April 1976 | Volume 27, Issue 3
Paul Robeson was giving a concert. It ended in a riot that foreshadowed the McCarthy era of the 1950’s
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.
Then as now the radical left was centered in New York City. About thirty miles north of the city, in Croton-on-Hudson and other smaller settlements near Peekskill, was a flourishing satellite leftist community. Actually, there were several communities: Camp Mohegan, Golden’s Bridge, the Mt. Airy Road section of Croton, and a few others. They differed in origin and sociopolitical composition. Camp Mohegan, also known as Mohegan Colony, was founded in the twenties as an anarchist community, populated by, as one long-time observer of the scene puts it, “a bunch of idealists who wanted to get away from crassness and materialism.” For a while William Z. Foster, chairman of the Communist Party U.S.A., and Ben Gitlow, a high party official, lived at Mohegan. Golden’s Bridge was primarily a summer retreat for radicals and their more cautious bedfellows, liberals. There was also a small summer colony near a quarry in the Croton area. It catered mainly to Jewish trade unionists, some of them Communists, others members of the Workmen’s Circle.
Of these leftist communities Croton’s was the largest and most significant. From its inception in the early igao’s Croton was the permanent or summer home of an array of radical leftists and so-called fellow travellers. They lived—as do most of the affluent commuter residents of suburban Hudson River villages—on the hills above the river, removed physically and psychologically from the drab downtowns and their ethnic working-class inhabitants.
The leftist orientation of the Mt. Airy Road section dates back to a realestate man of anarchist sympathies (a curious combination) who developed a small section of it that became known as the colony. At its peak the colony amounted to about two dozen families of leftist persuasion. They imported speakers and staged cultural events, and prominent figures in the arts soon drifted up from the city to discover the leafy quiet and congenial atmosphere of the Croton hillsides. Among these early visitors were writers Lincoln Steffens, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Max Eastman, John Reed, and Floyd Dell; artist Boardman Robinson; dancer Isadora Duncan; and actress Gloria Swanson. Most of them were politically left and culturally bohemian, and their life-styles as much as their politics irritated the villagers. There were stories of dancing on tables and uninhibited sex at parties.
The real political activists came to Croton a decade or more later: Daily Worker editor Bob Minor and his artist wife, Lydia; William Gropper, cartoonist for the Worker and New Masses ; Louis Waldman, a Socialist expelled from his seat in the New York State assembly; Communist Party official Alexander Bittelman, one of the Smith Act defendants; and, for the summer of the Peekskill riots, writer Howard East. Leftists of lesser note had long been drawn to Croton because, as one former Crotonite expressed it recently, “We knew there were ‘friends’ there.”
By 1949 most of the bohemians and many of the identifiably radical leftists were gone from Mt. Airy Road. A few Communists and anarchists and numerous members of the American Labor Party remained. So did a good many liberals, people whom I, as a teen-ager growing up in nearby Ossining, came to know as “pinkos.” To the good burghers of Croton—and of Ossining, Peekskill, and the surrounding area—Mt. Airy Road remained “Red Hill.” Occasionally the ongoing distrust and antagonisms between “hill” and “village” focussed on a specific issue. In 1947 the integration of a local swimming pool raised one such issue. The central figure again was a Robeson—Paul junior. Blacks in those davs swam at Silver Lake, which was known to some villagers as “the Commies’ place.” But someone wanted to take Paul Robeson, Jr., as a guest to Black Rock, a private club presided over by A. E. Ottaviano, a prominent building contractor. The group that included young Robeson was refused admission, and there were mutterings on the hill about southern-style racism and in the village about nigger lovers.
Since tew blacks lived in Croton, on or off the hill, race was seldom a direct issue. As the hill people recall it, the issue—generally mufRed but always present—was anti-Semitism. “Some of us on Mt. Airy belonged to local organizations,” recalls a Jew who has lived there for thirty years, “and the resulting personal relationships sometimes transcended political feelings. But in general, being Jewish, intellectual, and liberal was sufficient to make you a Commie in the eyes of the village.”
Peekskill, five miles north of Crotonon-Hudson, was then a town of about eighteen thousand. Its population too was largely ethnic, though leavened by a higher percentage of “ WASP ’s” than was the case in Croton. Peekskill had its commuters, but fundamentally it was a town of lowermiddle-class people who worked in the local shops and small industries. That is, they did what work was available. In 1949 Peekskill’s economy was about as lackluster as its appearance.
