Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Sep 4 (1949) Peekskill Riots: "Paul Robeson he’s the man that faced the Ku Klux Klan"

Hecklers shout at people arriving on the grounds of a former golf club to hear the Paul Robeson concert. Mr. Robeson was a football player, a singer, a lawyer -- and an unrelenting advocate of socialism. It was that association, no doubt exacerbated by his race, that brought on the mobs and soon the cancellations of dozens of concerts elsewhere and the destruction of his career. Courtesy of NYTimes

If you thought the Klu Klux Klan was a Southern thing, anti-war and civil rights protests a '60s thing, Labor Day a BBQ thing, remember the Peekskill Riots, which occurred on September 4, 1949. The rioting took place at a Paul Robeson concert at a golf club in Cortlandt Manor, Westchester County, New York.

The celebrated performer had recently appeared before the House Committee on Un-American Activities to oppose a bill that required Communists to register as foreign agents. To a crowd at the Golden Gate Ballroom in Harlem he said:

"I will be loyal to America of true traditions; to the America of the abolitionists, of Harriet Tubman, of Thaddeus Stevens, of those who fought for my people's freedom, not of those who tried to enslave them. And I will have no loyalty to the Forrestals, to the Harrimans, to the WallStreeters..."

The concert itself was free from violence, but the aftermath was far from peaceful. Concertgoers had rocks thrown at them by an angry mob that chanted "go on back to Russia, you niggers" and "white niggers." The violence was mostly attributed to New York members of the Klu Klux Klan as well as chapters of the Veterans of Foreign Wars and American Legion. As police stood by, over 140 people were injured and numerous vehicles were severely damaged .

Folk singers Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger were in Peekskill. Pete Seeger talks about his experience here. Guthrie wrote "My Thirty Thousand" about the event, his lyrics excerpted below.

Paul Robeson he’s the man
That faced the Ku Klux Klan
On hollow grove’s golfing ground
His words come sounding!
And all around him there
To jump and clap and cheer
I sent the best, the best I had
My thirty thousand

Each eye you tried to gouge,
Each skull you tried to crack,
Has a thousand thousand friends
Around this green grass!
If you furnish the skull someday
I'll pass out the clubs and guns
To the billion hands that love
My thirty thousand!

Each wrinkle on your face
I know it at a glance,
You cannot run and hide
Nor duck nor dodge them.
And your carcass and your deeds
Will fertilize the seeds
Of the men that stood to guard
My thirty thousand!

Hear Paul Robeson sing "Didn't My Lord Deliver Daniel" courtesy of Smithsonian Folkways.
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Flannery O'Connor

You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you odd.