- Historic Sites
A Rough Sunday At Peekskill
Paul Robeson was giving a concert. It ended in a riot that foreshadowed the McCarthy era of the 1950’s
April 1976 | Volume 27, Issue 3
News of the riots and condemnation of the rioters were widespread in Europe. In this country newspapers by and large agreed with the Des Moines Register that the mobs gathered at the two concert sites had “repudiated the Constitution, the Government and those things which Americans have long prided themselves on—fairness and freedom.” The reaction of the veterans’ organizations’ national headquarters was significant. While their national commanders made the predictable denunciations of “subversives,” they also disclaimed Peekskillstyle violence as a way of dealing with what was increasingly being called the Communist threat. And in fact no similar attacks occurred, either on Robeson (who continued giving concerts and making pro-Communist speeches) or on other leftist figures and groups. Anti-Communist fervor took a new political and judicial turn. Within a few years two groups of partyleaders would be convicted of conspiracy, and Joseph McCarthy would be alternately mesmerizing and intimidating Congress, the White House, and large segments of the public.
The aftermath of the riots lingered in charges and countercharges and lawsuits. Among the suits brought were actions against state officials in behalf of 135 members of the September 4 audience for personal injury and property damage totalling some $a million; and an action against county officials by 83 members of the same audience seeking a total of $20,345 in property damages. From available records it appears that none of the suits was successful. In addition, a county grand jury exonerated the police and all the elected officials involved of charges that they failed to perform their duties.
In the Peekskill area the riots live on as a burning but almost silent memory. Fear of one kind of reprisal or another remains so strong that few “liberal” residents are willing to comment for attribution about the events. Across the ideological fence there is a corresponding unwillingness to talk. Leonard Rubenfeld, then chairman of Peekskill’s Joint Veterans Council and now a state judge, declines to reminisce about the riots or assess his own role in them. Rubenfeld says, however, that he does “not think the veterans’ groups wanted violence. They went out to make a peaceful demonstration, and things got out of hand.” Whose fault was that? “You can’t say. People take certain actions with the best of intentions, and situations develop out of them. All I can say is, we did what we thought was proper at the time.”
Several years ago a young Peekskill High School teacher named Anne Plunkett became interested in the riots, only to find that “my students had never heard of them, though some were obviously the children of people who’d participated in them.” Ms. Plunkett twice assigned the riots as an optional project for American studies. “The first time, librarians wouldn’t give the kids access to the back newspapers. The next time, I was called to the principal’s office and told that parents had been telephoning to complain about my ‘upsetting and exciting the children unnecessarily.'” Clearly Peekskill, like many another town with an ugly incident in its history, would like to forget the whole thing.