THE PEEKSKILL RIOT - Howard Fast's account

from Being Red (1990), Howard Fast's memoir of his life on the left
pages 226-239

Then Pete Seeger called. It was going to be a wonderful summer concert. Paul Robeson headed the list of singers, and Pete would be there with the Weavers, and there would be other folk singers, and I, Howard Fast, had just returned from Paris.

"Pete," I pleaded, "I can't have any trouble. Bette's in Europe. I'm here with my kids."

"Bring the kids," Pete said. "There'll be a thousand kids there. Everyone's bringing their kids. And it makes a continuity with Paris. No one can speak for peace the way you can." He went on and on, and finally I agreed. I would do it. It was to be on August 27, 1949.

But when I told Juliette what I had in mind, she shook her head and said, "You will not take Rachel and Jonathan."

"Why not?"

"Because your wife told me to take care of the kids, and I promised that I would."

"But it's a summer concert, that's all. Nothing will happen."

"It will happen, all right," she said grimly. "You listen to me. I been a long time colored."

I gave it up and agreed not to take the kids. What follows is part of a report I wrote for the Civil Rights Congress soon after the concert:

That golden evening of August 27th remains in my mind most clearly, most softly; it was such a soft and gentle evening as one finds on the canvas of George Inness, and even he could create that dewy nostalgia only when he painted one part or another of the wonderful Hudson River valley. By choice, I took the little back roads twisting among the low hills and narrow valleys. I avoided the business section of Peekskill and found the state highway north of the town. I had never been to the Lakeland picnic grounds before, and I drove slowly looking for the entrance, which is on Division Street, a three-mile stretch of country road that connects Peekskill with the Bronx River Parkway.

Yet I couldn't have missed the entrance. Hundreds of yards before reached it, I found cars parked solidly on either side of the highway, which made me wonder, since it was more than an hour before the concert was scheduled to begin; and at the entrance itself there was an already unruly crowd of men. Just inside the grounds I stopped my car. There, a few yards from the road, a handful of teenage boys and girls had gathered. There were not more than five of them and they were trying to hide their nervousness at the jeering, hooting crowd on the road. They had come up from New York to be ushers at the concert.

"What shall we do?" they asked.

"Who's running things?"

?They didn't know,? they said. It was so early they didn't think anyone had come yet. But maybe there was someone down below.

"Well," I told them, "don't let anyone in who isn't here for the concert. Just keep cool and be calm and nothing will happen."

That seemed to be a refrain of mine, that nothing would happen, that nothing could happen. "I'll park my car and see if I can't find someone to take things in hand."

The entrance to the Lakeland picnic grounds is a left turn off the main road as you drive from Peekskill; the entrance is double, coming together in a Y shape to a narrow dirt road. About eighty feet after the entrance, the road is embanked, with sharp dirt sides dropping about twenty feet to shallow pits of water. About forty feet of the road are embanked in this fashion, and then for a quarter of a mile or so it sweeps down into a valley, all of this private road and a part of the picnic grounds. At the end of this road, there is a sheltered hollow with a broad, meadowgrass bottom, a sort of natural arena, hidden by low hills from the sight of anyone above on the public highway. It was in this hollow that the paraphernalia for the concert had been set up; a large platform, two thousand wooden folding chairs, and a number of spotlights powered by a portable generator. I looked at my watch before I drove down to the hollow and it was just ten minutes to seven. As I came in, a large bus had just discharged its passengers, boys and girls, Negroes for the most part, who had come early to be ushers. About a hundred and twenty other people were already on the scene, most of them women and small children. A party of boys and girls from Golden's Bridge, a summer colony, sat on the platform, their legs dangling. None of them were over fifteen; most of them were much younger. The children from Golden's Bridge had come down in a large truck which was parked now next to my car and which was destined to play an interesting role that night. Just by the good grace of fortune, half a dozen merchant seamen who were vacationing in the neighborhood had decided to come early; I had good reason to be grateful for them and for four trade unionists who happened to be present. But none of these, I discovered, knew who was in charge of the concert.

A boy running. I watched him as he came into sight around the bend of the road, running frantically, and then we crowded around him and he told us that there was trouble and would some of us come because the trouble looked bad; and he was frightened too.

