Saturday, November 27, 2010

The Peekskill Riots of 1949 and the 2010 Election

            Even before the success of right wing candidates in the 2010 elections, the sudden emergence of intimidating tactics at raucous Congressional town meetings and gun-toting tea party rallies was an alarming phenomena.   It is not the first time that bullying and threats of violence have occurred in American politics.

            One Sunday afternoon many years ago, a local radio station reported that a ‘riot’ had occurred  in a quiet Hudson River Valley community.   Only years later, after having read Howard Fast’s first hand description of events in “Peekskill USA,” were  the shameful details apparent.  

            An hour’s drive from downtown Manhattan, Peekskill, New York exploded on the national scene in August, 1949  when a mob of veterans, Ku Klux Klan members and their supporters attacked concertgoers.. The music lovers were to attend a performance by internationally-renown bass-baritone Paul Robeson.   A Phi Beta Kappa and all-American football star from Rutgers University and graduate of Columbia Law School, Robeson was also a socialist known for his outspoken support of civil rights and the trade union movement. 

            In 1949, the country was already on edge since the House Un-American ActivitiesCommittee had been investigating alleged disloyalty and subversive activities on the part of private citizens, public employees, and organizations suspected of having Communist ties  and the “Hollywood Ten” were about to go to jail for failing to ‘co-operate’ with the Committee.   Senator Joe McCarthy would begin his witch hunts the following year.  

            The local newspaper called public attention to Robeson’s politics and encouraged citizens to protest his performance – and protest they did!  An estimated several thousand self-proclaimed  patriots, many fueled by alcohol,  were content to block the concert entrance,  burn a cross on a nearby hill, jeer and scream racial and ethnic slurs and throw rocks until a group of about one hundred feral souls, armed with baseball bats, knives, broken bottles, and brass knuckles charged a group of men, women and children (including Howard Fast) who had already gathered and were trapped within the concert grounds. 

            Fast, who was to emcee the event, organized  42 men and boys to resist three waves of  ‘screaming madmen” in hand to hand combat who were shouting ‘we’ll finish Hitler’s job’ and  threatening to ’string up’ Robeson as state police officers stood by and FBI men took notes.  In an extraordinary display of courage, Fast and those of his group still standing withstood the last assault by locking arms to protect the women and children while singing “We Shall Not be Moved.”   The concert did not occur and Robeson, who never reached the concert location, was safely ensconced elsewhere.

            In response, a second performance was planned for the following week when an estimated 20,000 gathered to hear Robeson, Pete Seeger and others as several thousand unionists formed a ring of protection around the concert.  The performance ended with no disturbance and only as thousands drove away did they realize that hundreds of protesters were waiting along the exit route  to once again attack concertgoers with rocks and broken fence posts. 

            Pete Seeger told how all the windows of his Jeep which contained his wife, two small children, Lee Hays and Woody Guthrie were broken by multiple rocks which he later used to build the chimney in his home.  Despite photographs, the public beating of a black WWI combat veteran by two policemen and a state trooper never led to prosecution.

            Even as a fifty year ‘remembrance and reconciliation’ ceremony was held in 1999, the Peekskill riots remain a long standing wound on the national psyche.  In the aftermath of the angry confrontations of the 2010 election, Howard Fast’s words remind us of “how thin the line is that separates constitutional government from tyranny and dictatorship” remain as valid today they were in 1949.


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