Remembering troubled legacy of Paul Robeson, 60 years after Peekskill Riots
On Sept. 4, 1949, a crowd of 20,000 turned out to hear Paul Robeson sing near Peekskill, NY, just a week after a mob had brutally attacked people arriving for a concert the great African American bass was scheduled to perform.
The earlier incident, on Aug. 27, involved demonstrators wielding billy clubs and throwing rocks, injuring would-be concert-goers and damaging cars. Police did little to interfere. Robeson’s intense sympathy for the Soviet Union at a time when the Red Scare was raging, made him a target of hate.
For the rescheduled performance, Robeson supporters put together their own security force and the concert went on, but, afterward, there was more trouble, as demonstrators attacked the departing audience. More than 100 people were hurt.
Now, 60 years after what became known as the Peekskill Riots, it should be possible to have some perspective on Robeson and the ugly opposition to him. But, as Peter Applebome’s fine column in Thursday’s New York Times points out, there is still anger and hate out there. It surfaced when plans were announced for a concert on Friday that will celebrate the life and legacy of Robeson in the very region where the riots took place.
Applebome quotes from emails: “Has anyone noticed that these minorities who hate this country are now running it?” posted one reader on an online message board linked to a story about the concert. “Obama should come to this. One commie to honor another,” posted a second.
There won’t likely be any riots at Friday's concert, probably not even any demonstrators. But it does give one pause to know that some folks still can’t take a longer view of history and of the individuals caught up in it. Surely it's possible today to look soberly at Robeson's embrace of the Soviet system, to appreciate the world he lived in, the battles he had to fight for dignity in his own country. We can still disagree with the choices he made, and disagree strongly, without condemning the soul of such a gifted artist.
Sometimes I wonder if we’re about to plunge right back into all-out McCarthyism, so wild and incendiary are the accusations that fly about every day in what passes for political discourse today. The anniversary of the Peekskill Riots should be a sobering reminder of what happens when people stop thinking, stop behaving with civility, stop listening.
Speaking of listening, here's the splendid voice of Paul Robeson, singing some of my favorite American and English songs: