Today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, and to celebrate his contributions to the Civil Rights movement, we thought we would share some information about an earlier Civil Rights and labor rights activist, Paul Robeson.
Born in 1898 in Princeton, New Jersey, Robeson was most famous for his role in "Show Boat," which he first played the role of "Joe" on Broadway in the 1920s, and later in the 1936 film version, in which he sings, "Ol' Man River."
But Robeson was not cast as Joe in the 1951 film version of "Show Boat," because he was blacklisted by Hollywood and later investigated by the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) for his political beliefs and his outspoken advocacy of labor rights and Civil Rights. You can learn more about Paul Robeson's life in this short documentary:
So what's the connection to the Hudson River Valley? In 1949 Paul Robeson was one of several performers invited to participate in a concert to benefit the Civil Rights Congress. The concert was to take place on August 27, 1949, just north of Peekskill, NY. Robeson had performed in Peekskill at least three times before. But 1949 was different.
Robeson had begun to be more vocal about his beliefs and advocating for Civil Rights and labor rights and against the Ku Klux Klan, colonialism, racism, and capitalism. In March of 1949, Robeson had attended the World Peace Conference in Paris - an international event sponsored by the Soviet Union. While at the conference, Robeson gave a speech about the tenuous US/USSR relationship. What he actually said, and what was reported in the American media, were two very different things.
"We in America do not forget that it was the backs of white workers from Europe and on the backs of millions of blacks that the wealth of America was built. And we are resolved to share it equally. We reject any hysterical raving that urges us to make war on anyone. Our will to fight for peace is strong...We shall support peace and friendship among all nations, with Soviet Russia and the People's Republics."
But the Associated Press quoted him as saying:
"We colonial peoples have contributed to the building of the United States and are determined to share its wealth. We denounce the policy of the United States government which is similar to Hitler and Goebbels.... It is unthinkable that American Negros would go to war on behalf of those who have oppressed us for generations against the Soviet Union which in one generation has lifted our people to full human dignity."
The inflammatory quote falsely attributed to Robeson later turned out to be submitted before Robeson was even finished speaking. This report led Robeson to be widely condemned throughout the United States as "un-American," and the Peekskill Evening Star encouraged people to boycott the concert due to Robeson's participation.
The day of the concert, hundreds of locals, including the American Legion and members of the Ku Klux Klan, attacked concert-goers with rocks and baseball bats. It took hours for the police to arrive, and when they finally did, they took little action. Robeson was lynched in effigy and eleven people were injured. A cross was burned nearby and visible from the concert grounds. The attacks began before Robeson arrived, and when a friend drove him to the concert, he had to be restrained from confronting the rioters. The concert was postponed until September, 4, 1949 - Labor Day.
Local officials, including police, failed to take responsibility for the violence. Applications for the local KKK chapter actually increased after the riot. Labor unions and local supporters of Robeson organized protests of the riot and gathered hundreds of union members to help guard the rescheduled concert.
On the day of the second concert, locals, including members of the VFW and American Legion as well as (presumably) KKK members gathered to protest - shouting epithets at concert-goers and accusing them of communism as they arrived.
20,000 people attended the concert on September 4, which had many other performers, including Pete Seeger. Robeson closed out the concert with his most famous song, "Ol' Man River."
Although the September 4, 1949 concert was held without violence, as the concert-goers tried to leave, their cars had to crawl past a gauntlet of rioters, who threw rocks, broke windshields, windows, and headlights, and screamed obscenities. Law enforcement largely stood by and watched the violence.
Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, and Lee Hays, who had also been scheduled to perform, shared a car with Pete's wife Toshi and their children. Woody Guthrie pinned up a shirt (red, of course) to the window to prevent shattered glass from injuring the children. Pete saved several rocks that made their way into the car and cemented them into the chimney of the house he and Toshi later built in Beacon.
This period footage illustrates some of the protests and the violence following the concert and includes commentary from Pete Seeger. Please note, racial epithets are used in this period film footage.
Over 140 people were injured, either from broken glass and projectiles hurled at their vehicles, or they were pulled from their vehicles and beaten. Among those injured was Eugene Bullard, America's first Black combat pilot and a veteran of World War I. He was viciously beaten, including by members of state and local law enforcement. The attack was captured on film and in photographs, but no one was ever arrested or prosecuted for the assault.
On September 7, 1949, just days after the riots, a group of musicians and songwriters put together a hastily recorded record - The Peekskill Story. Narrated by Howard Fast and sung by the Weavers (including Lee Hays and Pete Seeger), the album was a mix of music and spoken word report of the organization of the two concerts that both ended in riots. It included a snippet of Paul Robeson singing "Ol' Man River" at the concert, as well as a recording of some of the epithets the rioters were yelling at concert-goers. You can listen to the full album below, or learn more about it here.
The Peekskill Riots remain a stark illustration of anti-communist rhetoric in the years leading up to McCarthyism and the Red Scare. Despite protests following the riots, including a large one in Albany protesting to Governor Thomas Dewey about the inaction and possible participation of law enforcement in the riots, Dewey and others blamed the violence on communists. Many of the concert performers, including Pete Seeger, Lee Hays, Woody Guthrie, and Paul Robeson, were blacklisted. In the 1950s, Seeger and Robeson were both called before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) and accused of communism. You can listen to Robeson's testimony below:
As a Black man with connections to the Soviet Union, Robeson bore the consequences of blacklisting with more difficulty than Guthrie and Seeger. Even former allies at the NAACP, including Jackie Robinson and Eleanor Roosevelt, spoke out against him, fearful that association with communism would hurt the movement. In retaliation for his beliefs, many of the organizations and institutions which had previously lauded his accomplishments, erased him from their records.
Robeson's career never recovered. Following the end of McCarthyism in 1957, he launched a brief comeback tour, traveling and performing for several years before his mental health deteriorated, as depression and paranoia set in. He had never stopped speaking out for marginalized peoples around the world. But in 1963, he officially retired and went into relative seclusion, making few public appearances. Soon, his physical health began to deteriorate as well. He died on January 23, 1976 from complications of pneumonia at age 77.
Robeson and the Peekskill Riots were the subject of many documentaries following Robeson's death, including The Tallest Tree in Our Forest (1977), Paul Robeson: Tribute to an Artist (1979) and Paul Robeson: Here I Stand (1999).
Despite all the difficulties he faced for his beliefs, Robeson remains a giant among Civil Rights advocates around the world. His personal accomplishments and his unwavering commitment to justice, regardless of the costs, are worth remembering.
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