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Profile: William Secor
William Secor was a participant or observer in the following events:
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).
The Westchester County District Attorney, George Fanelli, reports on the so-called “Peekskill Affair,” in which a concert organized by leftist groups was attacked and halted by an angry, violent mob (see August 27, 1949). According to the New York Compass, the district attorney says “that he didn’t know anything about the disorders but was sure that the concert-goers—and not the veterans or the hoodlums who attacked them—were responsible.” Fanelli later tells the Peekskill Evening Star, “The facts that I now have would indicate that the demonstration by the veterans’ associations was peaceful and orderly, and that after they disbanded the pro-Robesonites provoked the violence when Secor was stabbed by one of their number.” Fanelli uses the term “pro-Robesonites” in reference to Paul Robeson, the African-American singer and pro-Communist activist who was to headline the concert; Secor is William Secor, a mob member who suffered a flesh wound when one of his colleagues accidentally cut him with a knife. [Fast, 1951; White Plains Reporter Dispatch, 9/5/1982]
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) releases the findings of its investigation into the Peekskill riots (see August 27, 1949 and September 4, 1949, and After). The report concludes, in part:
“There is no evidence whatever of Communist provocation… on either occasion.”
“While the demonstrations were organized to protest against and express hatred of Communism, the unprovoked rioting which resulted was fostered largely by anti-Semitism, growing out of local resentment against the increasing influx of Jewish summer residents from New York.” Some of the violence was triggered, the ACLU finds, by resentment left over from earlier attacks on a local Ku Klux Klan chapter. One of the buses used by the rioters carried a bumper sticker that read: “COMMUNISM IS TREASON. BEHIND COMMUNISM STANDS—THE JEW! THEREFORE, FOR MY COUNTRY—AGAINST THE JEWS.”
“The local press bears the main responsibility for inflaming, possibly through sheer irresponsibility, Peekskill residents to a mood of violence.”
“[Leftist activist and singer Paul] Robeson’s concerts were not an intrusion into Peekskill but were private gatherings held five miles outside of Peekskill, which were disrupted deliberately by invading gangs from nearby localities.”
“Terrorism was general against all who advocated freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and preservation of constitutional rights.”
“The evidence proves beyond question that the veterans intended to prevent the concerts from being held.”
“Effective police protection at the first concert was deliberately withheld.”
“Preparations to police the second concert appeared adequate; therefore, there was reason to believe that the concert-goers would be protected.… These preparations were largely a sham insofar as the Westchester County police were concerned and left the concert-goers undefended.”
“The wounding of William Secor, rioting veteran, occurred while he was assisting in the commission of a crime.” Secor, one of the rioters who attacked the concert-goers, was apparently the victim of an accidental knifing by one of his own colleagues.
“The evidence indicates that at least some of the state troopers honestly tried to preserve law and order while county police fraternized with the rioters.”
“There is strong indication that the initial violence was planned and was carried out according to plan.” The report details eyewitness accounts of veterans and locals filling the trunks of their cars with rocks. “The wide extent of the stoning indicates careful planning on the part of some person or persons. It can hardly be coincidence that, as cars with broken windows streamed down the county towards New York, they were met with volleys of stones in community after community through which they passed.”
“Terrorism spread over the whole area and included threats against private individuals, against their safety, lives, property, and business.”
“National condemnation has been the chief factor causing residents of the Peekskill area to question this action. The local clergy have joined in this denunciation.… Sentiment in the area is now sharply divided and there is evidence that the legal authorities are moving toward restriction of freedom of speech and assembly, presumably in violation of the Constitution.” [Atkinson et al., 1949 ; Fast, 1951]
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