concert was to benefit the Harlem chapter of the Civil Rights Congress.  The previous three concerts had been successful and well-attended and uncontroversial, given that Peekskill was a popular weekend destination of liberals, radicals, and communists from the City. 

However, 1949 was different.  Four recent events involving Robeson changed many local inhabitants opinions about him.  First, over the preceding years, Robeson had become increasingly vocal in his opposition to the Ku Klux Klan and the continued lynching of Blacks.  Second, in the summer of 1948, he appeared before HUAC to oppose a bill requiring communists to register as foreign agents.  Third, that fall, Robeson campaigned for Henry Wallace in his bid for the presidency.  Fourth, and most importantly, he expressed the following belief at the World Peace Conference in Paris in the summer of 1949, “It is unthinkable that American Negroes will go to war in behalf of those who have oppressed us for generations . . . against a country which in one generation has raised our people to the full dignity of mankind.”  His words were quoted and paraphrased out of context.

Among the many newspapers which focused attention on Robeson’s views was the Peekskill Evening Star.  Its editor was a close friend of the town’s major employers who had, since the end of WWII downsized their factory from 1200 to 770 and adamantly opposed unionization.  He ran several critical articles about Robeson and the upcoming concert and the editor’s views were supported by many residents.  Ironically, the most recent incident with which the upcoming concert was compared was a rally held in the nearby town of Verplanck by the Ku Klux Klan in the mid 1940s.  One local resident wrote,

“Quite a few years ago a similar organization, the Ku Klux Klan, appeared in Verplanck and received their just rewards.  Needless to say, they have never returned.”  I am not intimating violence in this case, but I believe that we should strive to find a remedy that will cope with the situation in the same way as Verplanck and with the same results.”

He went on to suggest that residents support their local American Legion chapter in opposition to the concert.  Other locals supported Robeson’s right to perform, even if they opposed communism

“If the assembly is peaceful and no overt acts against our government are committed he and the people who come to hear him have the right to be protected.  These rights, I might remind you, are granted to all people under the Constitution of the United States.”

Paul Robeson never made it to the site of the concert.  Concert-goers were greeted by locals bearing the weapons of choice:  legal baseball bats, rocks, and branches.  The atmosphere was so intimidating that Robeson was taken from the train out of town by car.  He returned to New York shortly thereafter.  Angry at the tactics used against him, Robeson rescheduled the concert for September 4.

During the following week, both sides organized and rallied their supporters.  Those opposed to the concert, including the American Legion and the Evening Star, found a number of supporters.  Local Catholic War Veterans began planning a counter demonstration.  Secretary of Defense Louis Johnson was invited to address the American Legion and his remarks were featured prominently in the paper on September 3.  Signs, which were to become famous (or infamous) began to appear around town:  “Wake Up America:  Peekskill Did!”

Meanwhile, back in New York, Robeson’s supporters were also mobilizing.  Union leaders, particularly the Garment and Fur workers, organized security for the concert.  They were supported by Black and Jewish civil rights activists, liberals, communists, and many WWII veterans.  The security detail was encouraged to wear union or military insignia to designate their affiliations.  Like the locals, they chose the legal weapon:  baseball bats.

So, in the early hours of September 4, thousands of people descended on Peekskill, NY, armed, determined, and convinced that they were right.  Robeson’s supporters numbered over 20,000.  Local opposition was also large.  Opponents both traveled the same road to the concert site, but no major incidents occurred.  The security detail formed a “human shield” around the concert site.  Police moved in, but were asked to leave the private property where the concert was held.  The concert went as scheduled.  Robeson sang, as did Pete Seeger and a number of other performers.

Violence erupted after the concert as cars poured back down Oregon and Division Roads into Peekskill.  The roads were lined with opponents of the concert and police.  While the troopers and officers “held their positions” as ordered, locals pelted cars with rocks and branches.  Concert-goers were verbally and physically assaulted.  Some were pulled from their cars and beaten.  Most accounts agree that there were a number of injuries, some of them severe, but no estimate seems to exist about the total number of injuries.

A number of agencies compiled reports on the incidents.  New York’s Governor Dewey labeled the incident a “riot.”  Some of the supporters who were injured tried to sue for damages, but their young lawyer, Bella Abzug, advised them that their case had no chance of winning despite its merits.  Pete Seeger took the rocks that came through his windshield and used them in the chimney of his cabin.  He wrote a song about the events called “Hold the Line.”  The incident became a rallying point for many activists of the period.  It is, however, largely ignored or forgotten by mainstream history texts.  Many in Peekskill disavow any knowledge of the incident which they insist happened, technically, in the neighboring town of Courtlandt.

Online Sources:

Paul Robeson's Brief Account, "The First Peekskill 'riot': August 27, 1949"
http://www.hartford-hwp.com/archives/45a/157.html

Paul Robeson Centennial Celebration
http://www.princeton.lib.nj.us/robeson/links.html

Westchester County Weekly (“Holding the Line in Peekskill”)
http://www.westchesterweekly.com/articles/peekskill.html

Howrd Fast's Story
http://www.english.upenn.edu/~afilreis/50s/peekskill.html

The Peekskill Story, Parts 1 & 2
http://www.fortunecity.com/tinpan/parton/2/peekskill.html

Music from:

Songs for Political Action, Disc 8, “Hold the Line,” Pete Seeger and the Weavers.
http://www.fortunecity.com/tinpan/parton/2/peekskill.html