At this moment of finger-pointing, we would do well to remember an incident that occurred 70 years ago this summer: the Peekskill riots. At the time of the riots in 1949, anti-Semitic violence was fomented by anti-radical, nationalist sentiments, just like today. And just as in the aftermath of the Peekskill riots, people in power now have a choice: to try to pit minority and progressive groups against one another in the name of nationalism, or to try to forge an internationalist solidarity that lifts up marginalized people across the world.
Peekskill shows us what happens when America chooses the former.
By 1949, the United States featured a labor-based progressive movement that brought together white workers, immigrants, Jews, African Americans and other minorities. This movement found a political home in the presidential campaign of Henry Wallace, who saw anti-Semitism, racism and antilabor sentiment as aspects of fascism, a charge with real meaning just a few years after the defeat of Nazi Germany.
In the summer of 1949, the Civil Rights Congress (CRC), a radical organization dedicated to racial and economic justice, planned a fundraiser in Peekskill, N.Y., for American communists who had been arrested for their political beliefs. To headline the outdoor concert, they hired Paul Robeson, a Hollywood star, celebrated folk singer and perhaps the most famous black performer of the era. He was also a fervent Wallace supporter and an outspoken critic of economic inequality and the red scare that had begun to ravage America’s political public sphere.
At the time, Peekskill served as a summer escape for urban New York Jews. Some were simply looking for an escape from the city. Others met in summer camps that were devoted to liberal and socialist politics. Peekskill locals increasingly resented the seasonal migration of urban Jews. But it wasn’t necessarily due to their radicalism; as one Jew recalled, “Being Jewish, intellectual, and liberal was sufficient to make you a Commie in the eyes of the village.”
Politics and anti-Semitism combined to motivate an American Legion protest of Robeson’s performance. The organization mobilized area veterans and youths, as well as the local police, to march in a parade denouncing Robeson’s presence in the town. On Aug. 27, the day of the concert, the parade transformed into a riot, before the music could begin. Thirteen people were injured, and the event was called off. Robeson observed, “They were not merely attacking me personally; they were attacking the Negro people, the Jewish people, and all who stand for peace and democracy in America.”
To show they would not give in, the CRC and Robeson rescheduled the event for Sept. 4, adding folk music legends Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie to the lineup. As many as 20,000 Jews, African Americans, radicals, labor supporters and music lovers showed up. Blacks and Jews worked together to provide protection for Robeson, keeping a tight circle around him as he traversed the grounds.
By the time Robeson took the stage to perform, the protest crowd outside the concert grounds had swelled. After the event ended, terror erupted as protesters began throwing rocks and swinging clubs at concertgoers leaving the venue. The police, too, took part, reportedly smashing the windshield of the car that was carrying Robeson. (An ACLU report later concluded that state troopers tried to stop the rioters but that county police did not.) In the end, more than 100 people were injured.
The riot demonstrated how the protesters — the veterans, local youths and county police — conflated racial, ethno-religious and economic threats to the nation’s status quo. A witness told the local newspaper that he heard crowds shouting, “N — loving Jews, down South we’d string you up. Go back to Moscow!” Seeger remarked that he believed the Ku Klux Klan had a strong presence in the Peekskill police department. And in songs that were never recorded, Guthrie described the crowds as “klanners” and “klaxxers,” and wrote that they shouted a slew of ethnic, racial and religious slurs.
Liberals were torn over how to respond to the Peekskill riots. On one hand, they wanted to express concern about the violence at Peekskill. On the other, they hoped to keep their distance from Robeson and his radical working-class politics. The NAACP initially released a strong statement, calling for the prosecution of whoever led the riots. For Robeson, it wasn’t strong enough. He released a statement blaming the event on Wall Street and on “clerical fascists,” suggesting, as Guthrie did, that the Peekskill rioters’ identity lay at an intersection of ethno-religious and political norms. Robeson believed that the rioters’ identities as white, native-born Christians permitted them to claim status in a hierarchy that excluded and exploited those unlike them.
Meanwhile, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and the American Jewish Committee (AJC), along with other mainstream liberal Jewish organizations, pointed their fingers leftward. Seeing an opportunity to gain respectability within the political establishment, they condemned the riots as communist-inspired. Under Cold War pressure, these mainstream liberal American Jewish organizations turned away from broader problems of economic and social inequality and began promoting individual liberties over group rights.
The shift away from internationalism for these American Jewish organizations had lasting consequences. They embraced a twin nationalism based in America and Israel instead. Such a move may have been “good for the Jews,” to use a tired cliche, but it depended on the willful forgetting of the “Yiddish socialism” that lay at the heart of the solidarity that Robeson felt with the Jews at Peekskill.
The NAACP, too, moved to silence the left wing of the organization, despite the initial statement of support. Thus the Peekskill riots pitted interest groups against one another: liberal Jews and middle-class African Americans vs. workers and progressives of diverse identities. The result? A decidedly undemocratic atmosphere in which accusations of being “un-American” undermined the progressive agenda and nationalist rhetoric undercut internationalist solidarity. The search for “respectability” among some led to further oppression of others. Robeson would be stripped of his passport and virtually erased from popular memory. Seeger and Guthrie were famously red-baited, too.
Robeson’s critics were not entirely wrong; like Martin Luther King Jr., who would emerge a decade later, he indeed did want to upset the status quo of imperialism, racism and the war on America’s poor. As ethnic, religious and class outsiders like the Jews in Peekskill, Omar, Ellison and Mallory similarly make mainstream American institutions upset. They, too, represent a movement that might unite minorities and oppressed people around the world, thwarting nationalist tendencies in America and abroad.
Six months ago, after the Tree of Life synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh, in which 11 Jewish worshipers were killed, the ADL and other Jewish leaders chose to side with those in power, denying that the conservatives in charge of the country had anything to do with anti-Semitic culture. Now they have an opportunity to right that wrong. In response to the Poway shooting, they can work to build bridges with other victims of white nationalism and economic injustice.
More broadly, Americans have a choice to make, similar to the one that Jews faced after Peekskill between a nationalism based on what’s good for the individual or an internationalism based on solidarity. Only the latter has any chance of healing the divisions that cause crimes such as the one in Poway to keep happening over and over again.