How We Got Here: Paul Robeson’s Road to Peekskill

On June 20, 1949, Paul Robeson gave a speech at the so-called Paris Peace Conference, sponsored by the USSR. The American actor and singer, a leading black activist, was long associated with progressive causes, yet emerged from World War II even more radical. He had openly condemned the US government for condoning lynching in the south, along with their aggressive stance towards the Soviet Union. In Paris he gave a thundering speech, saying American blacks “reject any hysterical raving that urges us to make war on anyone. Our will to fight for peace is strong…We shall support peace and friendship among all nations, with Soviet Russia and the People’s Republics.”

Yet the Associated Press garbled Robeson’s words, which came through far more aggressively anti-American than Robeson intended: “It is unthinkable that American Negroes would go to war on 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.” Thus Robeson transformed, in the eyes of many Americans, from a sincere, if naïve progressive to a dangerous radical.

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Paul Robeson in Show Boat

Robeson ranked among his generation’s most famous blacks. After playing football at Rutgers and studying law at Columbia, he pursued singing and acting; his formidable figure and rumbling bass voice made him an electrifying performer. He starred in a variety of plays, from Othello to Porgy and Bess to Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones. He became most recognizable as Joe in Oscar Hammerstein and Jerome Kern’s musical Show Boat, singing the showstopper “Ol’ Man River.” Though he missed the original Broadway production, Robeson appeared in Show Boat’s London production, then reprised the role in James Whale’s 1936 film adaptation.

Despite Robeson’s success, he chafed at the era’s racial restrictions and typecasting. He grew particularly incensed at Alexander and Zoltan Korda over Sanders of the River (1935); Robeson attempted to portray his African chieftain as a dignified character, only to see his part edited into a Sambo-like buffoon dependent on whites for salvation. Nor did his personal life escape scrutiny: Robeson’s indiscreet affairs with white actresses Peggy Ashcroft and Uta Hagen enraged both whites (instinctively disgusted by miscegenation) and blacks (who felt he betrayed his loyal black wife, Essie). This anger, however, paled next to the outrage generated by his politics.

“I am a radical,” Robeson proclaimed, “and I am going to stay radical until my people get free to walk the Earth.” He regularly visited the USSR and even planned to collaborate with filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein on a biopic of Toussaint L’Ouverture, the Haitian revolutionary. During the Spanish Civil War, he visited the battlefront and held concerts and fundraisers for the Republicans fighting against Francisco Franco. He remained unrepentant in supporting Russia’s socialist experiment, commenting that in the Soviet Union, “I am not a Negro but a human being for the first time in my life.”

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Robeson in Moscow

Less commendably, Robeson defended Joseph Stalin’s worst excesses. Asked about Soviet show trials, Robeson commented that Stalin “ought to destroy anybody who seeks to destroy that great country.” His claim that the Soviets lacked racial prejudice certainly came as news to the USSR’s non-Russian nationalities, from starving Ukrainians to oppressed Georgians, crushed beneath Stalin’s boot. During the Hitler-Stalin pact, he blamed British and French “reactionaries” for starting World War II and accused Finland of provoking Stalin’s invasion, destroying his reputation in England; censors banned his film, The Proud Valley and blocked him from entering the country for the duration of the war.

Afterwards, Robeson supported Henry Wallace’s Progressive Party, campaigning for Wallace in 1948. Hostile audiences pelted Wallace with eggs, garbage and even rocks at his speeches, and his followers faced far worse: threats, arson, loss of employment, even violence. In May 1948, Robert New, a Wallace supporter in Charleston, South Carolina, started an argument with a coworker, Rudolph Serrero, who brand New a “nigger lover” and slit his throat. Serrero received only a three year sentence for manslaughter, his attorney arguing that New was a “despicable, slick, slimy Communist” who was “raising unrest among the colored people in the South.”

Violence remained a regular threat to African-Americans, especially activists like Robeson. Equal rights for blacks (as opposed to the cautious, incremental change advocated by the NAACP) remained such a fringe issue in the late ’40s that its most enthusiastic proponents were Communists and other progressives to the left of the Democratic Party. FDR’s New Deal coalition fragmented during the postwar Red Scare; in 1948, besides Wallace’s left-wing presidential candidacy, Strom Thurmond ran as a segregationist Dixiecrat after Harry Truman adopted a civil rights plank. In the age of Joe McCarthy and Alger Hiss, conservative hatred of Communism easily mated with racism, a connection which bigots happily exploited.