We started back with him. There were twenty-five or thirty of us, I suppose; you don't count at a moment like that, although I did count later. There were men and boys, almost all the men and boys. I thought that this would be no more than foul names and fouler insults. So we ran on up to the entrance, and as we appeared, they poured onto us from the road, at least a hundred of them with billies and brass knuckles and rocks and clenched fists, and American Legion caps, and suddenly my disbelief was washed away in a wild melee. Such fights don't last long; there were three or four minutes of this, and because the road was narrow and embanked, we were able to beat them back, but the mass of them filled the entranceway, and behind them were hundreds more, and up and down the road, still more.

I said that we beat them back and held the road for the moment, panting, hot with sweat and dust, bleeding only a little now; but they would have come at us again had not three deputy sheriffs appeared. They hefted their holstered guns, and they turned and spread their arms benignly at the mob. "Now, boys," they said, "now take it easy, because we can do this just as well legal, and it always pays to do it legal."

"Give us five minutes and we'll murder the white niggers," the boys answered.

"Just take it easy, just take it slow and easy, boys, because it don't pay to have trouble when you don't have to have no trouble."

And then the three deputy sheriffs turned to us and wanted to know what we were doing there making all this kind of trouble.

I kept glancing at my watch. It was ten minutes after seven then. The interruption helped us to survive. Not that the deputies intended that; but it was a beginning and there was no precedent for this kind of thing in Westchester County in New York State, and the three sheriffs with the polished gold-plated badges were uncertain as how to play their own role. For that reason they held back the "boys" and asked us why we were provoking them.

I became the spokesman then, and a good many of the things I did afterward were the result of this chiefly because I was older than most of our handful and because the merchant seamen and the trade unionists nodded for me to talk. Anyway, I had agreed to be chairman and it seemed that this was the kind of concert we would have, not with Paul Robeson and Pete Seeger singing their lovely tunes of America, but with a special music that had played its melody out in Germany and Italy. So I said that we were not looking for any trouble, but were here to hold a concert, and why didn't they clear the road so that our people could come in and listen to the concert in peace?

"You give me a pain in the ass with that kind of talk," said one of the deputies delicately. "Just cut out the trouble. We don't want no trouble and we don't want no troublemakers."

I explained it again. I explained to them carefully that we were not making trouble, that we had not lured these innocent patriots to attack us, and that all we desired was for them to clear the road so that people could come to the concert.

"How the hell can we clear the road? Just look up there," they told me.

"Tell them to get out and they'll get out," I said.

"Don't tell me what to tell them!"

"Look, mister," I said, "we hold you responsible for whatever happens here."

"Up your ass," said the guardian of the law.

"We'll talk to the boys," another said.

And then they talked to the boys, and we had five minutes. I didn't listen to what they said to the boys. I was beginning to realize that they had no intention of doing anything about them, and when I looked up at the road and saw the roadblocks and the solid mass of men, I began to realize that not only was it extremely unlikely that anyone else on our side would get in, but quite unlikely that any of us already here would get out. Just as the sheriffs turned back to talk to the mob, a man came walking through. This man was in his middle twenties. He was tall; he wore a beard, a beret, and loose, brightly colored slacks. I asked him who he was and what he was doing here. "I'm a music lover," he said.

No self-respecting writer dares to invent such things; but they happen. "Can you fight, Music Lover?" I asked him.

"I can't and I won't." There was indignation and disgust in his voice.

"But you can and you will," I pointed out. "Otherwise, go back up there. This time they'll tear you to pieces."

Later that evening, I spoke to the music lover again. I never learned his name; he will always be Music Lover to me, but when I spoke to him again he had lost his beret, his slacks were torn, and there was blood all over him--and a wild glint in his eyes.

The men and boys had clustered around me in the little respite. "We're in a very bad place," I told them, "but we'll keep our heads and in a little while some real cops will come and put an end to all this insanity. Meanwhile, we have to keep the mob here where the road is narrow and high, and it's a good place to defend in any case. We keep them here because there's a lot of kids and women down below. That's our whole tactic. Agreed?"

They agreed.

"All right. Just two things. Let me do the talking and let me decide when there's a quick decision, because there won't be time to talk it over."

