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Profile: Roger Williams
Roger Williams 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).
Eugene Bullard being beaten by police officers and rioters. [Source: Howard Fast]The second Peekskill concert, organized by left-wing activists and featuring African-American singer Paul Robeson (see September 4, 1949), takes place successfully after the first was disrupted by a large, angry mob (see August 27, 1949). But another mob has gathered, and though they are unsuccessful in stopping the concert from taking place, they are ready for the audience and participants at the concert’s end.
Rock Attacks, Roadblocks - The audience members, with many women and children in their ranks, attempt to leave, mostly by car, and are told by security guards to roll up their windows as they are driving out, as the mob is apparently throwing rocks and other missiles. (A New York Times reporter later writes of the large piles of stones piled up about every 20 feet down one road, apparently placed their ahead of time for use as missiles.) However, the long, slow procession of cars attempting to leave the venue is halted when a small group of police officers attack the cars, including the vehicle bearing Robeson. None of the cars’ occupants are injured, though many windshields are smashed and fenders beaten in. Novelist and concert organizer Howard Fast, driving his own car, turns onto a secondary road to attempt to leave the venue, but his car is assaulted by a knot of six or seven rock throwers, accompanied by two police officers who do not throw rocks. Fast believes the police officers are there to protect the assailants if any of the cars stops to launch a counterattack. Fast will later learn that all of the secondary roads have similar knots of rock-throwing people in place to inflict damage on cars; some are blocked by piles of logs and boulders. He drives through several such ambushes, but he and the people with him escape injury.
145 Reported Injuries - Others are not so lucky; many people, including women and children, are seriously injured by rocks and broken glass. One concert goer, Eugene Bullard, is spat upon by a veteran and spits back; he is thrown to the ground and badly beaten by a group of police officers. Afterwards, Fast will report, the area hospitals quickly fill up with victims of the barrages, “the blinded, the bleeding and the wounded, the cut, lacerated faces, the fractured skulls, the infants with glass in their eyes, the men and women trampled and beaten, the Negroes beaten and mutilated, all the terribly hurt who had come to listen to music.” A union trademan, Sidney Marcus, is wounded so badly by a rock to the face that he requires weeks of reconstructive surgery. Fast later learns that approximately a thousand union workers had chosen to stay behind as something of a “rear guard” to protect the last of the audience members; they were assaulted by a combination of mob members and police officers, badly beaten, and threatened with incarceration. (Twenty-five were indeed arrested and taken away.) For Fast, the night ends when he returns to the area to look for a group of stranded audience members, and is shot at. He does not find the stranded people. The final tally is 145 concert-goers injured. [Fast, 1951; White Plains Reporter Dispatch, 9/5/1982; National Public Radio, 9/5/1999]
Arrests and Lawsuits - Twelve protesters are arrested; five later plead guilty to minor offenses. No one among the concert-goers and “Robesonites” is arrested. Author Roger Williams will later write: “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.’” Numerous civil lawsuits will be filed on behalf of groups of victims; none will be successful.
History Professor: Peekskill Becomes an 'Endorsement of ... Persecution' - Much later, history professor James Shenton will say, “Peekskill opened up what was to become extensive public endorsement of the prosecution and persecution of so-called Communists.”
Trying to Forget - Years later, the memory of the riots still haunts the area and intimidates many residents, according to Williams’s 1976 report. Residents refuse to discuss the riots, some for fear of reprisals even decades later. Williams will recount the story of one high school teacher, Anne Plunkett, who was amazed that her children knew nothing of the riots, even though some of them were the children of participants. But when she assigns her students the riots as an optional class project, as Plunkett will recall: “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.’” [American Heritage, 3/1976]
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