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Peekskill Outrage

On July 8, 1949, former members of the People’s Songs Inc. came together to create a new organization called, People’s Artists. Organized by Pete Seeger, Irwin Silber and Betty Sanders, this group primarily sponsored hootenannies and concerts that were performed by musical artists and songwriters. On August 27, 1949, People’s Artists put together a major concert at Peekskill, New York with Paul Robeson as the leading act, and Harry Belafonte to follow. The day of the concert, rioters violently protested the production causing severe damage to the stage as well as severely injuring several crew members. Once the police arrived, the program was cancelled.

Conversation between Howard Fast and two men, a member of the People’s Artists and a community leader, on the day of the Peekskill Incident.

“I though it might help to have a talk with you before the concert,” the Negro said. “Of course, you know what’s going on?”
“Going on? How do you mean that?”
“In Peekskill,” he said. “Haven’t you seen the Peekskill papers?”
“As a matter of fact, I haven’t. I haven’t even seen a New York paper in the past few days.”
“Then it’s a god thing we have a chance to talk with you, because it seems there’s going to be trouble.”
I didn’t believe it. A month in the country, a month of the kind of quiet life I had been leading made me doubt that there was trouble anywhere- and if there was trouble, it wouldn’t be here, not here in these quiet valleys. And why should anyone make trouble? This was not a political meeting or demonstration, but a concert to be held in the picnic grounds on a summer evening. Trouble didn’t start that way. I said as much.
“Then you’re wrong, Brother Fast,” they told me. “You’re wrong as hell.”
“I don’t think I’m wrong.”
“Then listen to this.” And the Negro read to me:
“It appears that Peekskill is to be treated to another concur visit by Paul Robeson, renowned Negro baritone. Time was when the honor would have been ours- all ours. As things stand today, like most folks who put America first, we’re a little doubtful of that honor…”
More of the same. “Now this,” he said, “now listen to this”:
“The time for tolerant silence that signifies approval is running out.” He added, “That’s from the Peekskill Evening Star of last Tuesday. Since then, they’ve worked themselves into a lather over this thing. The American Legion is going to march, and the local boys have been liquoring themselves up since this morning. On the other hand, some of the local residents have sent a telegram of protest to the DA, Fannelli, asking him to have plenty of cops and state troopers on hand, just in case. Maybe he will and maybe he won’t. The point is, you’ve got to keep your eyes open.”

Food for thought: The Peekskill Incident never prevented Paul Robeson from performing on stage. The concert was rescheduled for a later date and was a complete success. Does this event exemplify Paul Robeson’s statement, “Get them to sing your song and they will want to know who you are”? If so, how?

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