Race and the Left: Paul Robeson and the “Peekskill Incident”

A popular uprising against racial capitalism. A repressive government urging right-wing militias to attack anti-fascist activists. Those words describe today’s U.S. news, a pattern familiar to historians. We’re grateful for Paul Buhle’s perspective below, reflecting on events that rhyme with ours. (Ed.)

In one of the most dramatic and ominous events of the early Cold War chill in the United States, a racist mob attacked a Paul Robeson performance outside an upstate New York hamlet in September of 1949. Today, when we see mask-less crowds bearing guns, threatening lawmakers or demonstrators, aided by police silently sympathizing with the violence or joining the fray, we remember Peekskill … and Paul Robeson.

Robeson is no longer the household name that he was during the 1940s, but at one time, almost everyone in the country knew of him. Son of a former slave who had become a minister and a mother whose slave forebears had intermarried with Delaware Indians and white Quakers, Robeson, born in 1896, grew up in New Jersey. He attended Rutgers College (which held a celebration in 2019 to mark a hundred years since his graduation) and became an outstanding student in every way—from academics to sports to musical performance. He was very much the “All American” of contemporary football fame. Except, of course, that was he was Black and had to fight for every bit of recognition.

He played a little professional football—the sport that, along with boxing, was not then barred to non-whites—en route to a stage career. With his commanding presence and rich voice, he became a staggering success in the United States, but more so, by far, in Europe. Audiences had never heard a sound like his. (A few songs are readily available to us via YouTube today.)

He was also an actor of great force, a potential star whose aura stirred visions of a black cinematic hero, until it became clear that Hollywood was not ready. Stage audiences enjoyed him as the inevitable Othello. But they enjoyed him more in his musical performances at Madison Square Garden and elsewhere in the 1940s, after he had returned from abroad. His recording of Earl Robinson’s “Ballad for Americans,” played across radio networks from 1940 until Harry Truman’s presidency, offered audiences a vision of realized democracy, multi-cultural and multi-racial.

By the time of the Peekskill concert, public opinion toward the leftist Robeson was turning. The campaign against “the Reds”—conducted from the White House to the FBI, from the House Un-American Activities Committee to the tabloid press—accelerated with the crushing of the Henry Wallace Progressive Party campaign of 1948. Robeson’s planned Peekskill concert was an effort to rally the the Left: defeated but unbroken supporters of left-wing unions soon to be expelled from the Congress of Industrial Organizations, anti-racist organizations withering under attack, and others not bending with the wind of the emerging McCarthy Era. Robeson, himself never actually a Communist, was unwilling to accept the premise of the Cold War, that the Soviet Union was the enemy threatening the United States. His eyes, more and more, were set upon the awakening Global South, where rebellions seemed to threaten European and American capital. President Harry S Truman, terrifying Americans with his talk of Russia, actually sought to tamp down potential violence at home, but could not halt the tide. 

The concert was scheduled for August 27, 1949. As his hosts attempted to drive Robeson to the concert grounds, the road was blocked and crowds shouting anti-Jewish and racist epithets halted the car, smashed the stage, set fire to the chairs, and burned a large cross, KKK-style. Three days later, a massive crowd gathered in Harlem to protest the outrage and to express support of Robeson. Heartened by the support, Robeson planned to return to Peekskill on Sept 4.

Representatives from several Communist-led unions—the Fur and Leather Workers, United Electrical Workers and the Western-based International Longshoremen and Warehousemen’s Union—took a stand in front of the Robeson family’s presence at a private house before the planned concert. Veterans of the Second World War, they were ready for anything.

Robeson returned to the concert grounds, surrounded by a union security detail that found and disarmed men with rifles on a nearby hill. Under threat, Robeson sang, along with Pete Seeger and others, beginning with the standard “Let My People Go!”  The performers had put their lives at risk to sing, and the crowd rose to its feet again and again in appreciation.

As concert-goers sought to leave the grounds through a narrow road, crowds pummeled the cars and buses with rocks, and some attendees were dragged out of their cars and beaten. State troopers and local authorities looked on or joined the jeering. One of my interviewees at the Oral History of the American Left (archived at New York University), recalled riding in a chartered bus with a friend who lost an eye. The cries outside of “Go back to Russia, Jews and Reds!” captured the sentiment. No members of the crowd were arrested, let alone prosecuted. DSA old-timer Steve Max remembers firsthand accounts from unionists driving back toward Pittsburgh who stopped by a left-connected summer camp he was attending. Their car windows were still smashed, rocks inside preserved as potential evidence.

“Robeson Asked For It!” was the popular right-wing sentiment in the tabloid press, sentiments echoed in Commentary magazine. The civil liberties of Communists and accused Communists were not to be defended.

During several years following the incidents, congressional hearings featured New York Senator Jacob Javits bravely defending civil liberties and Representative John Rankin of Mississippi denouncing “Neggras.” Civil rights organizations turned away from Robeson, and his concerts were effectively banned. His passport was taken away. His voice was almost silenced.

In the words of Pan African giant C.L.R. James, written in 1970, “that a man of such magnificent powers and such reputation gave up everything….such is the quality which signalizes the truly heroic figure” that was Paul Robeson.