The Peekskill Riots of September 4, 1949.

The Peekskill Riots of September 4, 1949.

The Peekskill Riots were anti-communist riots with anti-black and anti-Semitic undertones that took place at Cortlandt Manor, Westchester County, New York, in 1949.

A big benefit concert by Robeson, planned for an outdoor site at Peekskill NY on August 27, 1949, was prevented by mobs, some chanting racist epithets. Determined not to be stopped from performing, Robeson agreed to a second date, sponsored and protected by several progressive unions. That event took place, attended by 20,000, only to be followed by a wild mob onslaught on those leaving the venue, attacks largely unchallenged by the police.
Paul Robeson was, in the 1930s and 40s, one of the best-known Americans on the planet. His magnificent voice channeled the songs of the slaves; he performed too much applause for Othello and Emperor Jones; he was able to defy Hollywood stereotyping in several starring roles in movies. By the mid-thirties he was speaking out politically — going to Spain to sing for the International Brigades, going to the USSR which he experienced as moving beyond racism, and then, during the war, performing ‘songs of free men’ on record and radio to rally opposition to fascism. In the postwar years, Robeson was a leading critic of American Cold War policy, supporting the 3rd party presidential run of former vice president Henry Wallace, vocally defending the Soviet Union, identifying with the anti-colonial struggle in the 3rd world, and militantly seeking to end Jim Crow in the US.
The re-scheduled (September 4, 1949) concert itself was free from violence, though marred by the presence of a police helicopter overhead and the flushing out of at least one sniper’s nest. The concert was located on the grounds of the old Hollow Brook Golf Course in Cortlandt Manor, near the site of the original concert.

20,000 people showed up. Security, organized by labor unions, was tight with union men standing in a protective circle around the entire concert grounds and sitting with Robeson on the stage. Musicians, such as Pete Seeger, performed without incident. The aftermath of the concert, however, was far from peaceful.
After some violence to south-going buses near the intersection of Locust Avenue and Hillside Avenue (Hillside Avenue has been renamed Oregon Road ), concertgoers were diverted to head northward to Oregon Corners and forced to run a gauntlet mile-long of hostile locals, veterans, and outside agitators, who threw rocks through windshields of the cars and buses. Much of the violence was also caused by anti-Communist members of local Veterans of Foreign Wars and American Legion chapters.
Standing off the angry mob of rioters chanting “Go on back to Russia, you niggers” and “white niggers”, some of the concertgoers and union members, along with writer Howard Fast and others assembled a non-violent line of resistance, locked arms, and sang the song “We Shall Not Be Moved.” Some people were reportedly dragged from their vehicles and beaten.
Over 140 people were injured and numerous vehicles were severely damaged as police stood by.
Robeson, now depicted as a communist tool, had some 80 concert dates canceled, and eventually was totally blacklisted losing record contracts as well as concert bookings, and barred from any foreign travel.
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