Riots Threaten Paul Robeson’s Concert; 2,000 People Used As Human Shields During Performance

Race Riots Interrupt Paul Robeson Concert in Peekskill, New York…

The town of Peekskill, New York was thrust into the national limelight, over a controversial concert featuring African-American singer, and actor Paul Robeson today (September 4, 1949).

Peekskill Riots
Peekskill Riots

Paul Robeson was supposed to perform at a benefit concert on August 27, but protests over his race and political views resulted in riots two riots between August 27 and September 4.

In 1922, Paul Robeson, who was the first African-American All-American Football Player, played football for Rutgers before earning a degree in law from Columbia University.

Robeson eventually turned to singing, where he found fame in the role of “Othello” on Broadway, while also landing a hit with “Old Man River” from the 1927 musical “Showboat.”

During World War II, Paul Robeson embraced the Soviet Union while chastising America for it’s treatment of African-Americans.

As the Cold War began in 1949, Paul Robeson caused an uproar when he said in an interview that it was “unthinkable” and that he he denounced “the policy of the United States government which is similar to Hitler and Goebbels…. It is unthinkable that American Negros would go to war on behalf of those who have oppressed us for generations against the Soviet Union which in one generation has lifted our people to full human dignity.”

The comments were strong and revolutionary, considering the tense-post World War II climate in the country.

By 1949, Robeson had stopped entertaining publicly, but chose to do this performance at the request of the Civil Rights Congress, which the Attorney General had labeled a “subversive group.”

Peekskill Riots
Peekskill Riots

The concert was set for August 27, but riots broke out in which camp chairs and books were burned, concertgoers were attacked, a cross was burned on a hillside.

The concert was reorganized for September 4 at the Hollow Brook Golf Course in Cortlandt Manor.

Over 20,000 people showed up to the concert, which was secured by 900 police officers, emergency vehicles and a helicopter.

Another 2,000 men created a shield around the concert area while others flanked Paul Robeson on the stage to secure his safety against the 5,000 protesters who also showed up.

During the concert, Paul Robeson sang songs like “Go Down Moses” and “What America Means to Me,” which folks singers like Pete Seeger, Woodie Guthrie and Lee Hays also gave performances.


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