Profile: American Legion
American Legion was a participant or observer in the following events:
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; American Heritage, 3/1976; White Plains Reporter Dispatch, 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.” [American Heritage, 3/1976] The concert never takes place; instead, the grounds and audience are attacked by an angry, violent mob (see August 27, 1949).
Paul Robeson. [Source: Paul Robeson Community Center]A concert organized by various left-wing organizations and slated to take place at a picnic ground near Peekskill, New York (see Mid-August - August 27, 1949) never happens. Instead, the organizers and audience members are attacked by an angry, violent mob.
Mob Attacks - Novelist Howard Fast, who is slated to emcee the concert, arrives at the grounds, and, hearing reports of a mob gathering under the rubric of a “parade,” organizes some 40 “men and boys,” both white and African-American, to defend the women and children coming together in the hollow for the concert. Fast’s fears are quickly realized: a large mob of American Legion members and local citizens, and largely fueled by alcohol, as evidenced by the hundreds of liquor bottles later found strewn throughout the grounds, moves to attack Fast’s group with billy clubs, broken bottles, fence posts, and knives. More by chance than by strategy, Fast’s group finds itself in a defensible position, where it cannot be overwhelmed by sheer numbers. Its members manage to beat back three separate assaults; Fast hears screams from the mob: “We’re Hitler’s boys—Hitler’s boys!” “We’ll finish his job!” “God bless Hitler and f___ you n_____ b_stards and Jew b_stards!” “Lynch Robeson! Give us Robeson! We’ll string that big n_____ up! Give him to us, you b_stards!” “We’ll kill every commie b_stard in America!” “You’re never going out!” “Every n_____ b_stard dies here tonight! Every Jew b_stard dies here tonight!” (Singer and activist Paul Robeson, the concert headliner, is unable to approach the concert venue, and is never in any real danger.) During the assaults, state and local police stand by and do nothing to intervene; local and national reporters jot down notes and take photographs. Late in the evening, someone sets a cross ablaze, prompting Fast’s group to link arms and sing “We Shall Not Be Moved.” Later inquiries by the concert organizers will show that at least three different times during the violence, individuals were able to escape the riots and phone the local and state police, the state attorney general’s office, and the office of the New York governor, “all without result.” No arrests are made and no one is held for questioning, even though, the organizers will find, “14 cars were overturned and at least 13 people were hurt seriously enough to require medical attention.” [Fast, 1951; White Plains Reporter Dispatch, 9/5/1982]
Book Burnings - The fourth and final assault of the night comes in the form of a barrage of rocks and other missiles. Fast’s group runs for the concert venue, where its members mount the platform and once again link arms. Fast and others see some members of the mob find the books and pamphlets brought by the concert organizers; the mob members make a huge pile and set it ablaze. Fast later writes: “[T]o crown our evening, there was re-enacted the monstrous performance of the Nuremberg book burning which had become a world symbol of fascism. Perhaps the nature of fascism is so precise, perhaps its results on human beings are so consistently diseased, that the same symbols must of necessity arise; for standing there, arms linked, we watched the Nuremberg memory come alive again. The fire roared up and the defenders of the ‘American’ way of life seized piles of our books and danced around the blaze, flinging the books into the fire as they danced.” (Upon revisiting the site two days later, Fast will note “at least 40” flashbulbs in and around the ashes, indicating that many photographs were taken of the book burning, but in 1951, he will write that he has yet to see any of those photographs.) [Fast, 1951]
Law Enforcement Intervenes - Three of the most severely wounded of Fast’s group are escorted to safety by federal law enforcement officials, who had watched the proceedings without intervening. The rest are forced to sit while local law enforcement officials investigate the stabbing of one of the mob members, William Secor. (Evidence will show that Secor had been accidentally cut by one of his fellows.) Later, state police escort members of Fast’s group to their vehicles and allow them to drive away. No arrests are made and no one is held for questioning, even though, the organizers will find, “14 cars were overturned and at least 13 people were hurt seriously enough to require medical attention.” The head of the Peekskill American Legion, Milton Flynt, says after the riot, “Our objective was to prevent the Paul Robeson concert, and I think our objective was reached.” [Fast, 1951; White Plains Reporter Dispatch, 9/5/1982] Author Roger Williams will later write of Fast’s descriptions, “Fast’s account, although marred by exaggeration and Marxist rhetoric, is substantially supported by other participants and eyewitnesses.” [American Heritage, 3/1976]
Initial Media Responses Relatively Favorable to Mob - The first media reports and commentary about the concert are far more supportive of the mob (see August 28, 1949, and After) than later examples (see Mid-September 1949).
Second Attempt - Within hours, Fast and the concert organizers decide to reschedule a second concert, this time to be protected by large numbers of burly union workers (see September 4, 1949, and After).