Into this political stew, in August of 1949, stepped Paul Robeson—black, loudly leftist, and, to villagers throughout the Peekskill area, the personification of near-treasonous anti-Americanism. Robeson was no stranger to the area. He had given concerts there in each of the two preceding years, and they had gone off without incident. But by the summer of 1949 the escalation of the Cold War and of Robeson’s pro-Soviet rhetoric had made him an unwanted guest.
A left-wing group called People’s Artists, Inc., scheduled an outdoor Robeson concert for Saturday evening, August 27, at Lakeland Acres, a commercial picnic ground. Lakeland Acres actually was located north of Peekskill, in the town of Cortlandt, but posters announcing the concert—and its beneficiary, the Harlem chapter of the Civil Rights Congress—appeared in Peekskill and nearby villages. Four days before Robeson’s scheduled appearance the Peekskill Evening Star began voicing displeasure over it. “Time was,” the Star said editorially, “when the honor [of a Robeson concert] would have been ours—all ours,” but that time was past. Now “every ticket purchased for the Peekskill concert will drop nickels and dimes into the till basket of an Un-American political organization. If the Robeson ‘concert’ this Saturday follows the pattern of its predecessors, it will consist of an unsavory mixture of song and political talk by one who has described Russia as his ‘second motherland,’ and who has avowed ‘the greatest contempt for the democratic press.’ The time for tolerant silence that signifies approval is running out.”
The theme that was to justify active opposition to the Robeson concerts—“silence signifies approval”—was thus introduced. The local veterans’ organizations were quick to pick it up. American Legion and VFW posts in Peekskill, Verplanck, Ossining, and several other villages held meetings to discuss the situation. In a letter published in the Evening Star Vincent Boyle, commander of the Legion’s Verplanck post, urged “loyal Americans” to “vehemently oppose” the appearance of Robeson and his followers: “Let us leave no doubt in their minds that they are unwelcome around here either now or in the future.” The veterans’ groups planned a joint “patriotic demonstration” at the concert site. Suddenly a cultural event had become a political issue. Leftists and civil libertarians sent telegrams to New York Governor Thomas E. Dewey and various Westchester County officials asking them to prohibit the demonstration or, failing that, to provide the concertgoers with police protection.
As it turned out, the first concert was aborted. Violence broke out an hour before the event was scheduled to begin, and the car carrying Robeson to it was shunted away from the scene. The veterans’ “patriotic demonstration” turned into a small riot in which one man was stabbed, one suffered a brain concussion, and numerous others were treated for cuts and bruises. Robesonites, almost all of them local residents, were set upon as they tried to arrange the picnic grounds for the concert. The taunting, pushing, and sporadic rock throwing and fistfighting centered on a narrow dirt road leading onto the grounds. A group of some three dozen Robesonites, about half black and half in their teens, “held” the road in paramilitary fashion, protecting 12O-odd women and children gathered at the site. Howard Fast, who became impromptu commander of the defenders, describes the events vividly in his small volume, Peekskill: USA: “I had not fought this way in fifteen years … not since the gang fights of a kid on the New York streets; but now it was for our lives. … ‘You’re never going out,’ they screamed. ‘Every n—— bastard dies here tonight! Every Jew bastard dies here tonight!’”
Fast’s account, although marred by exaggeration and Marxist rhetoric, is substantially supported by other participants and eyewitnesses. Herbert Williams, at that time a Croton resident, recalls that as his car approached Lakeland Acres “a black man was brought out to the highway, bleeding. At the entrance to the place, I saw a woman I knew. She was terribly bruised, her jaw all red, and she was crying. Later, her husband’s business in Croton was boycotted—just because they went to hear Robeson sing. They were so traumatized that they moved from Croton and have never returned.” A Croton woman remembers that as her car crept through the crowd leading to the entrance “men lining the highway called us names—‘Communist bastards,’ ‘nigger lovers.’ None of my friends ever reached the concert site, except those who went early to set up chairs.”
