06.22.2017
  • United States

Remembering Peekskill

The 1949 Peekskill Riots remind us of a period of postwar rebellion and reaction that set the stage for the rest of the century.

Paul Robeson sings on September 4, 1949 near Peekskill, NY, surrounded by bodyguards, many of whom were members of leftist trade unions.

At dusk on August 27, 1949, in a meadow called Lakeland Acres just outside Peekskill, New York, black radical singer, actor, and intellectual Paul Robeson was set to headline a concert. Pete Seeger and his fellow People’s Artists would open the show.

This performance would be Robeson’s third appearance in northern Westchester County in as many years. The “red summer belt” in northern Westchester County had become a kind of Borscht Belt for New York’s working-class radicals. The colonies and socialist summer camps also attracted black radicals and many fellow-traveling liberals.

Each resort had a different political pedigree: Mohegan Colony (once an old-line anarchist camp had, by 1949, become home to an eclectic mix of leftists and liberals), Camp Unity (closely affiliated with the Communist Party), Camp Followers of the Trail (an enclave of hardcore working-class communists), Camp Three Arrows (a Socialist Party retreat), and Shrub Oak Park (a “progressive” camp for left-wing New Dealers, unionists, “labor” Zionists, a handful of communists, and even some religious Jews).

The proceeds from this late-summer 1949 performance would support the Harlem chapter of the Civil Rights Congress’s freedom struggle and help pay for the legal defense of some of its communist leaders, on trial in Manhattan’s Foley Square under the provisions of the Smith Act. Howard Fast, prominent American novelist and communist, served as concert chairman.

A protest parade, consisting of right-wing veterans, Westchester and Putnam County conservatives, and local teenage toughs, marched on the concert. The countermobilization quickly escalated into a full-blown riot, and organizers had to cancel the Civil Rights Congress benefit concert before it started.

Robeson, Fast, and the People’s Artists, however, didn’t scare. Woody Guthrie joined them — not as a performer, but as a witness and guard — and they rescheduled the show for September 4, 1949.

That day, the concert went ahead. A racially integrated audience of at least fifteen thousand social democrats, communists, socialists, and music lovers attended. More than a thousand rank-and-file union members, left-wing veterans, and volunteer “people’s guards” formed a human chain to protect the show — but the Peekskill “fascists” were waiting for attendees after the concert ended.

With the help of police, the counter-protesters maimed more than a hundred concertgoers. The violence extended back into the city. By many accounts, the riot followed buses returning home, and reactionaries threw rocks through windows “clear down to 210th Street and Broadway.”

The Peekskill Riots tell the story of postwar reaction. They document the conservative impulse and structural readjustment programs that blocked the American left’s ability to establish a social-democratic United States following World War II, but they also tell the story of resistance to homegrown fascism: a resistance the reemerged in the 1960s and is rising again today.

Roll Out the Commies

Howard Fast remembered the August riot as hell on earth. In his 1951 polemic Peekskill U.S.A., he wrote:

Their leaders had been drinking from pocket flasks and bottles right up to the moment of the attack, and now as they beat and clawed at our lines, they poured out a torrent of obscene words and slogans. They were conscious of Adolf Hitler. He was a god in their ranks and they screamed over and over,

“We’re Hitler’s boys — Hitler’s boys!”

“We’ll finish his job!”

“God bless Hitler and f— you n—– bastards and Jew bastards!”

“Lynch Robeson! Give us Robeson! We’ll string that big n—– up! Give him to us, you bastards!”

For black concertgoers, the evening turned into a white race riot, a lynch mob. For the Jews, it was a pogrom. The small burning cross that appeared confirmed both groups’ suspicions. The veterans organizations denied responsibility for it, but many of the conservatives who marched on the concert saw themselves as the shock troops of the domestic war on communism. They were determined to win, preferably through publicity but by force if necessary.

Counter-protesters explained their motivations in different ways. Some claimed outrage at Robeson’s April 1949 comment at the World Congress of the Partisans of Peace, where he said, “It is unthinkable that American Negroes would go to war on behalf of those who have oppressed them for generations against the Soviet Union which in one generation has raised our people to full human dignity.”

Others, noting that the local American Legion had opposed Robeson’s 1947 appearance at the Peekskill Stadium, had longstanding grudges to settle.