After a concert organized by leftist groups in downstate New York is attacked by an angry, violent mob (see August 27, 1949), initial media reports tend to support the mob and blame the concert organizers for the violence. The New York Times writes that it “regretted” the actions by both the concert organizers and the mob in what it calls “the Peekskill affair.” The New York Herald Tribune says the mob violence was deplorable but “understandable.” Other papers celebrate the violence. Significantly, the New York News reports two days later: “Frank Niedhart, manager of the Niedhart Fife and Drum Corps, today said that his organization did not participate in Saturday night’s anti-Robeson [American Legion] parade because many of the members are minors. He said he did not want to bear the responsibility of possible injury to the youngsters if trouble should develop.” Subsequent media reactions are far more critical of the riots (see Mid-September 1949). [Fast, 1951; White Plains Reporter Dispatch, 9/5/1982] The local district attorney will join the area media in blaming the concert organizers, not the mob, for the violence (see September 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; White Plains Reporter Dispatch, 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.” [American Heritage, 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).
Hundreds of volunteers, mostly union members, form a “human wall” to defend the concert and its audience from the mob. [Source: Howard Fast]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; American Heritage, 3/1976; White Plains Reporter Dispatch, 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).
In the days and weeks after the Peekskill riots (see August 27, 1949 and September 4, 1949, and After), several veterans organizations denounce the mob violence at the two events, and condemn the participation of their local chapters and members who were part of the mobs. The national commander of the American Legion, George Craig, issues a statement repudiating his organization’s involvement in the riots. “The American Legion believes in the preservation of law and order and does not countenance violence in any situation short of war,” Craig writes. “The Legion will not give its official sanction to counter-demonstrations such as those at Peekskill. It prefers to leave pro-Communist demonstrations strictly alone.” The Jewish War Veterans issues a directive prohibiting its chapters from “initiating or participating in any public demonstration which poses potential consequence of riot or public disorder.” The American Veterans Committee (AVC) calls upon the American Legion, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, and other veterans organizations “to prevent further outrages such as have occurred in Peekskill.” The AVC blames Peekskill veterans’ organizations for the “two disgraceful episodes.” [Fast, 1951]
Jennifer McVeigh, the sister of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh (see 8:35 a.m. - 9:02 a.m. April 19, 1995), will later testify that during this time, her brother gives her a “wad” of cash and asks her to “launder” it for him. He claims the money comes from a bank robbery. She will also testify that her brother discusses plans to conduct political assassinations. Later investigations will show that by this time Timothy McVeigh may be involved with a self-described “terrorist group,” the Aryan Republican Army (see 1992 - 1995), which has staged numerous robberies and says its purpose is to conduct “terrorist acts against the United States.” [Nicole Nichols, 2003] McVeigh comes back to their Pendleton, New York, home in the days after their grandfather dies (see November 2-7, 1994), and stays for a month. He shows his sister a videotape about the Branch Davidian debacle (see April 19, 1993 and April 19, 1993 and After), and tells her he believes the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF) were responsible for the deaths at the Davidian compound. He also says he does not believe the government will ever hold anyone accountable for the deaths.
Letter to American Legion - McVeigh borrows his sister’s word processor and types up a “manifesto” of sorts, a letter written to the American Legion and addressed to “Constitutional Defenders.” The letter reads in part: “We members of the citizen’s militia do not bear our arms to overthrow the Constitution, but to overthrow those who PERVERT the Constitution and when they once again draw first blood (many believe the Waco incident (see April 19, 1993 and April 19, 1993 and After) was ‘first blood’). Many of our members are veterans who still hold true to their sworn oath to defend the Constitution against ALL enemies, foreign and DOMESTIC.” He quotes English philosopher John Locke on the right to slay the tyrant if the government leaders force the people into a state of war. He attacks the BATF as a “fascist federal group” that attacks and kills innocent civilians. Militia groups alone, he writes, can defend the American people “against power-hungry storm troopers” (see October 21 or 22, 1994). He cites the Branch Davidian tragedy, the Ruby Ridge incident (see August 31, 1992 and August 21-31, 1992), and the Gordon Kahl slaying (see March 13 - June 3, 1983) as examples of the government behaving as “fascist tyrants.” He says the US military is being used overseas to fight for democracy “while at home [it is] used to DESTROY it (in full violation of the Posse Comitatus Act), at places like Waco.” He concludes: “One last question that every American should ask themselves. Did not the British also keep track of the locations of munitions stored by the colonists, just as the ATF has admitted to doing? Why???… Does anyone even STUDY history anymore???”
'Now I'm in the Action Stage' - McVeigh’s sister, though in agreement with much of her brother’s beliefs, is alarmed by the letter, believing that her brother has gone far past where she is willing to go in her beliefs and his apparent willingness to act on those beliefs. McVeigh tells her: “I’m no longer in the propaganda stage. I’m no longer passing out papers. Now I’m in the action stage.”
Letter to BATF - McVeigh’s second letter, written to the BATF and labeled “ATF Read,” is even more alarming. It reads in part: “ATF, all you tyrannical motherf_ckers will swing in the wind one day for your treasonous actions against the Constitution and the United States. Remember the Nuremburg War Trials. But… but… but… I was only following orders.… Die, you spineless cowardice [sic] b_stards!” He prints the American Legion letter for mailing, but leaves the ATF letter in the computer, apparently for federal agents to find after he has launched his bombing attack. [New York Times, 5/6/1997; Serrano, 1998, pp. 114-115] Jennifer will write her own letter to her hometown newspaper warning of an impending government crackdown on its citizens’ liberties (see March 9, 1995), a letter which will echo many of her brother’s anti-government sentiments.
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