They agreed again, and our time was running out. A compression of incident and event began. First I told the girls to run back down the road, get all the women and children onto the platform, keep them there for the time being, and send every able-bodied man and boy up to us. Then I asked for a volunteer.

"I want someone to crawl through those bushes, reach the road, find a telephone, and call the troopers, call The New York Times and The Daily Worker, call Albany and get through to the governor. I want someone who can do that."

I got him. I don't know what I can say about him, except that he had great inventiveness and lots of guts. We pooled our nickels and gave them to him. He was small and bright-eyed, and I have never seen him since that night. Three times he went back and forth and he did what he was supposed to do.

Now the remaining men from below appeared and I counted what we had. All told, including myself, there were forty-two men and boys. I divided them into seven groups of six, three lines of two groups each in other words, three lines of twelve formed across the road where the embankment began, each line anchored on a wooden fence, our flanks protected by the ditch and the water below. The seventh group was held in reserve in our rear.

I looked at my watch again. It was seven-thirty. The three deputy sheriffs had disappeared. The mob was rolling toward us for the second attack. This was, in a way, the worst of that night. For one thing, it was still daylight; later, when night fell, our own sense of organi- zation helped us much more, but this was daylight and they poured down the road and into us, swinging broken fenceposts, billies, bot- tles, and wielding knives. Their leaders had been drinking from pocket flasks and bottles right up to the moment of the attack, and now as they beat and clawed at our line, they poured out a torrent of obscene words and slogans. "We'll finish Hitler's job! Fuck you white niggers! Give us Robeson! We'll string that big nigger up!" and more and more of the same.

I'm not certain how long that second fight lasted. It seemed forever, yet it couldn't have been more than a few minutes. In that time, the sun sank below the hills to the west of us, and the shadow of twilight came. We concentrated on holding our lines. The first line took the brunt of the fighting, the brunt of the rocks and the clubs. The second line linked arms, as did the hird, forming a human wall to the mob. In that fight, four of our first line were badly injured. When they went down, we pulled them back, and men in the second line moved into their places. Here were forty-two men and boys who had never seen each other before, and they were fighting like a well-oiled machine, and the full weight of the screaming madmen did not panic them or cause them to break. By sheer weight, we were forced back foot by foot, but they never broke the line. And then they pulled back. For the moment, they had enough. They drew off, leaving about twenty feet between the front of their mob and our line of defense.

On our part, we were hurt, but not so badly that every man couldn't stand on his feet. We linked arms and waited. As it darkened, change came into the ranks of the mob, a sense of organization. Three men appeared as their leaders, one a dapper, slim, well-dressed middle- aged man who was subsequently identified as a prosperous Peekskill real estate broker. A fourth man joined them, and a heated discussion in whispers started. At the same time, cars up the road were swinging around so that their headlights covered us. Though the police and state troopers were remarkably, conspicuously absent, the press were on the scene. Newspaper photographers were everywhere, taking picture after picture, and reporters crouched in the headlights, taking notes of all that went on. In particular, my attention was drawn to three quiet, well-dressed, good-looking men who stood just to one side at the entrance; two of them had notebooks in which they wrote methodically and steadily. When I first saw them I decided that they were newspapermen and dismissed them from my mind. But I saw them again and again, and later talked to them, as you will see. Subsequently, I discovered they were agents of the Department of Justice. Whether they were assigned to a leftwing concert or to an attempted mass murder, I don't know. They were polite, aloof, neutral, and at one point decently helpful. They were always neutral even though what they saw was attempted murder, a strangely brutal terrible attempt.

The four men in front of the mob broke off their discussion now, and one of them, a good-looking man of thirty or so, came toward us. He wore a white shirt, sleeves rolled up; his hands were in his pockets; he walked to our line and in a not unfriendly manner said, "Who's running this?"

"I'll talk to you," I said.

He told me he was a railroad worker, a Peekskill resident, and had been drawn into this because he belonged to the local Legion post. He underlined the fact that he liked commies no better than the next man, but that this kind of thing turned his stomach. "I'm on the wrong side," he said. "What I want to know is this, will you call it off if we do?"

