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Novelist and political activist Howard Fast, an avowed Communist who writes regularly for the pro-Stalinist Daily Worker, agrees to speak at a concert featuring baritone Paul Robeson and folk singer Pete Seeger. The concert is organized by a group called People’s Artists, and slated to take place at a picnic ground just north of Peekskill, New York. The concert is to benefit a group called the Civil Rights Congress, fighting for a stay of execution for six African-American youths sentenced to death in New Jersey.
Volatile Mix of Ideologies, Ethnicities - The Peekskill area is a well-known vacation place for African-Americans. The area itself is populated by large and antagonistic groups of conservatives of ethnic minority backgrounds, and leftists, most of them Jewish and many from New York City, who live in the area either all year or as summer residents. Parts of Peekskill, Fast later writes, have been “bypassed by the rush of American industrial development” and are home to large numbers of unemployed and underemployed rural Americans. Before the concert begins that evening, Fast learns that the Peekskill Evening Star has been running inflammatory editorials calling for the local populace to come out in protest at the “anti-American” and “subversive” concert—“every ticket purchased for the Peekskill concert will drop nickels and dimes into the basket of an un-American political organization… the time for tolerant silence that signifies approval is running out,” one editorial reads—and the American Legion is planning a march to “vehemently oppose” Robeson’s appearance. “Let us leave no doubt in their minds that they are unwelcome around here either now or in the future,” the local Legion chapter commander, Edward Boyle, writes in a letter published by the Evening Star. Fast reads through a week’s worth of editorials in the Evening Star, finding instances of what he calls “anti-Semitism and anti-Negroism… anti-Communism [and] anti-humanism.” (Fast 1951; Williams 3/1976; Courtney 9/5/1982)
Paul Robeson - Robeson is a vibrant figure among American leftists and radicals: the son of a runaway slave; an all-American football player at Rutgers; the first African-American to play the title role of “Othello” in a mainstream theatrical production; a world-renowned singer; and an avowed Marxist who has spent extensive amounts of time in the Soviet Union. Previously lionized by many Americans, his popularity soured when, after World War II, he began speaking out ever more forcefully in favor of the Soviet way of life, and against American capitalism and democracy. As a result, Robeson is now an extremely controversial and polarizing figure. Many perceive Robeson as author Roger Williams later describes him: “the personification of near-treasonous anti-Americanism.” (Williams 3/1976) The concert never takes place; instead, the grounds and audience are attacked by an angry, violent mob (see August 27, 1949).
After the mob riots and attacks at Peekskill, New York, that disrupted a concert featuring left-wing activists Paul Robeson and Pete Seeger (see August 27, 1949), novelist Howard Fast, another activist who had successfully organized the concertgoers into resisting the mob attacks, takes part in an August 28 meeting to assess the situation and discuss whether the concert should again be attempted. The meeting attracts over 1,600 people. (One apparently impromptu attack on the group, mounted by what Fast calls “a dozen young hoodlums from Peekskill,” is easily driven back.) The organization behind the concert, People’s Artists, joins with Labor Party and trade union members in deciding to try a second time. Fast agrees to organize the defense. The group gives itself the name “Westchester Committee for Law and Order.” On August 30, Fast joins a large gathering of at least 3,000 people at a Harlem ballroom, where Robeson speaks movingly of the struggle for recognition and against repression.
Organizing for Battle - By week’s end, organizing on both sides is taking place. The local unions are bringing hundreds of brawny workers to the area concert grounds, while the local American Legion, Fast learns, has put out a call for 30,000 veterans to come to the concert and disrupt the proceedings, though as Fast later writes, only about a thousand protesters appear, and he has no way of knowing how many of them, if any, are veterans. A friend, whom Fast does not name, explains why the area’s people may be so willing to answer the mob’s call: “This is a funny neighborhood.… You know, there’s no real industry here except the railroad, and the kids grow up in these river towns with no jobs and no future—just a rotten, perverted petty-bourgeois outlook. They get a job at a gas station or a grocery store or a lunch wagon or with the fire department or some other political handout—or they don’t work and just scrounge around and live off the few dollars they pick up. They get twisted with bitterness, and they don’t know what causes it or where to direct it. Then they hate, and it’s easy for the Legion and the local Chamber of Commerce to use that hate. They’re using it now.” (Fast 1951; Courtney 9/5/1982; National Public Radio 9/5/1999) Announcing the second concert, Communist Party leader Ben Davis says, “Let them touch a hair of Paul Robeson’s head, and they’ll pay a price they never calculated.” (Williams 3/1976) The second concert will be successful (see September 4, 1949) but the audience is attacked, and over 100 injured, upon trying to leave the venue (see September 4, 1949, and After).
Left-wing activists make a second attempt at holding a concert outside of Peekskill, New York, featuring African-American singer and activist Paul Robeson. After the first one was disrupted by angry mobs (see August 27, 1949), organizers plan for a much more strongly defended second event (see August 28-30, 1949). The venue for the first concert is heavily damaged by the mob’s depredations, so a German-American landowner named Stephen Szego, who escaped Hitler’s Germany years before, agrees to let the concert take place at the now-abandoned Hollow Brook Country Club ground. (Activist and novelist Howard Fast, who helps organize the event and documents it, will later note that Szego will suffer an attempt to burn down his house and has bullets fired through his walls as a result of his generosity.) The defense, organized by dozens of trade union workers, is designed to be unique, Fast will write: “a defense without weapons, a defense, if possible, without a blow being struck, a defense which would achieve its purpose through the highest type of discipline and restraint.” As the opening of the concert approaches, some 25,000 people—far more than the organizers had anticipated—begin streaming into the country club’s grounds; outside the grounds, a large mob begins to grow. In addition, a large and well-armed police contingent is on hand. According to Fast, the opening salvo of rock-throwing from the mob is ordered by the police: “Backed by hundreds of laughing cops, the American Legion heroes lined the road and heaved rocks at our defense line.” The violence escalates when several carloads of latecomers, all African-Americans, are attacked by the mob, pulled out of their cars, and beaten. An apparent assassination attempt against Robeson is thwarted when union workers flush two mob members from what is apparently a sniper’s nest; both are found with high-powered rifles. When Robeson takes the stage to sing, 15 union workers surround him, providing a “human wall,” in Fast’s words, to defend him from any possible sniper’s bullet. Robeson, folk singer Pete Seeger, and other musicians are able to play successfully, even though a police helicopter hovers over the sound truck, apparently trying to drown out the music with the sound of its rotors. Seeger later recalls: “We heard about 150 people standing around the gate shout things like ‘Go back to Russia! K_kes! N_gger-lovers!’ It was a typical KKK crowd, without bedsheets.” (Fast 1951; Williams 3/1976; Courtney 9/5/1982; National Public Radio 9/5/1999) Concertgoers are attacked, beaten, and pelted with rocks by the mob as they attempt to leave the grounds (see September 4, 1949, and After).
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