On the anniversary of Peekskill Concert
Remembering Paul Robeson
Published Oct 8, 2009 10:27 PM
Sixty years ago Paul Robeson—fearless civil rights advocate, renowned
actor and magnificent singer—came to Peekskill, N.Y., to give a concert.
The event became historic in the struggle against racism and fascism when
concertgoers were attacked by a racist mob.
taunted by racists.
On Sept. 4, 1949, about 20,000 people came to Peekskill to hear Robeson sing.
People’s Artists, a folk group led by Pete Seeger, organized the event.
They had first tried to hold the concert two weeks earlier at the Lakeland
Picnic Grounds. But as a small group was setting up the event, they were
attacked by hundreds of vigilantes armed with clubs, brass knuckles and rocks.
When people began showing up for the concert, the police turned them away.
The organizers rescheduled the event. This time they had protection from
unions, who organized defense. During the concert, hundreds of volunteers stood
in a circle around the concert grounds, blocking the racists from getting in.
But when people left, the police forced everyone to take a narrow road where a
mob was waiting.
Seeger gave an account of what happened in a video clip posted on YouTube
(www.youtube.com/watch?v=1pgyACdT1rM). He said 900 police, deputies and state
troopers allowed a mob to line up along a four-mile road, the only exit for
concertgoers. The mob threw rocks, overturned cars, dragged people out and beat
them up. About 140 people were injured, including one trade unionist who lost
“The police stood by and laughed,” said Seeger, whose windshield
was smashed in the melee. “Hoodlum gangs went on a night-long reign of
terror all through Westchester County to 210th Street and Broadway. Then police
moved in to the picnic grounds to beat up trade union guards.”
Rod Lugo was among those at the concert. He was 16 at the time and volunteered
as a messenger, running between the stage and the outside perimeter. He said he
was impressed by the defense the labor unions organized. “Nobody got on
that property,” he told Workers World.
But after the concert, the police enabled the racists to attack. “It was
one of the ugliest things I’ve ever seen,” Lugo said. “People
picked up rocks and threw them” and the police started beating the
His brother, Ed Lugo, then 17, was among those guarding the outer perimeter:
“Our job was to keep the circle connected all around” the audience.
“We went there to assure the concert went on and it did.”
He and the other guards were among the last to leave. From his post he could
hear the assault begin: “You could smell [and] taste the absolute danger
in the air. You could hear screaming and glass breaking as rocks hit the cars
He recalled that a Black veteran was among those attacked. People threw rocks
at him “and drew a lot of blood.”
The violence was a racist, anti-communist assault directed at Robeson, who was
beloved by progressives for his fierce commitment to civil rights and support
Robeson was one of the most extraordinary people in the 20th century. He first
gained recognition as a star football player at Rutgers University (he was
posthumously inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame) and was the
valedictorian of his graduating class. Robeson obtained a law degree from
Columbia Law School in 1932 and then became a renowned actor and famed
baritone. He starred in 13 films and was in numerous Broadway productions,
including Othello, which holds the record as the longest-running Shakespearean
play on Broadway.
Robeson, who spoke 13 languages, was also one of the most prominent voices for
social justice. He fought against racism and in support of colonized people in
Africa, Latin America and Asia. In 1951 he and fellow African-American activist
William Patterson, head of the Civil Rights Congress, presented a petition to
the United Nations entitled “We Charge Genocide: The Crime of Government
Against the Negro People.” The petition stated that in the 85 years since
the end of slavery more than 10,000 Blacks had been lynched and documented
hundreds of executions.
Robeson became a target of the McCarthyite anti-communist witch-hunt and was
viciously persecuted by the FBI and State Department, which revoked his
passport in the 1950s. But his commitment to justice for oppressed people was
unshakeable. And Peekskill is synonymous with Robeson and the battle against
racism and oppression.
Seeger paid tribute to this spirit in a song he wrote shortly after the event:
“As we held the line at Peekskill/ We will hold it everywhere... / We
will hold the line forever/ Till there’s freedom ev’rywhere.”
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