I told him that we had never called it on, and that if he could get them to empty the road, we'd leave. He said he'd try. He went back and resumed his whispered argument with the three leaders of the mob, and now behind us our truck appeared. That did it. The mob saw it coming and they attacked again. I had not fought this way in twenty years, not since my days in the slums where I was raised, not since the gang fights of a kid in the New York streets; but now it was for our lives, for all that the cameras were flashing and the newspapermen taking it down blow by blow, so you could read in your morning papers how a few reds in Westchester County were lynched.

It was night now, and now for the first time I understood our situation completely and could guess what the odds were that we would all die in this way, so uselessly and stupidly.

And the FBI men watched calmly and took notes.

I looked at my watch still less than two hours since I had kissed my little daughter.

And then we were fighting again, and then we beat them off again. Their courage was so small that when we turned and came at them, cursing them and telling them that we'd kill a few of them, they fell back until some thirty feet of the embanked road were clear in front of us. But three of us had been hurt very badly, and we helped them into the truck, where they could lie down. We had no bandages except handkerchiefs and shirts, which we used to stop bleeding. And at that moment, something very curious happened. As they came at us again, we began to sing, "Just like a tree that's standing by the water, we shall not be moved." It stopped them cold. They saw a line of bloody, ragged men, standing with their arms locked, standing calmly and singing in a kind of inspired chorus, and they stopped. They couldn't understand us.

They didn't want to touch us now, or they couldn't, so they turned to the rocks. First a rock here and there, then more, and then there was the heavy music as they beat a tattoo against the metal side of the truck. The man on my left was struck in the temple and collapsed without a sound. You didn't have to look; when you heard the fleshy thud, the sound of bone and skin breaking, you knew that someone was hit and that there was one fewer to stand on his feet and face the mob. First I counted how many of us were hit, and then I stopped counting and dropped back to the truck and put my head together with one of the seamen.

"Five minutes more of this," he said, "and we'll be finished." I suggested that we use the truck as a moving shield while the driver took it down to the hollow in low gear. Suddenly, the motor roared.

"All right, let's go!"

There were about twenty of us still on our feet. We dashed around the truck as it lurched forward, and then because the driver had forgotten to switch on his lights, he drove off the road, missed it completely, and sent his truck lurching and careening across the meadow into the night.

Now we ran down into the hollow, and we held together as we ran. As we swung around the curve of the road below, I saw the amphitheater for the first time since I had driven down there earlier in the evening: the platform with the women and children on it and huddled close, the two thousand chairs standing empty, the table of songbooks and pamphlets--and all of it bright as day in the brilliant glare of floodlights. These lit the whole of the meadow, and as we swung around at the bottom, we saw the mob of screaming, swearing patriots, chanting their new war cry, "Kill a commie for Christ," and their lust to kill the "white niggers," break over the hillside and pour down into the light.

For just a moment we stood there, trying to catch our breath, and then we drove into them because there was nothing else to do. At this point, we were half crazy, as full of hate as they were, and so violent was our fury and our own screams that they broke and ran. They turned at forty or fifty yards, formed a wide circle, and stared at us and swore at us with every filthy word they could remember. We, on the other hand, climbed onto the platform and made a line in front of the women and kids. Here, at least, we could use our feet to kick. The children, half frozen with terror, watched all this. The women began to sing the "Star-Spangled Banner," urging the children, most of them in tears, to join in. A few of the braver hoodlums ran at the platform. We beat them back.

And then the lights went out. Someone had cut the line from the generator, and now the mob, in utter frustration at finding a handful of "commies" so hard to kill, seemed to go absolutely crazy. They attacked the chairs. We couldn't see them, but through the darkness we heard them raging among the folding chairs, throwing them around, splintering and splashing them. It was not only senseless, it was sick, horrible and pathological. Then one of them lit a fire, about thirty or forty yards from the platform. A chair went on the fire, and then another and another, and then a whole pile of the chairs, which belonged not to us but to a Peekskill businessman from whom we had rented them. Then they discovered our table of books and pamphlets, and then, to properly crown the evening, they reenacted the Nuremberg book burning, which had become a world symbol of fascism. Standing there, arms linked, we watched the Nuremberg memory come alive again. The fire roared up and the defenders of the "American way of life" seized piles of our books and danced around the blaze, flinging the books into the fire as they danced. Suddenly, up in the direction of the road, an army flare arched into the sky, made a balloon of bright light, hung there, and then swept slowly and gracefully to earth. I looked at my watch. It was a quarter to ten.

