The Paul Robeson and the Peekskill riots

On the 27th of August 1949, the Afro-American singer Paul Robeson was due to hold a concert in Lakeland Acres, north of Peekskill,  New York. However, the event descended into race riots directed against African Americans and Jews.

This all happened due to the fact that the concert was to benefit the Civil Rights Congress and also due to Paul Robeson’s views on trade unionism, socialism, civil rights activist, and anti-colonialism, and to him being known as a communist by the American public.  Paul Robeson had also made remarks against Klu Klux Klan and other white supremacists both on a domestic and international scale. Whilst in Paris at a concert sponsored by the Soviet Union to promote world peace amid rising tensions between western powers and the USSR Robeson had made remarks on the decolonisation of Africa, had spoken against Jim Crow legislation and advocated for peace with the USSR.

Robeson also appeared before the Committee on Un-American Activities to oppose a bill that would force communists in America to register as foreign agents. The American media went into a frenzy after these remarks and fabricated their own stories, twisting Robeson’s words. They took his calls for equality amongst the people of the United States and portrayed this as him condemning the United States government and comparing it to Hitler’s government in Nazi Germany, who had only been defeated 4 years earlier. The scars of the most devastating conflict in human history were still fresh in the minds of the American people, many of whom were veterans.

The Evening Star, Peekskill’s local newspaper, called for people to make their opposition to the concert felt (although it did not call for violence).  On the 27th of August 1949 concert-goers were violently attacked by a mob wielding baseball bats and rocks. The police did not arrive until hours later and did little to nothing to intervene. Effigies of Jews and of Robeson were lynched by the mob. Robeson himself was trapped in a car with his friends who picked him up from the train station and had to be restrained from confronting the mob on multiple occasions.  The Peekskill branch of the KKK received 748 applications for membership after the 27th of August.

The concert did not go ahead on the 27th of August; the media were flooded with reactions and charges. The Joint Veteran Council of Peekskill denied any involvement with the rioting and described its activities as a “protest parade”, “held without disorder” and “perfectly disbanded”. The police claimed that the picnic ground where much of the rioting took place was beyond their jurisdiction. The commander of the Peekskill post 274 claimed that the objective was to prevent the concert taking place – which they did.

A meeting was held by local citizens, union members and Robeson supporters who formed the Westchester Committee of Law and Order, who unanimously voted to reschedule the concert and invite Paul Robeson back. Representatives of various left wing trade unions converged on Peekskill to defend the concert grounds from those who had previously rioted.

On the 4th of September 1949 the rescheduled concert took place without violence on the grounds of Cortland Manor. 20000 people attended the concert. Police tried to disrupt events by flying a helicopter over the concert and a sniper’s nest was flushed out. The violence erupted again afterwards as concert goers heading south where attacked by protestors. Traffic had to be diverted northward to Oregon Corners where they had to run a mile long gauntlet  of veterans and their families throwing rocks through windscreens of cars and buses who went by. The trade unionists formed a nonviolent line of resistance to protect the concert goers, singing “ we shall not be moved”. This however infuriated many of the rioters who proceeded to drag people out of their cars and assault them. By the end of the day over 140 people were injured and numerous vehicles were damaged as the police stood by and watched.

Despite numerous protests against the state governor, who blamed Paul Robeson for the violence, 27 plaintiffs brought charges against Westchester County and two veterans groups, but the charges were dropped 3 years later.

In the U.S House of Representatives – despite arguments from Jacob Javitts (a republican congressman for New York who defended the concert goers “right to freedom of speech”) – Paul Robeson was denounced as a communist agent’s provocateur by the democratic representative Edward E. Cox.

Within days of the riots the civil rights movements, trade union organisations, churches and other individuals called for an investigation into the attacks, the state governor Thomas Dewey and the police – who either joined the veterans in assaulting concert goers or simply allowed the violence to happen unchecked. In the end it was Paul Robeson and his fans who were accused by the press of inciting the violence and no investigation took place despite protests from the civil rights movement.

Following the Peekskill Riots many cities became fearful of similar violence breaking out at concerts so over 80 scheduled Paul Robeson concerts were cancelled. A year later Paul Robeson’s name was removed from NFL records denying he ever played for the Akron Pros (in 1921) and the Milwaukee Badgers (in 1922).

Robeson still enjoyed success as a stage actor and musician. By the 1960’s his health had deteriorated and he suffered depression and paranoia caused by being watched by the CIA and MI5 and the exhaustion of constant touring in Europe, Australia and the Soviet Union. Paul Robeson eventually retired in Philadelphia due to his failing health and died in 1976. He was eventually given many awards posthumously including a Donaldson Award for his role as Othello (the longest running production of Shakespeare on Broadway). In 2010 his granddaughter Susan Robeson launched a project with Swansea University and the Welsh Assembly to create an online resource in her grandfather’s memory.

Although a politically controversial figure Paul Robeson is remembered for his activism in the civil rights movement in America and championing the causes of minorities elsewhere. He is remembered here in Wales as a man who fought for the rights of the miners – regardless of race or creed – and where he found his political voice in the valleys of South Wales.

See Paul Robeson and Wales by Daire Smith

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