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Robeson with Henry Wallace

Moderate black leaders, fearful of being tarred with a Communist brush, distanced themselves from Robeson. Roy Wilkins, director of the NAACP, wrote a blistering editorial accusing Robeson of abandoning his people. “Robeson has none but sentimental roots among the American Negroes,” Wilkins sneered; “he is one of them, but not with them.” Lester Granger of the National Urban League denounced Robeson as “the last bit of glamour their raggedy party can produce these days.” Then again, black radicals weren’t universally pleased with Robeson, either; Manning Johnson of the Communist Party denounced the entertainer as a pompous, posturing “black Stalin.”

The most publicized criticism came from Jackie Robinson. Having broken Major League Baseball’s color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers, Robinson held an exalted place few African-Americans possessed, or even aspired towards, in 1940s America. While a staunch supporter of Civil Rights, Robinson was also a Republican with little sympathy for Robeson or other leftists. Thus, when Robinson received a summons from the House Un-American Activities Committee, he felt obliged to defend the patriotism of African-Americans. Branch Rickey, the manager of the Dodgers, appealed to Robinson’s “sense of social responsibility” to his race and country.

Dressed in a freshly tailored suit, Robinson offered a prepared statement before the Committee on July 18. Much of his speech denounced racial segregation, both in baseball and society. Robinson remarked that “the fact that it is a Communist who denounces injustice in the courts, police brutality and lynching when it happens doesn’t change the truth of his charges.” Such comments fell on deaf ears; the Committee included John Rankin of Mississippi, who considered the Ku Klux Klan “an old American institution,” and other segregationist Dixiecrats with no interest in Robinson’s leveling rhetoric. Almost en passant, Robinson dismissed Robeson’s Paris speech as “very silly” and announced that he wouldn’t abandon America “because of a siren song sung in bass.”

Jackie Robinson meets HUAC

Robinson’s brief criticisms of Robeson drew the principal attention. The New York Times praised his remarks as a “Communist shutout” that “reveal that Jackie Robinson is a whole lot more than one of America’s great baseball players.” The black press, on the other hand, largely attacked Robinson, who initially remained unrepentant. In an interview with Look, Robinson boasted that he “was able…to rebuke Paul Robeson for saying most of us Negroes would not fight for our country in a war against Russia.” Only later did Robinson change his mind, admitting that “I would reject such an invitation [to testify] if offered now” and that Robeson “was sincerely trying to help his people.”

Robeson, for his part, shrugged off the criticism (“I have no quarrel with Jackie,” he insisted to reporters, recognizing bigots would exploit any breach between two prominent blacks) and demanded his own chance to testify before HUAC. Before that confrontation, though, Robeson prepared a fundraising concert for the Civil Rights Concert at Lakeland Acres, a resort outside Peekskill, New York. Scheduled for August 27, 1949, it turned into the most violent and controversial event of Robeson’s career.

This was, in fact, the fourth concert held at Peekskill by Robeson and his friends, the People’s Artists. The 1947 concert boasted 1,500 attendees despite adverse coverage in the local press and an attempted boycott from the American Legion. The concert occurred again the following year, with a minor disturbance when a group of rowdy teenagers threw rotten apples at Robeson during his performance. Despite the controversy over Robeson’s politics, there seemed little reason to expect trouble.

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Pete Seeger

The people of Peekskill, however, felt differently. There was strong, if sublimated tension between conservative, middle class Peekskill natives and their summer visitors, many of whom were wealthy, progressive Jews from New York City and elsewhere. Nonetheless, the concert organizers, including Paul Robeson, Pete Seeger and his wife Peggy, and novelist Howard Fast, ignored demands to cancel. Fast considered backing out until a female activist implored him to attend. “I know your little girl loves to hear Paul Robeson sing, and it will be out in a lovely meadow on the picnic grounds, and it will be just like a picnic and all over by ten o’clock.” What progressive could say no?

The Peekskill Evening Star denounced Robeson’s planned concert. “The time for tolerant silence that signifies approval is running out,” their editors lectured; “Peekskill wants no rallies that support iron curtains, concentration camps, blockades and NKVDs.” The Star also published an inflammatory letter from Vincent J. Boyle, head of the local American Legion, who encouraged locals to “leave no doubt in their minds that they are unwelcome around here whether now or in the future” and virtually advocating murdering Robeson’s entourage: “I believe that we should give [violence] serious consideration.” With such inflammatory instruction, locals didn’t need further prodding.