Silence, broken only by the half hysterical sobbing of women and the whimpering cries of little children. It was not easy to sit there in the dark. We had to be firm and sometimes harsh with them, but we had decided that no one would leave the platform until some civil or military force from the outside came through to us.

And then we saw a pair of headlights. Slowly, searchingly, the car drove down into the hollow and toward us, stopping only a few feet away. Three men got out. They walked toward us, leaving the headlights of the car on to light their way. A few feet from me they stopped, nodded at me, and stood quietly for a moment. I recognized them now; they were the well-dressed men with the notebooks who had watched the fighting on the road up above and taken notes as they watched, the FBI.

"You did all right," one of them said suddenly.

"You did a damn good piece of work up there," from another. "It was damn fine discipline all the way through."

"What in hell do you want?" I demanded. I was in no mood to be polite to anyone now.

"We thought we might help you out. You got some badly hurt people, so if you want us to, we'll take them to the hospital."

"Go to hell!" I said, and then one of our men was plucking my sleeve and pulled me back and whispered that he knew them, that they were FBI and that I could trust them.


"Because right now they got no stake in this either way. Didn't you see them before? They're neutral. This is just a big experiment to them and they're neutral. Some of the kids are bleeding badly and I think one of them has a fractured skull. If they say they'll take them to the hospital, they will."

I asked him how he knew who they were, and he replied that he had been working in Westchester County long enough to know. "Anyway, the kids are hurt. We'll take a chance." We selected the three worst hurt. They got into the car, and the FBI men drove off. We were again in the quiet darkness.

The fire burned down. In the dark, we waited the minutes through, one after another, and then suddenly the silence in the hollow erupted into noise and action.

First an ambulance, which came roaring down into the hollow, siren wide open and red headlights throwing a ghostly glare. Then car after car of troopers and Westchester County police. All in a moment, there were a dozen cars in the meadow in front of us and the place was swarming with troopers and police.

One more chapter in that night of horror had to be played through, and it began with an officer of the troopers who stalked up to us and demanded, "Who in hell is running this show?" I told him that he could talk to me.

"Look," I said to him, "we've had a rough time here."

"You'll have a rougher time if you don't god damn well do as we say. Who are you anyway?"

I told him I was the chairman of the concert that never happened. He then told me to keep everyone where they were, and that if anyone tried to get away, there'd be trouble. I said that we had little children here, as he could see, and he replied that I was looking for trouble. I told him I had enough trouble.

In a way, that was the hardest part of the evening, not so much waiting in front of a dozen state troopers, their legs spread, fingering their guns and clubs but being there after I learned what was behind all this tough talk. They let me walk around, and one of the Westchester police was willing to talk. Briefly, he told me that one of the mob, William Secor his name, had been knifed and had been taken to the hospital, and the rumor had just come through that he had died. If Secor was dead, every one of us who had held the road against the attack would face a murder charge. That was why we were being kept here this way so that they could get a report from the hospital and if necessary pull us in on a murder rap.

(There was no knife among our men. Later, it was proved that Secor had been knifed by one of his mates in the drunken frenzy of their attack.)

Cars were coming back and forth now. The hollow was alive with action and with blue uniforms and with gray uniforms, and the fine jackbooted palace guards of Thomas E. Dewey were strutting all over the place, showing their slim waists and handsome profiles, and there was a conference taking place too among the big brass of the little army which had descended upon us. The local Westchester cop, the one with a core of something human left inside of him a small town cop from a small town nearby nodded at me and I went over to him and he whispered that it was all right now. Secor was not going to die, and in fact he only had a small cut in his belly and they didn't know who cut him.

I went back and spread the news around, and we began to smile a little. There was a sudden change in the attitude of the state troopers; they became courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, just as the book says they are, those fine gray guardians of the law and the people of the sovereign State of New York, and the big brass of them came over to me and put his hand on my shoulder, nice and warm and friendly, and said, "Look, Fast, what we want now is to get your people out of here, and we're going to get them out so that not a hair on anyone's head is harmed, and I guess you've had a tough night of it, but it's over now and you can just stop worrying. Now I want you to separate them into groups according to the town or place or resort they came from and my troopers will drive them home in our own cars."

