Masses & Mainstream
May, 1951 p. 87-89
books in review
The Peekskill Story
PEEKSKILL: U.S.A., by Howard Fast.
Civil Rights Congress. $1.00.
ONE of the most dangerous illusions, widely held by the American people is that "government" stands above the fierce struggles of our capitalist jungle and functions as the staunch defender of those democratic liberties which "evil forces" in our society seek to destroy. As a result we tend to rely unduly upon the state for protection upon precisely that legislative, judicial and police apparatus which constitutes the main instrument of oppression within the control of the most implacable enemies of democracy in our country. Far too few Americans have learned that only our own unity and strength and struggles can guarantee the security and freedom we cherish.
This illusion of the benevolent state must have been shattered and this lesson of people's unity in struggle must have been made clear for the tens of thousands of direct participants in the "eight days of Peekskill." Now, some eighteen months later, we are in position to sharpen their understanding and extend it to many, many thousands more through effective use of Peekskill: U.S.A.
We need often to remind ourselves how, on the evening of August 27, 1949, a howling mob of hundreds of drunken and hate-crazed hoodlums, shouting anti-Negro and anti-Semitic epithets, blocked all roads leading to what was to have been a peaceful concert by Paul Robeson at Lakeland Picnic Grounds, and over a period of several hours repeatedly hurled themselves in vicious but vain attacks upon the tiny heroic band of white and Negro defenders of the women and children huddled in the concert arena while the forewarned and oft-called police stayed away, while newspaper reporters and photographers recorded every detail of the attempted mass lynching, and while three calm observers from the Federal Bureau of Investigation took full and careful notes.
We must ever recall also how, one week later in the same vicinity, nearly 25,000 aroused and determined people came back and held their Paul Robeson concert under the protection of some 2,500 Negro and white trade unionists, standing shoulder to shoulder around the concert arena, only to be ambushed and stoned as they drove homeward along the highways while a thousand police officers protected the frustrated and angry mobs of hoodlums, even fraternizing with them and joining in their vicious and craven attacks.
We must likewise ever bear in mind how the press, the police, the Governor, the State Attorney General, the District Attorney, the Grand Jury, and assorted "respectable" citizens conspired to "justify" these horrible and bloody assaults on grounds of "anti-communism," how they whitewashed the known leaders of the mobs and helped to conceal the role of more sinister forces behind them how they even accused and tried to indict the victims of these entirely unprovoked attacks.
This is the story which Howard Fast has now set down in Peekskill: U.S.A. a powerful book of 85 pages of narrative, eight pages of photographs, and 31 pages of valuable appendix documents. The book is issued by the Civil Rights Congress because no other publisher would handle it.
This story of Peekskill is written with the consummate skill of a dramatic narrator with few peers in our time. It is interpreted with the insight of a Marxist who understands the nature and class roots of fascism, and its relations to the monopoly-dominated state in the era of the general crisis of world capitalism. It is permeated with the fervor of a fighting intellectual who hates fascism, whose heroic leadership did much to beat back the fascist hordes at the first Peekskill, and who understands the indispensable leading role of the working class and of Negro-white unity as at the victorious second Peekskill in the final triumph of the American people over those who would enslave our country in fascist terror.
The book is ineptly sub-titled "a personal experience" which Peekskill: U.S.A. certainly is not! The author's restriction of his story chiefly to "what I saw with my own eyes" does militate against the fully-rounded development and interpretation of this brief but very important segment of American history. But Fast sees clearly the historic significance of Peekskill as "a decisive step in the preparation for American fascism," as "a testing of fascism (made in U.S.A.) and a testing of the forces of anti-fascism." He notes correctly that:
"The American people not only were not ready for this particular combination of blood and filth which Adolf Hitler had so popularized, but serious doubts began to be entertained by the ruling class of the United States as to whether they could be made ready for this particular pattern quickly enough. Therefore, we saw an immediate turn to legalized, 'police' fascism, as exemplified by the McCarran Act and the wholesale jailings of political prisoners. Since the 'day of violence' had fallen short of its goal, the 'day in court' was put forward once again."
Even more sharply is this historic significance of Peekskill set forth in William L. Patterson's "Introduction" to Peekskill: U.S.A. Subsequently victimized himself by the "day in court" technique of emerging fascism, the Executive Secretary of the Civil Rights Congress wrote: "August 27, 1949, was almost the great day of American fascism. On August 27, 1949, fascism unloosed its worst filth and anger against the American people in general and the Negro people in particular; and on that day, because Negro and white stood together, supported by the working class, fascism failed.... The great lesson of Peekskill is that the American people have the will to fight back and the power to smash tyranny and fascism"
No one who reads this exciting and illuminating story of Peekskill can hold on to the dangerous illusion of the benevolent state. All who read Peekskill: U.S.A. must gain new appreciation of the imminent peril of fascism, and renewed confidence in the democratic power of the American people, led by the working class, to triumph over both the hoodlum and the "legal" forces of reaction which the imperialist rulers of our country now seek to mobilize in their frantic but futile drive toward war and world domination.
DOXEY A. WILKERSON