Before the evening ended, those chairs were burned by the demonstrators, along with a Ku Klux Klanstyle cross. The handful of sheriff’s deputies at the scene acted with just enough vigor to keep the Robeson group from being annihilated. Even after state highway patrolmen arrived, no arrests were made. Spokesmen for the local veterans’ organizations later blamed the violence on “hoodlums,” neglecting to add that some of the hoodlums were wearing American Legion and VFW caps.
The first “Peekskill riot” left the attackers cocky, the local victims fearful for their safety, and New York City’s leftist community determined to assert itself. In Harlem’s Golden Gate Ballroom on August 30, a capacity crowd heard Robeson call Peekskill a “historic turning point in the anti-Fascist struggle in America” and a conclusive answer to “those like Mrs. [Eleanor] Roosevelt who think I had better ‘just sing.'” Communist Party leader Ben Davis announced a follow-up concert and added ominously: “Let them touch a hair of Paul Robeson’s head, and they’ll pay a price they never calculated.”
Leftists on Mt. Airy Road and its environs heartily approved the plan for a second concert and formed a committee to help implement it, but they prudently looked after themselves as well. Mt. Airy men organized a patrol to drive around the area watching for sneak attacks, since according to rumor certain houses were to be set on fire. According to another rumor the postman serving the Mt. Airy Road section was a spy, turning in to the veterans’ organizations the names of residents who were receiving “Communist” literature.
State and county officials, caught bysurprise, issued temporizing statements and promised thorough investigations of the events. The veterans’ groups did not temporize. Flushed with victory, they announced that they would oppose the second concert with a second protest demonstration. The Westchester County Jewish War Veterans engaged in heated debate over the demonstrations, but eventually gave them their sanction (although the jwv state commander warned that any member found to be involved would be court-martialled); in other veterans’ organizations few dissenting voices were heard. If the veterans needed further stimulation, the county district attorney provided it: he announced that pamphlets on the Soviet Union and two Communist Party collection boxes had been found at Lakeland Acres after the abortive concert. In Peekskill and neighboring towns a slogan appeared in store windows and on automobile bumpers: “Wake Up America—Peekskill Did!”
The Robesonites, who needed a new concert site, found a defunct country club known as Hollow Brook, located about a mile from Lakeland Acres. The man who owned Hollow Brook, Stephen D. Szego, himself became a target. Two days before the concert a volley of bullets was fired into Szego’s house, and four attempts were made to set it afire. A few hours after the concert a section of the house was burned. Throughout the following week Szego received dozens of threatening phone calls.
While the Communist Party and sympathetic groups in New York City drummed up enthusiasm for the concert—scheduled for Sunday, September 4—left-leaning labor unions devised a plan for its defense. The task of safeguarding Robeson arid an anticipated twenty thousand concertgoers was given to Leon Straus of the International Fur and Leather Workers Union, who had won a battlefield commission in World War n. Straus and a staff representing a half dozen other unions arrived at Hollow Brook early on the morning of the concert and began deploying their troops, mainly union members who had been bused from the city but also resident leftists from the Peekskill-Croton area.
Governor Dewey, a middle-of-theroad Republican, ordered the assignment of two hundred and fifty state patrolmen plus several hundred deputy sheriffs from around Westchester. All were to be armed, and Dewey announced that he would hold county officials “strictly accountable” for the cops’ “full performance of their duty.” Along with the New York Times and other reputedly enlightened commentators, the governor invariably mentioned Robeson’s odious views while saying he must be allowed to express them—a posture that may have satisfied technical requirements for impartiality but did little to cool the patriotic fires of the protesters.
Sunday turned up warm and sunny, and protected by Leon Straus’s perimeter guards and the small army of police, an estimated fifteen thousand people poured onto the Hollow Brook grounds. They seemed nervous but happy, if not exuberant, as if they felt they were demonstrating the efficacy of the honored American right of free assembly. Outside, on the highway, perhaps a thousand veterans and their followers—far fewer than the protest organizers had predicted—paraded and milled about. They shouted insults at buses and automobiles entering the concert grounds and threw stones at a few of them. The police prevented large-scale attacks, and as the concert proceeded they repeatedly pushed back groups trying to force their way onto the grounds. At the concert the only annoyance was occasional buzzing by a low-flying police helicopter. The crowd basked in the September sun and listened halfattentively to the opening portions of the program. A pianist played pieces by Prokofiev and Ravel. A soprano sang. Folk singer Pete Seeger, then gaining notoriety as a “Red,” strummed a couple of banjo tunes.