It was past midnight when I reached home, put my car in the garage, and went into the house. Juliette was awake. The telephone had been ringing all evening with endless inquiries about me, where I was, whether I was alive or dead. Juliette didn't say much, only thank God that I was alive and how was Paul Robeson? The telephone calls had given her a good idea of what had happened, and I still did not know whether Paul was alive or dead. It turned out that his car had not been able to come within a mile of the picnic grounds, and that he was safe.

I have included the above, with some small changes and deletions, not only because it deeply affected my own life and my thinking, but also because it illustrates how easily, when terror is unleashed in a nation, it can take hold, and how thin the line is that separates constitutional government from tyranny and dictatorship. What happened that night and what happened at the second Peekskill incident was the result of a demented campaign of anti-Communism, led by such men as Senator Joseph McCarthy, Roy Cohn, Richard Nixon, and John Rankin. In the narrative above, insofar as my own knowledge extends, the only member of the Communist Party in that picnic hollow was Howard Fast, and if I had not been able to enter the hollow, the attempt at mass murder still would have taken place.

The incident happened in such isolation that I had the strange feeling the following day that the country and the world knew nothing about it. I was very wrong; it was headline news all over the world, and Bette, terrified, read an account in the Paris Tribune. Even Governor Dewey responded, asking District Attorney Fanelli of Westchester County to submit a full report. The response of Fanelli was so bland and incredible that it played like a scene from a film about Nazi Germany. Fanelli stated "that he didn't know anything about the disorders but was sure that the concert goers and not the veterans and hoodlums who attacked them were responsible." This from The New York Compass. The press reports varied from straightforward accounts, vex neutral, to gleeful approval. A few regretted that Howard Fast had survived. Sergeant Johnson of the New York State Police. said. "There was no need to be there in advance. We don't play into the hands of the commies. We went in when we found that a crime had been committed." The crime referred to was not the attempt to kill the concert goers but the cut in Secor's stomach.

A few days later, the concert was again attempted. This time, the arrangements were more carefully designed. Several thousand members of the Fur and Leather Workers' Union, the Teachers' Union, and District 65, a large local union, formed a ring, shoulder to shoulder, around the Hollow Brook Country Club picnic grounds, where the second Peekskill concert was held. Even though there was almost no time to prepare, over five thousand people came to the concert, and here Paul Robeson did sing. But before the second concert, I took Juliette and the children back to New York. I had had enough of the peaceful suburbs.

Like the first concert, the second concert ended in disaster. Discovering that we had planned carefully, that we had surrounded the picnic grounds with almost three thousand men, standing beside one another within arm's reach, the well-organized gang of hoodlums changed their plans accordingly. The road that led to the picnic grounds was almost a narrow country lane. All along this road, groups gathered piles of rock and waited. Farther along where the road was crossed by highway bridges, they gathered tons of rocks and waited. Then, when the concert was finished, each car leaving the grounds ran a gauntlet of rocks. Car after car was smashed, windows shattered, cuts, bruises, skull fractures, splinters of glass embedded in eyes all of this inflicted on the drivers and passengers to such an extent that every hospital in the vicinity was turned into an emergency trauma facility.

I doubt that Peekskill is much remembered, even by those who call themselves revisionists in the historical sense and who try to include in our history hundreds of happenings like the incidents at Peekskill, artfully omitted by the scholarly establishment. That was a strange year, I949.

Bette returned from abroad with the bleak knowledge that one could not escape the current madness, even for a month. It followed you. How do you smile at each other and make love and pretend that your family is like any other? You walked down the street and nothing has changed, the same people, the same smiles, the same annoyance of some at others, the same indifference to each other, the same hurry and bustle. A dear friend of mine had been in Berlin in 1936, a few years after Hitler came to power, and he told me that he walked through the streets of Berlin and found nothing changed. Except that inside it was eating us up. I pretended, Bette pretended but insofar as we knew at that moment, having no crystal ball, we were in a land hell bent on repeating the story of Nazi Germany. It was not only that I was out front and on the way to becoming the establishment's number one symbolic threat, but we had two small children.

"Well, one day at a time," we said to each other.


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