The night of August 27th, the Peekskill Legion organized a “veteran’s march” of 5,000 protesters, dwarfing the expected 2,000 concertgoers. Consisting of uniformed Legionnaires and townspeople, including rowdy, drunken teens from local high schools, they lined the road towards the concert stage, restrained only by a small line of local police. The protesters shouted a variety of slurs at the concertgoers, branding them “dirty Jews” and calling for someone to “lynch the fucking niggers,” and obstructed paths to the concert grounds. Some protesters blocked the roads and attacked cars coming in; others blocked traffic with their cars or piles of rocks. All while the police watched, making no effort to intervene.

A bus under attack

The two hundred attendees who reached Lakeland (the vast majority turned back, fearing for their lives) found a similarly ominous scene. As crew members prepared the stage, witnesses spotted a huge cross burning, Ku Klux Klan style, in the nearby hills. This provocative action was actually the work of child pranksters rather than adult racists. In such an explosive climate, these distinctions hardly mattered, as the protesters already began menacing the concert ground. “We can do this just as well legal,” a policeman benignly counseled the mob; an unconvinced teenage boy asked him to “give us five minutes and we’ll murder the nigger bastards.”

Violence began well before the concert’s start time. Howard Fast, who joined a small line of concertgoers trying to block the protesters, recounted the mob screaming “God bless Hitler and fuck you nigger bastards and Jew bastards.” Another group hanged Robeson in effigy as the crowd cheered. Then someone vowed to “finish the job [Hitler] started” and the mob commenced attacking. Armed with all manner of weapons, from rocks, sticks and clubs to pickets and lead pipes, the protesters began assaulting Fast and his comrades.

“The first line [of ours] took the brunt of the fighting,” Fast recounted, “the brunt of the rocks and clubs. The second line linked arms, as did the third, forming a human wall to the mob.” At least four people were severely injured by the protesters. But the embattled progressives held the line long enough to frustrate the attackers, who fell back towards the road tossing rocks, bottles and racial epithets. At this point, several local leaders arrived and tried talking the mob down, while newspapers arrived and began photographing the chaotic scene. Several townspeople, disgusted, even joined the progressives; one told Fast “I don’t like commies no better than the next one, but this kind of thing turns my stomach.” The police, in contrast, remained conspicuously absent.

Peekskill Mob

This reprieve proved short-lived. The mob returned in greater force, throwing stones and attacking concertgoers, now more organized than before. Several bystanders were struck by rocks; as the crowd surged forward, its members grabbed folding chairs off the fairgrounds and began beating progressives with them. Others set fire to the stage and anything else flammable. A particularly determined few chanted “Where’s Robeson?”; having hanged Robeson in effigy, they now wished to murder him for real. Finally, with the mob’s fury already spent, police arrived with an ambulance, escorting several victims of the mob to a nearby hospital and closing the concert grounds.

Robeson, meanwhile, traveled north with Sid Danis, a white friend from New York City. They were less than a mile from the stage when refugees from the riot stopped their car, reporting that the mob hoped to kill Robeson. “We were informed that Paul Robeson should not be seen by these vigilante groups,” Danis recalled, urging Robeson to return home. Robeson instead insisted that he would continue on to Peekskill, hoping to confront the attackers and “speak and voice [my] feelings.” Danis prudently disobeyed, turning the car round and returned to New York.

Robeson vented his frustrations at a rally in Harlem three days later. “We’re going to have our concerts across this land,” he vowed, “and we’ll see that our women and children are not harmed again!” He then led a large, angry crowd in a torchlight parade down Lenox Avenue, demonstrating their refusal to be intimidated. Robeson and the People’s Artists then announced they would hold a second concert near Lakeland, on the property of Stephen Szego, on September 4th. A refugee from Nazi Germany, Szego was disgusted by the previous week’s violence, and hoped that relocating the concert to private property would avert bloodshed. Szego learned otherwise when local patriots fired rifle shots through his window, then attempted to set his house on fire.

