How a race riot in New York state inspired a generation to reconsider America’s vulnerability to fascism.
1949 was the “last postwar year,” the year America came apart.
The protesters gathered outside the concert grounds as evening fell. It had been a humid, hot day in Peekskill, New York, but as the afternoon waned, light breezes wafted in from the Hudson River. The crowd was waiting for Black folk singer and political activist Paul Robeson, who was scheduled to perform as the concert headliner at the picnic grounds that night. The protesters kept themselves occupied, waving American flags and singing patriotic songs. Some of them held signs that had been recently spotted around the neighborhood, reading “Wake up America, Peekskill did.”
But the mood changed rapidly as the sun sank. As would-be audience members drove up the road and attempted to enter the grounds to attend the concert, they found their path blocked by several large trucks and piles of rocks. Soon the traffic jam stretched for two miles. Those in the back of the line couldn’t tell what was going on. Tensions rose. Concert organizers assembled their own guard, forming three lines stretching across the road. They crossed their arms, stared their antagonists in the face, and waited. At 7:30, the violence began. Protestors broke off pieces of a nearby fence and swung them at the men facing them, screaming, “Kill the Niggers, kill the kikes, kill the Communists.”
“No one of you leaves here alive.”
A young Black girl just arriving on the scene with her parents looked up to see plumes of smoke rising from the hillside. A twelve-foot wooden cross burned brightly against the darkening sky.
Tommy Tomkins, a local white high schooler, only tagged along to the protest because his friend with a car wanted to go. He was seventeen, “the gung-ho age where John Wayne makes you feel happy.” He couldn’t see much when the violence broke out on the road. Men were standing around with bats and then suddenly, a voice yelled that somebody had been knifed. Everyone began pushing and punching. He watched his friends as they threw rocks into the crowd. He saw a group of men pull a nicely dressed woman from her car and punch her, over and over. He felt scared, excited, frightened, sick. The men surrounding him were in their thirties and forties, salesmen and clerks, men he saw every day. Some were college students home for the summer, and many were active in their local churches. The only way he could tell one group from another is that the guys he was with were the ones shouting, “Kikes! Go back to Russia!” Finally, he managed to slip away into the night, leaving his friends behind.
By ten o’clock, state police broke up the melee. Protestors melted back into the woods. Only twelve arrests were made, including several of Tommy Tomkins’s friends, who were proud of their newfound fame. A judge let them off with a warning.
* * *
Ku Klux Klan activity in Peekskill, just an hour north of New York City, was nothing new—local groups protested Catholic presidential candidate Al Smith in 1928, and every few years they organized a march against an assortment of perceived foes. But in 1949, Russians tested their first hydrogen bomb and Communist forces gained the upper hand in China. Anti-Communism became a great panic, a fever-dream in which enemies suddenly appeared in the guise of friends and neighbors. It wasn’t hard to hate and fear Communists, if you had already grown up hating and fearing Catholics and Jews and Blacks. But none of the concert organizers had imagined the kind of violence they would face. “Why should anyone make trouble?” asked writer Howard Fast, chairman of the concert, in the days leading up to the event. It wasn’t a political meeting or demonstration, just a summer picnic.
The concert’s main organizer, William Patterson, a prominent Black Communist and the executive secretary of the leftwing Civil Rights Congress, planned the event as a fundraiser and as a showcase for Robeson, his close colleague. But Robeson never made it to the concert grounds that day—stuck in the traffic jam caused by the roadblock, he returned to Manhattan amid rumors that he was being burned in effigy somewhere along the hillside.
Robeson had performed in Peekskill at benefit concerts for the Civil Rights Congress for the previous three years without incident. But veterans in the northeast began protesting Robeson earlier that summer, after the Associated Press reported the singer as saying, “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.” Many chapters of the American Legion, and other veterans’ groups, immediately denounced Robeson as a Moscow-loving Communist, an un-American. Veterans of Foreign Wars picketed a Robeson concert in Newark, and the New Haven American Legion tried to ban his concerts there. The Peekskill Evening Star published Robeson’s comments days before the Peekskill concert, prompting several locals to pen letters to the editor, calling on concerned citizens to take action. “The time for tolerant silence that signifies approval is running out,” one writer declared.
