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  • Writer's pictureHistory Craft

Before Colin Kaepernick, There Was Paul Robeson

In late August 1949, Harlem’s chapter of the Civil Rights Congress asked African-American singer, scholar, athlete, actor, and peace activist Paul Robeson to sing at a benefit concert near Peekskill, New York. Violent protesters followed him, determined to disrupt the event. The protesters resented how Robeson criticized the United States for discriminating against African Americans and other people of color. To many fearful white Americans, Robeson represented a threat to white supremacy and American dominance over the rest of the world. For those reasons, he would soon find himself labeled a communist and shunned from American public life.

Before the Peekskill concert, many white residents, fearful of African-American concertgoers, called the police and asked for protection. Before the concert was to begin, a group of white World War II veterans lined up shoulder to shoulder at the entrance, blocking fans from entering. Singer Pete Seeger recalled that a federal officer or representative arrived to spread the message that “this man Robeson loves the Russians. He doesn’t love America. And he’s coming to sing. I think you know what to do about it.” Even though the police had been called, only four deputy sheriffs arrived on the scene.

Pete Seeger Recalls the 1949 Peekskill Riot

As the sun went down over the Hudson River, fistfights broke out between concertgoers and protesters. Those setting up chairs inside were beaten and concert flyers were burned. The police officers stood by and did next to nothing. Organizers finally canceled the concert after two and a half hours of violence. Robeson himself was never able to get near the concert grounds.

Robeson was not about to let burning fires and racial violence deter him from singing. Instead, he went on the radio and announced, “It’s America. I have a right to sing. I’m going to sing.”

Robeson belts out his most famous song, Ol' Man River

Civil rights activists, Robeson fans, and veterans all listened intently to Robeson’s words. The Civil Rights Congress then announced that it would reschedule the concert for September 4. This time, it would be much bigger.

Organizers planned for a crowd of 20,000 people. They had learned their lesson. This time, they would enlist union members and veterans sympathetic to Robeson for security.

The union members and veterans formed a circle around the concert grounds. As the concert drew near, a crowd of 1,000 protesters once again arrived at the entrance. Many held rocks and sticks. Local and state police arrived to keep order. They made sure that protesters stayed away from the crowds of concertgoers arriving for the event.

Inside, Paul Robeson and Pete Seeger relaxed. They took comfort that so many people turned out to attend and secure the concert. Seeger remarked, “We congratulated ourselves on how it’s America, and [protesters] didn’t break up the stage or anything.” As 2,000 union members and veterans joined hands peacefully to keep protesters at bay, Seeger, Robeson, and others belted out song after song. Robeson himself sang for well over an hour.

When the concert ended, the ring of security broke up to let people out to the parking lot. At that moment, the gang of protesters stormed the entrance to the concert, blocking those trying to exit. Author Howard Fast, the concert’s chairperson, reported that local and state police officers joined together with the protesters, throwing rocks and hurling racial epithets. Fast recalled, “It was a battle, not a concert.”

Some of the protesters, yelling ugly names like “nigger” and “nigger lovers,” followed concertgoers out of the parking lot and onto local roads. They stoned buses full of African-American and white passengers and overturned sixteen cars. Some bus drivers, fearful for their lives, abandoned their passengers and ran. The passengers themselves had to drive the buses out of the danger zone. All told, 150 people were injured in the riot.

It was on buses like this that the worst injuries occurred. In crowded buses, there was no room to hide.

After being under siege inside the concert grounds, Seeger, his wife, and his two babies finally made it to their car. He noticed some glass on the pavement. He told his family to duck. “Around the corner was a pile of stones, each about as big as a baseball, and a young man heaving them with all his force at every car that came by. And around the corner was another pile of stones and another young fella heaving them. There must have been 15 or 20 piles of stones before we got into Peekskill.”

People in cars were blinded by flying glass. Notice the girl hanging over the back seat.

A smashed car of some concert-goers and the hoodlums who did the smashing. These are obviously too young to have been veterans and were probably recruited for the occasion by neighborhood fascist organizations.

Eugene Bullard is struck to the ground by the clubs of state troopers and deputy sheriffs. The attack was without any provocation, as both bystanders and Mr. Bullard testified.

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