A Rough Sunday At Peekskill


In most ways and in most places, Labor Day weekend in 1949 was the quiet, lazy end-of-summer occasion that Americans long have cherished. There were parades and barbecues and last days at the swimming pool, and between innings of local softball games spectators and players alike tuned in on the progress of the pennant-winners-to-be, the Yankees and the Dodgers. But in Omaha there was an unpleasant reminder of growing political tensions; a fight broke out when several people attempted to distribute Communist Party literature. And back East, near Peekskill in suburban New York State, there was an ugly lesson in how bad those tensions had become—and in how the fear of communism, only four years after the great wartime alliance with Russia, had taken hold of the American psyche. In Peekskill, for the second time in nine days, war veterans and teen-age adventurers attacked an assemblage of leftists gathered to hear Paul Robeson, the black singer-actor and advocate of Communist causes.

During the Peekskill strife that Sunday some hundred and fifty persons were injured, several of them seriously. A half dozen automobiles were overturned and destroyed; the windshields and windows of scores of others, as well as of numerous buses, were shattered. Violence was commonplace throughout an area of ten square miles. Twelve persons were arrested. It was the most serious grass-roots confrontation of the Cold War era and was a prologue to the McCarthyite anti-Communist movement that dominated American public life in the early 1950’s. “Peekskill,” says James P. Shenton, professor of American history at Columbia University, “opened up what was to become extensive public endorsement of the prosecution and persecution of so-called Communists.”

While anti-Communist phobia was an obvious cause of the riots centering on Robeson’s Peekskill appearances, there were other causes that stemmed from particular circumstances of time, place, and personality. Anti-Semitism, racial animosity, and even dislike of New York City-style bohemianism were important factors. The Peekskill area was unusual, perhaps unique, in the complexion of its antagonisms between conservatives and radicals. The former were mainly working people of ethnic-minority background; the latter, mainly professional and artistic people, many of them Jews, who migrated from New York City as either year-round or summer residents.

No less important than these factors was the controversial, compelling figure of Paul Robeson. Robeson in 1949 was slightly past the peak of his artistic powers but right at the peak of his political activity. The son of a runaway slave, he was famous for his union of physical and artistic prowess: an All-American football player at Rutgers; an acclaimed actor—the first black man to play Othello in a “white” production; a world-renowned singer with a repertoire ranging from folk melodies to operatic arias. Robeson made his home in London from 1928 to 1939. During that period he travelled extensively in the Soviet Union, singing and absorbing a great deal of Soviet life and political philosophy. His affection for the Soviet system and his corresponding disaffection for the United States and its treatment of blacks grew steadily.

Still, to the American public Paul Robeson did not become a “Red” until after World War 11; indeed, until that point he was still being hailed as America’s leading Negro. But with the onset of the Cold War, Robeson was forced to choose political sides. While he denied being a member of the Communist Party, he became ever more outspokenly critical of the United States and laudatory of the Soviet Union, lending his name and—literally—his voice to a succession of pro-Soviet causes.

In 1947 he announced that he would abandon his professional career for two years to fight against racial bias in the United States. In 1948 he campaigned—in the South, no less—for Progressive Presidential candidate Henry A. Wallace. As the Cold War intensified, his anti-American and proSoviet statements rolled on like drumbeats, each one enlarging the gulf between white America and the most illustrious of its “good” Negroes. (It must be added that most of black America also disapproved of Robeson’s political posture.) In the spring of 1949, at a World Peace Congress meeting in Paris, Robeson declared that it was “unthinkable that American Negroes could go to war on behalf of those who have oppressed us for generations against the Soviet Union, which in one generation has raised our people to full human dignity.” The Paris statement prompted an outcry in America that had hardly subsided byLabor Day and Peekskill. Of that period in Robeson’s political life a sympathetic biographer, Edwin P. Hoyt, has written: “No political excess was now too great for Paul … [his] orientation to Communism was … complete.”

The radical left, of which Robeson was such a visible and vocal leader, was far more important in the late forties than its fragmented counterpart is today. The wartime alliance with Russia, the continuing impact of the New Deal, and the Wallace candidacy had combined to lift the movement to unaccustomed heights of political influence, heights from which it soon would be tumbled by the Smith Act trials and the reign of McCarthyism.