“It is clear that fascism can be introduced gradually and almost imperceptibly.”
On August 30, thousands of people gathered in Harlem’s Golden Gate Ballroom to hear Robeson declare he would return to Peekskill to deliver his canceled concert. In response, veterans again announced that they would stop the event, pledging to bring 30,000 people to parade and demonstrate at the new concert venue, the Hollowbrook Country Club. At this, the local media and the District Attorney grew alarmed, and the DA pleaded with veterans’ groups to move their protest elsewhere. They refused.
On the afternoon of September 4, over 20,000 people arrived at the country club and took their seats on the lawn. African-American soprano Hope Foye stepped onto the stage and delivered the first half of the program, singing the art song repertoire of Bach, Verdi, and Mozart. Then Robeson, a towering figure with a resoundingly deep bass-baritone voice, took the stage. He began to sing a traditional African American spiritual. When Israel was in Egypt’s land … Let my people go … Oppress’d so hard they could not stand … Let my people go.
Up and down the hillside, thousands of men, most of them white, stood together in a human chain, encircling and protecting the concert and the singer. One guard could see down to the entrance of the Hollowbrook grounds at the far end of the field. At 1:30 p.m., as Robeson began the second half of his program, the guard heard the protestors’ parade begin. Though the protestors had promised to bring thirty thousand, the guard counted fewer than a thousand people, walking in single file to make the group seem bigger. About half an hour later the parade marched back into view from the other direction, this time attempting to make even more noise. “Hitler started it, we’ll finish you!” the marchers yelled. “Hitler killed only half the Jews, we’ll kill all the rest!” “You got in, but you’ll never get out!” The guard saw a policeman laugh.
As the concert ended, audience members trickled back to the parking lot to find that the bus drivers they had hired to drive them back to New York had disappeared. Men from the audience, many of them old-time labor activists from the Fur and Leather Workers Union and other radical unions, immediately climbed into the buses and offered to drive everyone home. As vehicles moved single-file down the narrow lane, police moved in and slowed the flow of traffic at the country club entrance. As cars inched past the police roadblock, drivers could see that the roads were lined with protestors, many wearing white World War I helmets. The police turned away from the protesters and stood facing the road, as baseball-sized rocks flew through the air, launched from protestors’ hands and aimed at car windows. Many hit their target. Men, women, and children were caught in a trap, huddling low in their cars as missiles hurtled through their windshields. One man sat in his battered car and picked shards of glass out of his young daughter’s hair.
Protestors began hunting down any Black people they could find, pulling them from their cars. One Black man was dragged from his car and hit over the head by several men. As he attempted to crawl underneath the car for protection, four state troopers stepped in to join the melee. The man crawled back down the road towards the concert grounds as the troopers continued to beat him.
The Westchester County Grand Jury ultimately indicted six people for their actions during the second riot. None faced serious consequences. In the meantime, Robeson launched a six-city concert tour, vowing he would not be silenced “until every Black man in America can walk with dignity in his own country.”
* * * After that night on the road, Tommy Tomkins began to listen carefully to the things his mother said about Jews. She made it sound like Jews had taken something from them, and the riot was a way of trying to even the score. It made him uncomfortable, but he couldn’t find anyone to talk to about it. His house was full of lace doilies, but no books. The Peekskill riots turned him into a liberal, he said later. He decided, all of a sudden, to leave Peekskill, maybe go to college. He didn’t return home for class reunions.
Following the riots, accusations flew in all directions, and many commentators tried to reconstruct the causes of the violence. Some veterans admitted that they had not anticipated the intense currents of hatred that had surged through the crowds of protestors like an electrical fire. The ACLU’s investigative report blamed anti-Semitism as the chief cause of the riots, but the Civil Rights Congress demurred, suggesting that “the pogrom was more against Negroes than against Jews.” A writer for the New York Age, a Black newspaper, blamed whites on both sides of the divide, arguing that Black bodies were on the line whenever whites instigated violence. Communism, with all its promised panaceas, the columnist wrote, could not solve this fundamental problem.
Woody Guthrie remarked later that he’d seen a lot, but Peekskill was the worst.