It was time for Paul Robeson. He mounted the makeshift stage, ringed by the inner circle of security guards. After a thunderous ovation had died away (“I am here to applaud you,” he responded), Robeson lifted his rich bass voice over the thousands seated on the grassy slopes and—by loudspeaker—to the men on the perimeter security line. He sang “Let My People Go,” then “No John, No,” and the last aria from Boris Godunov . Following an appeal for funds by Fast (there had not been time to print and sell tickets) Robeson presented his second group of songs, highlighted by several Negro spirituals, ending with his famous rendition of “Ol’ Man River.”
At about four o’clock the motorcade of buses and automobiles carrying the crowd began making its way out of the concert grounds. When the lead vehicles reached the highway, policemen routed them left or right and onto a number of connecting roads. What had been a dreamy, if occasionally tense, late-summer idyll then became a nightmare. Men and women along the roadsides began stoning the buses and cars. Stone throwers seemed to be everywhere, forming gauntlets that the concertgoers had to run no matter which route they followed. The first vehicles out, taken by surprise, caught a fusillade of rocks through open windows but were able to accelerate away from the attackers. Succeeding drivers were both more and less fortunate. Warned to roll up their windows, they were shielded from the direct impact of the missiles. But they were trapped in creeping lines of traffic, easy prey for the attackers. The latter had ready supplies of ammunition: cairns of stones and bricks laid in the grass along the roads. Car after car became a mass of dents and splintered glass.
Not content with stoning alone, the mob rocked many cars and overturned eight of them. In several instances, the Peekskill Evening Star reported, “demonstrators attempted to drag drivers from their autos.” Violence ranged over ten square miles. At first it was concentrated near the entrance to the concert site. But after police wielded their clubs and made a few arrests, the protesters regrouped at various distances from the entrance, along the highways leading away from the site. Miles from Hollow Brook cars travelling on highways back to New York City were bombarded with large stones dropped from overpasses.
A woman from Croton, wife of a Daily Worker editor, remembers the events in vivid detail. As the car in which she was riding headed up Hollow Brook’s dirt road, she recalls, we were told, “Roll up your windows, don’t stop, get out of the area as quickly as possible.” The highway was lined with policemen and with what was as close to a lynch mob, in spirit and behavior, as I can imagine. Some of the people were wearing VFW and American Legion caps. Some had on firemen’s caps. … The driver’s seat of the car I was in was shaken loose from its moorings. The windshield was broken, and the man driving was stunned and had his hand injured, so that I had to do some of the steering. That wasn’t hard, since we were able to move only about five miles an hour. It wasn’t just what you saw that was terrible. It was the sound, the frightening sound. Some men were even brandishing torches, and they threatened to set fire to our car.
Robeson made a dramatic escape from the concert grounds. According to his son, Paul, Jr., he was hustled into one car in a seven-car convoy—“no one in the place knew which one”—and told to press his large frame against the floorboards. “Several trade-union guys lay on top of him,” the younger Robeson recalls, “and the windows of the car were covered with blankets.” The convoy’s lead car, sent out as a decoy, drew so many missiles that its driver, Irving Potash, received a severe eye injury from flying windshield glass. Potash’s sacrificial sortie permitted the rest of the convoy- emerging from the grounds right behind his car—to escape relatively unharmed. Robeson senior declared later that a state trooper had come up to the window of his car, shouted an epithet, and swung at one of the doors with his billy club. The singer, however, rode through unhurt.
The violence persisted until well into the night, when the last several hundred concertgoers made their way out of Hollow Brook. Their departure was delayed by the refusal of bus drivers who had brought them from New York City to undertake the return trip; they had been hired to take people to a picnic, the drivers said, and this obviously was no picnic. From all accounts, blacks among the concert crowd were subjected to especially intense abuse. Reported the Evening Star : “Two Negro soldiers were booed loudly when they walked into the concert. … One was struck in the face, and both hustled into the grounds to escape the angry demonstrators.” Herbert Williams of Croton, who is white, says he “saved the life, or at least the health, of a black man, an auto worker from Tarrytown. He crawled under a car with a bunch of men after him. They were all half drunk, and I walked up like I was one of them and said, ‘Hey, you better get outta here. The cops are coming.’ It worked.”
