GM – FBF – Today’s American Champion event took place at Cortlandt Manor, Westchester County, New York, in 1949. The catalyst for the rioting was an announced concert by black singer Paul Robeson, who was well known for his strong pro-trade union stance, civil rights activism, communist affiliations, and anti-colonialism. The concert, organized as a benefit for the Civil Rights Congress, was scheduled to take place on August 27 in Lakeland Acres, just north of Peekskill. Today in our History – September 4, 1949 – Paul Robeson event causes a riot.On the afternoon of Sunday, September 4, 1949, violence broke out after renowned but controversial African American baritone Paul Robeson sang at an outdoor concert near Peekskill, New York, to a mixed-race audience of more than 20,000 people. This was a rescheduled performance. The original concert, slated for August 27 as a benefit for the leftist Civil Rights Congress, had been preempted by violence aimed at Robeson’s race and politics. While the second concert itself went off peacefully despite nearby protests, concertgoers leaving the venue were ambushed by attackers who threw stones and overturned cars while local police stood by. Together, the two incidents have come to be known as the Peekskill Riots, and interpreted not only as a test case for free speech rights, but as a harbinger of both the reactionary politics and protest movements that would unfold in the post-WWII era.Paul Robeson had performed in the Peekskill area for several years without incident, but several factors converged to generate new controversy in 1949. The singer-actor’s left politics were well-known, as was his advocacy for civil rights. Considered a Communist “fellow traveler,” he had first visited the Soviet Union in 1934, where he claimed that he was treated with a level of respect he had never experienced in his own country. By 1947, as the Cold War heated up, the House Un-American Activities Committee had started its investigations into alleged Communist influence in Hollywood, and Robeson was one of the targeted performers. Robeson had, in fact, put his career on hold to help organize the Progressive Party’s 1948 presidential campaign. But then, in April, 1949, he gave a speech at the Congress of the World Partisans of Peace in Paris that was widely covered, and likely misquoted, in the American press—recasting his intended pacifist and antiracist message as a strongly pro-Communist one. One article from Peekskill’s local Evening Star newspaper, for example, featured the subhead “Robeson Says U.S. Negro Won’t Fight Russia.” In addition, the newly-controversial Robeson’s pending appearance helped to catalyze the simmering resentments of year-round Peekskill residents toward the area’s Jewish summer community. A mix of union members and professionals, some immigrants, some political radicals, Jewish New Yorkers routinely escaped the heat of the city at upstate camps and bungalow colonies; near Peekskill, their presence more than doubled the size of the area’s population each year. When local chapters of the American Legion and other veterans’ groups, as well as the Chamber of Commerce, set themselves in public opposition to Robeson’s concert in the name of patriotism, there was an undercurrent of deeper tensions in the rhetoric. “The time for tolerant silence that signifies approval is running out,” proclaimed one Evening Star editorial on August 22. Once protest against Robeson’s appearance did turn violent, the violence was directed especially at the members of his audience, who were taunted with racist and anti-Semitic epithets or openly assaulted. “The outbreak thus embodies the combined expressions of the most explosive prejudices in American life—against Communists, Negroes and Jews,” claimed one report soon after. As a singer Robeson was known for his renditions of spirituals and folk songs as well as show tunes he had helped to popularize such as Showboat’s “Ol’ Man River.” His first Peekskill concert had been planned by People’s Artists Inc., a group recently started by rising folk singer Pete Seeger to facilitate bookings. Novelist Howard Fast was the intended emcee who, because he had arrived before the rioting started, became a defacto leader for the hundreds of audience members trapped on the concert grounds. Fast’s book-length Peekskill, USA: A Personal Experience recounts events such as the burning of a cross on a nearby hill, blockades at nearby roadways, attack on the makeshift stage and destruction of thousands of rented wooden chairs on the evening of August 27. Robeson had not made it past the blockades to the concert grounds that day. Once he returned to Harlem, at a press conference denouncing the violence he vowed to come to Peekskill again and sing. Plans quickly emerged for a larger concert at a different venue the following weekend. This time, both Robeson and his audience were protected by a body guard of WWII veterans and union members on the stage, with a ring of hundreds more surrounding the venue. The show of solidarity led Pete Seeger—who both sang at the concert and whose car was later attacked with stones—to write “Hold the Line” with his colleague Lee Hayes, which was recorded by their folk group The Weavers soon after:Let me tell you the story of a line that was held,And many men and women whose courage we know well,As they held the line at Peekskill on that long September day,We will hold the line forever till the people have their way.Within a few days, hundreds of editorials and letters appeared in newspapers across the nation and abroad, by prominent individuals, organizations, trade unions, churches and others. They condemned not only the attacks but also the failure of Governor Dewey and the State Police to protect the lives and property of citizens, and called for a full investigation of the violence and prosecution of the perpetrators. Despite condemnation from progressives and civil rights activists, the mainstream press and local officials overwhelmingly blamed Robeson and his fans for “provoking” the violence. Following the Peekskill riots, other cities became fearful of similar incidents, and over 80 scheduled concert dates of Robeson’s were canceled. On September 12, 1949, in response to Robeson’s controversial status in the press and leftist affiliations, the National Maritime Union convention considered a motion that Robeson’s name be removed from the union’s honorary membership list. The motion was withdrawn for lack of support among members. Later that month, the All-China Art and Literature Workers’ Association and All-China Association of Musicians of Liberated China protested the Peekskill attack on Robeson. On October 2, 1949, Robeson spoke at a luncheon for the National Labor Conference for Peace, Ashland Auditorium, Chicago, and referenced the riots.In recent years, Westchester County has gone to great lengths to make amends to the survivors of the riots by holding a commemorative ceremony, at which an apology was made for their treatment.In September 1999, county officials held a “Remembrance and Reconciliation Ceremony, 50th anniversary commemoration of the 1949 Peekskill riots.” It included speakers Paul Robeson, Jr., folk singer Peter Seeger and several local elected officials. Research more about this great American Champion and share it with your babies. Make it a champion day!