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Paul Robeson, Leon Straus, William Macdonald and Howard Fast

Both sides mobilized for battle. The People’s Artists received support from local trade unions, including the Joint Board of Fur Workers, who vowed to protect the performers and concertgoers. Thoughts of armed union thugs, including Jews and blacks, flooding Peekskill filled the townspeople with rage. Vincent Boyle, having incited the previous week’s violence, organized the Associated Veterans’ Group, which planned an “Americanism demonstration” the day of the concert. Hoping for 50,000 participants, Boyle only managed around 1,000, though thousands of locals again assembled to harass progressives arriving by car and bus. This time, on the orders of Governor Thomas Dewey, New York State Police arrived to forestall violence.

The concert commenced around 2:30 pm. With the stage surrounded by a protective ring of union members, some wearing military uniforms, the protesters balked at directly attacking the crowd. Robeson, accompanied by a hulking furrier named Heshie Marcus, arrived and graciously mingled with the nearly 20,000 concertgoers. Howard Fast recalled Pete Seeger’s glee at watching the “sea of human beings” gathered before them, sensing a revolutionary brotherhood. “That’s the moment we’ve always dreamed of,” Seeger told Fast. “To do it with songs and with nothing else.”

The concert began with a rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner,” then songs from Seeger, Sylvia Kahn and Hope Foye, along with several pianists. Finally Robeson himself took the stage, his electrifying presence overwhelming the crowd. His repertoire included both progressive ballads and Negro spirituals, including the ubiquitous “Ol’ Man River.” For the latter, Robeson substituted Hammerstein and Kern’s lyrics “I’m tired of living and scared of dying” with a fittingly aggressive riposte: “We must keep fighting until we’re dying.” For a brief, rapturous moment, as the crowd cheered Robeson’s performance, the concert seemed a success.

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The Peekskill stage. Robeson stands at the microphone

Robeson barely finished when his union minders, sensing trouble, hurried him and his bodyguard into a nearby car. Leon Straus of the Joint Board of Fur Workers recounted that “Robeson was told to lie down…the two union men covered his body and blankets were draped over the passenger windows.” Their car drove away from the concert grounds in a compact convoy, taking back roads to avoid confronting the demonstrators along the main street. Robeson complained about this undignified exit, yet he was lucky. Behind him, a riot erupted on the Szego property, with scale and savagery far surpassing the previous week’s violence.

Some ticket buyers didn’t even reach the concert. Daniel Fanshiel, who traveled to the concert by bus, arrived amidst a crowd of police and demonstrators. “The crowd was shouting angry, vile and obscene epithets,” he recalled. “The police became angry and headed towards the Negroes who had been following in columns of two behind us…One of the mob spit in my wife’s face several times and she was unable to see.” He also watched “the police turning upon a Negro in a white shirt…hitting him violently over the head with nightsticks.”

(Incidentally, this Negro was Eugene Bullard. A decorated World War I veteran and sometime political activist, Bullard gained renown during that war as the first African-American military pilot, winning the Croix de Guerre and several other medals for heroism. Irritated by the persistent prejudice facing him back home, he’d spent the interwar years running a nightclub in Paris before returning to the United States. Today, Peekskill’s patriots thanked Bullard for his service by savagely denting his skull. Photographs of Bullard’s beating circulated around the country, removing any doubt of police complicity in the riots.)

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Eugene Bullard (in white shirt) under attack

Racial insults abounded. A CBS radio crew recorded members of the mob shouting “Go back to Russia, you niggers!” and other epithets as Robeson arrived. One Legionnaire told concertgoers that “if we were down South, we’d string you up!” While the concert unfolded, someone slapped concert buses with stickers reading “BEHIND COMMUNISM STANDS THE JEW! THEREFORE, FOR MY COUNTRY AGAINST THE JEWS!” A Jewish man from New York bluntly compared the violence he witnessed at Peekskill to his youthful experiences in Nazi Germany. “In both cases…the official instruments of law and order stood by approvingly while the mob did its murderous work.”

The worst violence erupted after the concert concluded and the security detail dispersed (many had, in fact, been arrested and detained by the police). Bus passengers proved particularly vulnerable. Archie Lipshitz of Brooklyn boarded a bus to depart when police intercepted them, ordering the driver to slow down. “As he slowed down, rocks began to crash against the window. This went on for about one-half mile, and all the time the police was slowing down the driver and the rocks were being thrown at us.”

One of Lipshitz’s fellow passengers, Sid Marcus, suffered an agonizing fate. He suddenly began screaming and kicking the seats as rocks crashed through the windshield, showering him and his comrades with shattered glass. Several passengers tried to restrain Marcus, until one noticed that Marcus, bleeding from several head injuries, held his own dislodged eyeball in the palm of his hand. Marcus continued screaming until he lost consciousness.