Some of the injured straggled into hospitals in Peekskill, Ossining, and a scattering of other villages. Many more, afraid to entrust themselves to local mercies, nursed their wounds all the way back to New York City. Most of the injuries were caused by shattered glass—”from windshields,” one victim notes, “that we all thought were shatterproof.”
Police arrested twelve of the protesters, a modest number considering that dozens were active in the violence. Five of those arrested pleaded guilty to minor offenses and were sentenced by municipal courts. Four others, including Joseph Lillis, Jr., twenty-fiveyear-old son of the Peekskill police chief, were charged with malicious mischief for throwing stones and overturning an automobile. None of the Robesonites was arrested. As the victims of the violence they were hardly subject to arrest, except that the prevailing local attitude held them guilty of provoking the attacks made upon them. As the Peekskill mayor, John N. Schneider, put it, the responsibility “rests solely on the Robesonites, as they insisted on coming to a community where they weren’t wanted.”
Where were Straus’s vaunted security guards while the violence was under way? They were on the concert grounds, most of them still at their places in the defense perimeter. Defense chief Straus, who is now an executive with the Pathmark Drug Company, says that for at least a half hour after the concertgoers began leaving, the security guards were unaware that any violence was being done. He says also that the guard “only existed to prevent attacks on the concert.” Paul Robeson, Jr., who was one of the guards, says he was aware only of “confusion up on the [main] road” —although word was quickly passed down the line of departing cars to roll up windows and be ready for a barrage of missiles. Robeson senior, at a press conference the following day, said that the police were “waiting” for his supporters to fight back: “They would have shot us down then. They were ready to massacre us.” What is more likely is that the police were determined to keep the security guards from entering the fray.
The liveliest postriot controversy centered on the behavior of the police. Numerous leftist leaders, including Robeson and Fast, charged them flatly with permitting and in many instances joining the protesters’ attacks; Leon Straus says that police officers “uttered the same threats to me as the local hoods, threatening to invade the concert and destroy it.” The American Civil Liberties Union, in a lengthy report on the two riots, distinguished between the special deputies recruited locally and the detachment of state troopers, claiming that the county officers “permitted the assault,” while the troopers “performed their duty well by contrast. …” The county’s elaborate preparations to prevent violence “were a sham,” the ACLU said. The weight of the evidence from newspaper reports and interviews with concertgoers generally supports the ACLU conclusion. When a policeman was identified as having permitted or joined in an attack, he was almost always a special deputy. The troopers’ attentiveness to their task increased markedly after one of their number was felled by a stone, presumably an errant one, early in the action. The most supportable charge against them seems to be that as directors of the postconcert traffic they held the cars to a speed that made them easy targets for the attackers.
S. W. “Si” Gerson, a security guard, later an editor of the Daily World , charges the Dewey administration with “giving covert encouragement to a mob.” In not intervening more strongly after the first riot the governor could indeed be said to have failed in his responsibility. The failure was in not sufficiently discouraging county and local officials from permitting public emotions to get out of hand. The ACLU report noted that although the concert ended at 3:30 P.M. , the demonstrators were permitted to remain at the entrance to the grounds and to congregate along the highways leading from it.
A murkier question is the extent to which Communists controlled the Peekskill events and used them to their own purposes. The veterans’ organizations were not alone in envisioning a Communist master plot. Warren Moscow, who covered the riots for the New York Times , said recently: “The Communists were looking for an incident. They hunted around the Eastern seaboard to find a place ripe for controversy and—after the first try at a Peekskill concert failed—decided on that.” While the Communist Party has always been skilled at creating incidents for its own purposes, it did not need to create this one. The first riot had taken care of that.
Reactions to the riots varied generally according to the distance from Peekskill. The closer one got, the more defensive the reaction became. Lieutenant Governor Joe R. Hanley of New York told a VKW meeting in Troy that “we ought to put a stop to free speech in these places.” Although a Peekskill clergymen’s group called for a “show of shame and contrition for these violent and unlawful acts and attitudes,” the veterans and their followers acted defiantly proud of their actions. The “Wake Up America” stickers remained on display, and several organizations announced plans for still another “patriotic demonstration.” Meanwhile local residents who had attended the September 4 concert drove downtown as seldom as possible—lest they be recognized by their damaged cars.
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.