Sunday, October 18, 2009

Remebering Paul Robeson: On the Anniversary of the Peekskill Concert

On the anniversary of Peekskill Concert: Remembering Paul Robeson

By Brenda Sandburg
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.

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 ( 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 an eye.

“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 concertgoers.

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 and buses.”

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 of socialism.

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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