Still others took issue with the organizers’ choice of venue: Lakeland Acres sat directly across the street from a graveyard where Peekskill’s war dead were interred. On the afternoon of the second concert, the right-wing veterans sang:

Roll out the commies
We’ve got the Reds on the run,
Roll out the commies
The cleanup has only begun:
Roll out the barrel
Let’s sing a song of good cheer —
Tell the vodka boys we’re marching
And we’re marching over here.

While these riots emerged directly out of postwar reaction, the catalyst lay in Peekskill’s more local crisis. In 1949, the deindustrializing and deeply conservative town had dwindled to just eighteen thousand residents. Its workers suffered higher than average unemployment thanks to the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act, which empowered states to pass “right-to-work” legislation.

Northern, unionized factories — like Peekskill’s heating stove factories and iron foundries — could not compete with the South’s cheap labor. Many of these employers closed in the late forties and early fifties. “[W]ith the domestic uses of coal stoves diminishing,” wrote local historian Clinton Acker in 1962, “and with only export business left, Peekskill’s stove industry gradually folded, as the competition from Birmingham, Alabama, made it impossible to continue.” He added, “Every effort should be made to produce more employment.”

The riots only sparked more reaction. In November of the same year, George Benzinger, the commander of Peekskill’s American Legion post, who led the veterans in the riots, took credit for fracturing the labor movement and for stripping the black freedom struggle of two of its champions. He wrote:

The CIO by its recent action in throwing out the Electrical workers union [UE] and setting up the machinery for the expulsion of ten other leftwing organizations, has started the ball rolling in the right direction. The defeat of Ben Davis [the Black Communist member of the New York City Council], convicted Red, in the treason trial, in the election Tuesday [is] also gratifying, doubly so because he was beaten by a man of his own race, a perfect repudiation by his own people. Paul Robeson has been fairly quiet lately and his effectiveness as an influence has been cut down considerably. . . . The affair at Peekskill, N.Y. had a great deal to do with these events.

He added, “The defeat of Ben Davis came about largely as a result of his attendance at Peekskill.” Even if Benzinger’s statement amounts to nothing more than an absurd boast, it clearly states his intention to silence labor radicals and militant civil-rights leaders.

Indeed, the Peekskill Riots helped cement an American “embedded liberalism,” which splintered and deradicalized the labor movement to create an environment friendlier to capital than to workers.

When communist union leader Irving Potash pleaded with Peekskill’s Yeastmakers Union Local 42 (CIO) for a statement of solidarity in the wake of the second riot, the union’s leadership responded with an insult they knew would sting: “We protest you and your kind in the labor movement who do more to hurt the movement than the Taft-Hartley Law, the N.A.M. [National Association of Manufacturers], and all the anti-union employers combined.”

Hold the Line

The Peekskill Riots also document everyday people’s resistance to this reactionary postwar climate. Sidney Marcus, a member of the International Fur and Leather Workers Union and a lifelong Marxist, lost an eye protecting Robeson and his audience that September. Thirty years later, Marcus remembered this reactionary moment:

We underestimated the dangers. That was our biggest mistake. The proof of that is that shortly thereafter we had wholesale slaughter. The House UnAmerican Activities [C]ommittee. The results of the Smith Act, the wholesale purging of the artists[,] the ratting that went on[,] the submissions to fascist authority, all this was orchestrated. They wanted to generate a climate in this country that would produce fear in people. You dare not speak out for Black rights or Jewish rights or anybody[’]s rights because the same that happened at Peekskill would happen to you. We generate animosity because it serves our profit structure.

Sidney Marcus’s resistance left him physically and psychologically scarred, but he would have fought again: “I would go a step further,” he said in 1979:

[I]f today there was an honest organized attempt to defeat the structure that is destroying us today I would be ready to join it again, at the age of 58 and even with my physical disabilities. Because that’s the way I am and nothing is going to stop it.

The Peekskill rioters attacked a concert — in some ways, they attacked radical song itself. So this story also tells us about how popular culture, black freedom songs, antifascist anthems, and folk music enlivened and sustained resistance to postwar anticommunist, anti-worker, and racist reaction.

This music preserved and eventually transformed the prewar radical tradition. The songs — which called for a racially integrated, socially democratic United States and critiqued Cold War imperialism — carried these ideas into the 1950s underground and back into mainstream American life in the sixties.

The songs specifically about the Peekskill Riots, in their profoundly American forms and in their plainspoken rejection of racism, imperialism, war, and capitalism, directly link Popular Front radicalism to the New Left. These jeremiads and dirges and sweet ditties mounted fierce resistance to what the Left called fascism at home.

Pete Seeger, the left-wing singer and radical musicologist, performed the seminal “Hammer Song (If I Had A Hammer)” “almost for the first time” at the second Peekskill concert. Less than a year later, the inaugural issue of Sing Out! magazine featured the song on its cover.

The somewhat cryptic lyrics become startlingly clear in the context of the Peekskill show, the second violent attack on “people’s songs” in the span of eight days. The two protests also bookended the week when the Soviet Union first successfully detonated an atom bomb — although the American public wouldn’t learn about that for another month. At the moment when postwar reaction was ossifying, Seeger sang:

I’d hammer out danger
I’d hammer out warning
I’d hammer out love between all of my brothers
All over this land.

In May 1950, Sing Out! editor Robert Wolfe — a Peekskill veteran — published The Weavers’ anthem “Hold The Line,” the second of the magazine’s first seven songs. Wolfe, or perhaps songwriter Lee Hays, another Peekskill survivor, prefaced the song with a brief comment that captured the scale and the class composition of resistance to postwar reaction: “The gallant defense of the concert audience by veterans and trade unionists against Peekskill fascists inspired the stirring song.” Next to this local background, “Hold The Line” begins and ends with a call for greater resistance:

We shed our blood at Peekskill, and suffered many a pain
But we beat back the fascists and we’ll beat them back again!

Hold the line! Hold the line! As we held the line at Peekskill we will hold it ev-‘ry-where;
Hold the line! Hold the line! We will hold the line for-ev-er till there’s free-dom ev-‘ry-where.

In 1949, Woody Guthrie followed the Weavers’ model, describing a vision of euphoric resistance to postwar reaction. In his unpublished song “Streets Of Peekskill,” he mingled the Old Left’s emphasis on a unionized, antifascist, and antiracist working class with the anticipation of the New Left’s utopian counterculture. Guthrie’s emphasis on black freedom reflected both the Popular Front’s campaign to end Jim Crow and the special violence reserved for black concertgoers:

Jimmy Crow & racial hate cant stop me
Jimmy Crow & racey hate cant stop me wunna these days halleloo!
Jimmy Crow and a racial hate can’t stope [sic] me,
Bring brotherly love to Peekskill wunna big day.

Hitler’s forty million could not hold me
Hitler’s forty million could notta hold me wunna big day hale!
Hitler’s forty million could notta stop me,
Gonna stop old Hitler at Peekskill wunna big day.

I’ma gonnta sing & dance around Peekskill
I’ma gonnta sing & dance around Peekskill wunna big day halleju
I’ma gonnta sing & dance around Peekskill
Bring my union love to Peekskill wunna big day.

The song imagines how Guthrie’s “union love” could defeat Nazism and organize millions of workers. If this resistance had won, perhaps workers in solidarity with black self-organization could have sped civil rights in an American social democracy. Nothing less than this was at stake in the fields outside Peekskill those two days.

The Last Postwar Year

At the benefit concert, Paul Robeson sang “Go Down, Moses” and his radicalized version of “Old Man River,” which deleted the racial epithet and added the line “I must keep fightin’ until I’m dyin’.” He also performed the Yiddish freedom anthem “Song of the Warsaw Ghetto” for at least the second time that summer.

He first sang it in Moscow that June, immediately after he learned that the Soviet regime had arrested and murdered his friend Solomon Mikhoels, the renowned Soviet-Jewish actor. In response, Robeson demanded to meet with the Yiddish poet Itzik Feffer, whom Stalin’s regime had imprisoned and probably tortured. Officials reluctantly staged a brief, bugged meeting between the two artists.

The Soviet Union had liberated the bulk of European Jewry during the war, but, just as Stalin had already betrayed the revolution, he swiftly betrayed the emancipatory promise of the Allies’ antifascist victory. His government was no stranger to massive and coercive population transfers, and, by 1949, the regime had embarked on a low-key, but gradually escalating, public campaign that targeted some of the nation’s most prominent Jewish citizens and workers.

It took supreme bravery for Robeson to perform “Song of the Warsaw Ghetto” in that Moscow concert hall. He dedicated his rendition to Mikhoels and Feffer, told the audience that he had met with Feffer (as if to ensure the poet’s survival), and translated the freedom cry into Russian so that every attendee would understand his blackness, Mikhoels’s and Feffer’s Jewishness, and the Soviet-American reaction of 1949:

Never say that you have reached the very end,
When leaden skies a bitter future may portend,
For sure the hour for which we yearn will yet arrive,
And our marching steps will thunder: we survive!