Peekskill Car

Paul Ross, a politician from the American Labor Party, watched in terror as protesters repeatedly struck an eighteen-year-old girl, Diana Garsach, in the head with rocks. A Bronx woman identified as Nina P. had her hand smashed flat with a boulder, requiring the amputation of two fingers. “Witnessing this whole incident,” she recalled bitterly, “were state troopers who were laughing.” Another witness who had survived Ireland’s War for Independence compared the Peekskill savagery to “the Black and Tans at their worst.”

Some police weren’t content with being bystanders, joining the violence themselves. The ACLU interviewed a New Jerseyite called John N., who claimed that “I was forced to run through a gauntlet of 15 to 20 policemen. Each of them clubbed me across the head or back. I tried to escape. They threw me to the ground and continued the beating. One of the policemen noticed a bandage on my left hand, which had been burned a week before. He jumped on the hand and ground his heel into the bandage, fracturing one of the burned fingers.” Another witness, Sarah H., recalled that victims asking police for help “were laughed at, called such names as ‘Dirty Jew,’ ‘Dirty nigger,’ and some of those injured were hit with the billies of the policemen.”

In fairness, some police did try to protect the concertgoers, allowing their duty and consciences to override prejudice. Tom Moore, for one, led a squad of troopers to clear the parking area, allowing audience members to escape the mob. For this defiance, the rioters struck Moore in the head with rocks; photographers captured the courageous officer reeling from their assault, his colleagues reacting in shock. Moore’s actions, however, were the exception rather than the rule at Peekskill; most policemen felt little motivation to defend radicals from outraged patriots.

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Trooper Moore

By night’s end, the roads outside Peekskill filled with shattered glass, overturned cars and broken bodies. The main road became slick with a mix of blood, gasoline and motor oil. Injured men and women remained trapped in overturned cars for hours, until police finally cleared away the lingering protesters and winched out the survivors. Some 140 concertgoers and police were wounded, many requiring hospitalization, though miraculously, no one died. Neither State troopers nor local police arrested anyone for the violence.

The incident triggered massive revulsion, from angry editorials to protests in Albany and New York City. Governor Dewey refused to meet with protesters, convening a commission which exonerated the rioters and blamed the victims. Lawsuits by the ACLU and individual survivors fell on deaf ears. Others smeared the victims as seditious reds, a refrain heard among Peekskill’s proud citizens (“Wake Up America – Peekskill Did!”), conservative writers and even congressmen. When Jacob Javits denounced the violence in the House of Representatives, the odious John Rankin responded by blaming violence on “that nigger Communist and that bunch of Reds who went up there.”

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John Rankin, reactionary

Left wing artists quickly commemorated the incident. Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie both narrowly survived, their car windows shattered with rocks (Seeger defiantly used the rocks to build a chimney in his cabin). Both men cut singles shortly afterwards; Seeger’s “Hold the Line” and Guthrie’s “My Thirty Thousand” remain progressive standards. The riot also inspired several fictional works, notably E.L. Doctorow’s The Book of Daniel, whose activist heroes (Jewish immigrants loosely based on Julius and Ethel Rosenberg) try to reason with the Peekskill mob and are pummeled within an inch of their lives.

As for Paul Robeson, his career soon unraveled. He found himself unable to work, with dozens of concerts cancelled within months of the riot; the State Department revoked his visa, preventing him from traveling abroad. When Robeson did square off against HUAC, his defenses of Soviet Russia and attacks on racism availed him little; Rankin attempted to cite him with contempt. His career in tatters, he grew depressed, attempted suicide several times and retired to Philadelphia, rarely emerging in the public eye. He died in 1976, a great talent destroyed by racial and political intolerance.

In 1999 the town of Peekskill held a fiftieth anniversary commemoration of the riot, inviting Pete Seeger, Paul Robeson Jr. and other survivors to take part. It marked an honorable, if belated effort by the town to come to terms with its troubled history. Unfortunately, the forces unleashed those days in Peekskill continue reverberating through modern politics; the McCarthyite impulse, whether manifested through accusations of socialism or active violence, remains as potent as ever.

Peekskill Car

Sources and Further Reading

Principle sources for this article include: Martin Duberman, Paul Robeson (1971); Howard Fast, Peekskill USA (1949; online here); and Jordan Goodman, Paul Robeson: A Watched Man (2013).