The Westchester Grand Jury, convened to examine the causes of the riot, placed blame on Communists, concluding that men like Robeson and Patterson hoped to inflame racial tensions for their own political gain. The anti-Communist, Jewish intellectual-led journal Commentary reached similar conclusions. “Peekskill is an ordinary American community which has undergone rather extraordinary social strains,” they wrote. The authors argued that the riots did not erupt solely from prejudice, but also from a necessary defense reaction against the “totalitarian regime waging an undeclared war” against America. They also placed the blame for the riots on social upheaval, racial integration, and the influx of left-wing summer residents who had a destabilizing effect on the community.
Blaming Cold War fear-mongering on American elites, the socialist Monthly Review countered that the riots erupted because large swaths of the American public had been “worked up to a dangerous state of frenzy.” The Review’s editors declared that the real perpetrators of the violence in Peekskill were the federal government, the police, religious authorities, and the media. Ultimately, these authors believed, the violence at Peekskill demonstrated to those paying attention that the American ruling class need not trouble itself by assembling paramilitaries like the SS, because the instruments of power were already available for the taking. Institutions of social control, from the police, the media, veterans’ organizations, and local government, could be effectively harnessed as special instruments of violence and intimidation. “It is clear that fascism can be introduced gradually and almost imperceptibly,” they wrote. Fascism was imminently achievable in America, they believed, because the country lacked a strong labor movement and an outspoken liberal intellectual class that would strenuously defend the violation of civil liberties when they occurred against political and racial minorities.
* * * The folksinger Woody Guthrie, who experienced the second riot from a smashed-up Jeep, remarked later that he’d seen a lot, but Peekskill was the worst. He holed up at home in the following weeks and churned out twenty-one songs about that night. Guthrie wrote obsessively, spanning musical genres from Carter Family country standards to Joe Hill protest ballads. Thematically, the songs all focused on the same material: burning crosses, stoning, and police violence. His moody, dark “Peekskill Blues” includes the lament, “P’liceman beatin’ down my buddy / I c’n see him in my dream / If you ev’r seen your buddy Kueklucked / You know just what I mean.” In his characteristically repetitive, circular style, Guthrie’s focus returned to rocks flying, and blood dripping on broken glass. In his telling, the bloodshed in Peekskill flowed into the Hudson River, so “New York waters gonna taste like Peekskill blood.” But Guthrie didn’t believe in passive resistance; he threatened to “grab you bloodyrock hoodlums, an’ I’ll sink you in that Hudson mud.” Throughout his Peekskill song cycle, Guthrie blasted the enthusiastic violence of small-town American men and women, the casual way they invoked Hitler, and the group mentality they cultivated that bred vicious hatred.
Born a year after the brutal lynching of a mother and son in his Oklahoma hometown, Guthrie came of age in an atmosphere of casual, unreflective racism. As a young man in 1930s California, Guthrie sang minstrel songs on his radio show until he received a “politely incandescent” letter from a young Black listener. The effect of this letter upon Guthrie was profound: he read the letter on air, publicly apologized, and promised he would never use the word “nigger” again. From Guthrie’s subject position as a “Dust Bowl refugee,” he slowly developed an empathy for the underdog that would characterize his later lyrics and activism. He began to examine the stories of other marginal and disenfranchised people in songs such as “When the Curfew Blows,” which described police harassment of migrants.
Fascism had always been creeping in around the edges of American politics, but now it had sprung up overnight in poisonous fluorescence, threatening the vitality of the entire landscape.
After World War II began, Guthrie joined the merchant marines. He grew angry at American hypocrisy, at segregated troops, and at the arbitrary cruelness of Jim Crow. In reaction, Guthrie began honing his own theory of fascism: “Anybody that hates a whole race or color or a whole nation or a whole continent of people is a Nazi and a fascist,” he declared. He believed that the American people needed to be on constant guard against the fascists and Nazis in their own country, not just overseas. To his alarm, these forces did not recede after the war. Guthrie worried that World War II had been fought for nothing: America retained its status quo.