In 1974, Arthur Miller called 1949 “the last postwar year,” exclaiming, “What a world we had almost grasped!” He continued: “A sort of political surrealism came dancing through the ruins of what had nearly been a beautifully moral and rational world.”

Miller was right. In the first postwar years, millions of American workers struck to organize the unorganized, including black workers, and for cradle-to-grave social security. The labor and civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph summed up their demands:

When this war ends, the people want something more than the dispersal of equality and power among individual citizens in a liberal, political democratic system. They demand with striking comparability the dispersal of equality and power among the citizen-workers in an economic-democracy that will make certain the assurance of the good life– the more abundant-life– in a warless world.

Faced with a mass working-class revolt, Truman and factions of the first postwar Democratic congress continued pressing for a single-payer health-care program underwritten by the federal government. They fought on even after the American Medical Association attacked them as “followers of the Moscow party line.”

It might also represent the first year of what Stephen J. Whitfield calls “Cold War culture.” In 1949, Mao’s Communist Party won the Chinese Civil War, and Moscow held its first successful atom bomb test, giving more impetus to those warning of the “communist menace” in the West.

It certainly marked an economic watershed — the culmination of four years of profound economic change accomplished through structural readjustment programs. The labor constraints inaugurated by the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act — the ban on solidarity strikes or “secondary boycotts,” the illegalization of closed shop clauses in contracts, the provision allowing states to enact “right-to-work” laws, the ban on union-administered health care rules, and the provision allowing bosses to ignore unions with leaders who hadn’t sworn a loyalty oath — remain the most famous, but this law represents just one of the changes to American capitalism’s structure during those first postwar months and years.

Between 1945 and 1949, wartime rent and price controls were ended. Rapid automation replaced militant workers. Early Northern deindustrialization and Southern “right-to-work” laws shifted the geography of American manufacturing. December 1945 marked the birth of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, which would spread capitalism worldwide.

Indeed, the World Bank immediately globalized anticommunism — not only as a Cold War foreign policy but as a tool to retard social-democratic progress — when it compelled France to exclude the hugely popular Communist Party (PCF) from its post-Vichy coalition government. Cutting out the PCF came as an implicit condition for the World Bank’s very first loan. The Marshall Plan included many of the structural provisions the American government had enacted at home: an end to price controls, balanced or even austerity budgets instead of deficit spending on social programs, and so on.

During these four years, American domestic policy prefigured the IMF’s, World Bank’s, and Marshall Plan’s repertoire. These institutions would export this program in the years and decades that followed. Workers bore the brunt of the ruling class’s long-term project to maximize profit from labor and to minimize workers’ rights.

Another World

Woody Guthrie’s Peekskill songs document his unadulterated rage at the events that summer. In “My Thirty Thousand,” an ode to the trade-union guards and the audience at the second show, Guthrie’s anger was fierce:

Each eye you tried to gouge,
each skull you tried to crack,
has a thousand thousand friends
around this green grass!
You’ll furnish the skull someday
I’ll pass the clubs and guns
to the billion hands that love
my thirty thousand!

In “Talkin’ Peekskill,” he wrote:

I’ma tellin’ you kukluck hoodlum thugs
I’ma tellin’ you bloodyhound nazi dogs
I’ma tellin’ you twobit fascist rats
I’ma rollin’ back ta Peekskill with bulletproof glass!

Other songs balanced his anger with a nuanced understanding of the region’s decline in the context of the deindustrializing economy. Guthrie’s solidarity with poor and working-class kids tempered his severe judgment. In “Letter To Peekskillers (from Woody Guthrie),” he imagined a young man looking for work, swept up into a concert attack squad:

I thought when I climbed on that truck they would carry us down
To line up and sign up for some kind of work round the town;
When they used our hands to smash cars for that cowardly klan,
I’m glad the cops caught me and hauled me back here to the can.

Lots of the kids just a year or two older than I
Hated the wild tales and never did fall for their line;
I’d rather make new cars than wreck them any old day,
And nine out of ten in my gang I know feel the same way.

Guthrie added in a postscript: “I was that kid,” referencing his own Klan-scarred Oklahoma childhood.

The final verse of “No More Peekskill” imagines another world, a world to come that we still aspire to:

There’s agonna be lots more meetings! Lots more music!
Gonnta be lots more singin’ afterwhile!
When that Nazi dust goes blowing
When a world at peace gets growing,
I can walk and sing and dance with all my friends!