In the late 1940s, Guthrie wrote a series of letters to his mother-in-law, the Yiddish poet Aliza Waitzman Greenblatt, in which he reflected on his sense of anguish that the forces of hate that brought the world into two massive wars could still endure. Guthrie worried that past generations made “sad and terrible mistakes” that the current generation could not undo. He wondered if his generation “did not do all in our earthly powers to set those wrong things right.” Borrowing from the language of the Jewish prayer Al Chet, the confession of sins recited eight times during Yom Kippur, the day of repentance, Guthrie composed his own pseudo-liturgical invocation. “We trusted wrong friends,” he wrote. “We followed wrong crowds. We read wrong words. We went lost ways and walked in the wrong winds. But we did fix up our rooms a little speck better than we found them. We found two faiths, two gospels, when we passed by this very spot, one gospel was the gospel of hate, and the other gospel was the gospel you call love … to the best of our mental ability, some of us in your generation and my own worked and labored to make the gospel of love sound out a little plainer.”
* * * Peekskill didn’t change Guthrie’s vision, but it tinged it. For those on the left, men and women who had fought against fascism in Spain and then across all of Europe, homegrown fascism looked like a toxic bloom. It had always been creeping in around the edges of American politics, but now it had sprung up overnight in poisonous fluorescence, threatening the vitality of the entire landscape.
By the late 1940s, it was sickeningly clear that Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, a rough coalition of labor unions, Jews, African Americans, Catholics, and Southern Democrats, was finished. In 1948, FDR’s former vice president Henry Wallace ran a third party presidential campaign under the Progressive Party, advocating government-funded universal health insurance, full voting rights for African Americans, and an end to the Cold War. He received zero electoral votes, and eked out a popular vote tally behind that of segregationist Strom Thurmond.
1949 became symbolic of this vertiginous transition from the FDR years into a more fractured, chaotic era. Reflecting on 1949 from the relatively removed vantage point of 1974, playwright Arthur Miller wrote an essay for New York magazine entitled “The Year it Came Apart.” Miller applied a dramatist’s eye to the transformation of American society in the late 1940s. He called 1949 “the last postwar year,” arguing, “an era can be said to end when its basic illusions are exhausted.” In early 1949, Miller’s Death of a Salesman first appeared on Broadway. His audience that year came of age during the Depression, elected the same president four times, witnessed Pearl Harbor, and won a World War. They understood Willy Loman’s struggles intuitively. But Miller soon lost his sense of communion with the public—the “tender pity for the fallen man” that characterized initial responses to Death of a Salesman became “a new bellicosity” in the public sphere, characterized by the vicious takedown of the vulnerable for the sake of power harnessed to moral authority.
Psychoanalysis overtook Marxism, and suddenly everyone was searching for hidden meanings, Miller believed. “We would be entering a period of what the Puritan theology called Spectral Evidence, the testimony of afflicted persons against their invisible, devil-sent persecutors,” he wrote. In 1952, veterans groups picketed the film version of Death of a Salesman, and pressured Miller to issue an anti-Communist declaration. In response, he wrote The Crucible, a story of the Salem witch trials.
On December 15, 1951, William Patterson and Paul Robeson delivered a petition to the United Nations, accusing the United States government of genocide. The document, hundreds of pages in length, censured state-sponsored racism, from police slayings in the North to lynchings in the South, and blasted “lives deliberately warped and distorted by the willful creation of conditions making for premature death, poverty, and disease.” The petition included an appendix listing hundreds of cases of the killing or assault of Black people since 1945. The American paradox was stated boldly for all to see: the ostensible guardian of democracy and freedom could not bequeath basic human rights to a portion of its own citizens. Largely ignored by the press and ridiculed by politicians, the petition nonetheless served future generations of Black activists, from the Black Panthers to Black Lives Matter, as a record and a template for holding the state accountable for its crimes.
A year before the Peekskill riots, Guthrie wrote in his diary, “Fascism is the gospel of hate that makes so much noise. You’d think that the gospel of hate was more in our mainstream than down in our undertow. The yells of hate are not as loud as the soft little echo of love and democracy. This fascist hate will wax your ears and spike your eyes, and love and love alone can heal the dead.” For Guthrie, this soft little echo of love and democracy was the only thing that could stand up to the Goliath of homegrown fascism. For many Americans now, it is the only tool they have left.