The Golden Gate
But Peekskill would not remain forgotten. At best, we Americans are a remarkably insular folk, and a taste of the country adds to that. All's right with the world in the lovely fields and woods of our eastern country; nature created this properly, and what is illogical and insane penetrates with difficulty. I took the children swimming on Monday afternoon, and once again the world was at peace. I dwell on this because it was part and parcel of the amazing resistance the ordinary people of our land display toward the acceptance of an unmistakable phenomenon the cultivation and growth of American fascism. We simply do not believe it. We no longer seem to be politically aware people. We live in a variety of small worlds, and while some of this is good, most of it is not good; for it wraps around us an incredible mantle of indifference, and this very indifference promotes our indifference toward what the men and the women of the whole world are coming to think of us. "It can't happen here" is still deeply embedded in our conscience, and that salves us. When we do not hear the cries of the dying children in Korea, those of us with scruples explain it by saying that Korea is far away; but the truth is that we make our own measure of distance, and we hear precisely what we want to hear.
I went swimming with my children, and Peekskill had faded into the place of dreams, where all things lack reality. This had happened before and it would happen again. But the fires lit by those burning books are not easily extinguished.
A few minutes after we returned to the house that afternoon, the telephone rang. It was Bill Patterson of the Civil Rights Congress, that brave and tireless leader of almost every struggle for civil rights, calling from New York. "How are you feeling?" he asked.
"I'm feeling fine. I've just been swimming."
"Well, dry yourself and come into New York tomorrow. We're having a big mass meeting at the Golden Gate to protest this damned Peekskill business."
"Is there that much interest in it?"
"That much interest? For God's sake, man, this is a world event of paramount importance. Do you know what a mass, organized attempt to lynch Paul Robeson means? Do you know what a mass, organized attempt to murder two hundred people means? Haven't you seen the newspapers?"
"I thought I knew what it meant," I said. "But it's true that I haven't seen the papers."
"Well, look at them."
"What do you want me to do?"
"Be one of the speakers."
I said, "All right. I'll be there." But I had no idea of the significance of his words until I arrived at the Golden Gate Ballroom in Harlem on the following day.
The Golden Gate Ballroom, at 140th Street and Lenox Avenue, is, I imagine, the largest public auditorium in Harlem. At full capacity it will hold perhaps a little better than five thousand people, and this Tuesday night it was more than capacity. I parked my car a block away, but around the front of the Golden Gate was a massed crowd of Negroes, solid in front and spilling well onto Lenox Avenue, solid on the corners and spilling down each side street and across each side street. How many there were outside, I don't know; but I would think at the very least three thousand and possibly as many as six thousand. It is hard to estimate a crowd like that but at the very least, three thousand. And most curiously, no police in sight.
You would have to know the situation in Harlem at that time to understand the full significance of such a crowd with no police in attendance. You would have to recall the year-long series of police brutalities in Harlem, the beatings and killings upon the slightest provocation or upon no provocation at all; and you would have to take into consideration the fact that in the course of that year, from the summer of '48 to the summer of '49, Harlem had been turned, in many respects, into an armed camp, a place of military occupation by the New York City police force, to appreciate the extraordinary effect of such a crowd without police in attendance. (I should say, without police in sight.)
Well, there it was, and I had to get into the hall somehow; so I pushed and wriggled and slid and managed to make my way through. It was an orderly crowd, but it was a bitter crowd; it was an ominous, angry crowd, coldly disciplined with that kind of cold anger which is very certain and very deep-seated. It was that kind of a crowd, practically all Negro, which I pushed through until I was in a confined, enclosed, half-circle of space left directly in front of the entrance. And there were the police, almost a hundred of them, caught between the crowd inside and the crowd outside, the guest who came and stayed there they were.
Oh, that was something to see, almost a hundred New York City cops in a spot like that indeed, that was something to see. I have never seen the like of it before in New York, nor since, such quiet cops, such genteel cops, such silent cops, each one of them standing quietly and politely right in his place, eyes on the ground, nightstick clasped unostentatiously, their whole attitude being, "Just don't you dare notice us at all, because we're just here because we have to be here, duty and all that, you know; but after all, New York's finest, and who else takes children across the street or finds them when they're lost?" Yes, that was something; and I could only think of the French police when the working class of France comes out in all its mighty power and at such times the French police assigned to cover the demonstration stand very still, eyes on the ground, neutral in the best tradition... .
Well, when I got into that open space I realized that two huge mass meetings were going on at once. A low rumble of sound came from within the hall, and out here another speaker's stand had been set up, with an outdoor meeting going on, and with never a bit of interference or objection from those trapped cops, never an attempt on the part of six or seven of them to open a man's skull with their clubs as I have seen more times than I can count never a boot in a worker's groin when they are six to one or ten to one, and never a woman dragged by her hair, but just polite observation. People say so glibly that you can't change human nature; and I wish such people could have been there that night and seen how three or four thousand angry Negroes changed the nature of a large number of New York City police. And if you can change a cop's nature, I insist there is no limit to what you can do with human nature....
Once in there, I was spotted by the friend whose wife had been in the last car to go out of the picnic grounds. When I told him that I had never seen its like before, including the cops, he answered.
"They don't like to think that Paul Robeson could have died up there. This is the way they feel about that."
Ben Davis was speaking to the crowd on the street then. "Let them touch a hair of Paul Robeson's head," he cried bitterly, "and they'll pay a price they never calculated!"
A low roar; it was not a loud crowd; the noise was a throaty, deep one.
I spoke after Ben Davis, and then we went inside. The Golden Gate was packed with all it could hold. Now it began to sink in, what Peekskill was and what Peekskill meant. Now I knew something of what this towering, incredible man, who in a way was
bigger and stronger and prouder than any other man I have ever known, meant to his own people. The whole world had momentarily focused its attention on our wild, hopeless little battle in the hollow; but for these people the vileness that specific and stinking vileness which has sent the stench of American lynching into every corner of the earth was directed against the one great man who had broken through their bonds and bondage, who would not be jim-crowed, who would not hang his head, who would not crawl and who would not be bought off, not with dollars and not with cheap handouts from a cheapened and bloodstained government.
He came into the hall then, and the noise was fused into a somber, angry meaning. He came in very proud and very troubled; and though I had seen him before in so many places in all the years our paths had crossed, I had never seen him like this, so proud and so troubled, with the whole face of the future bare to him, waiting and challenging.
It was very hot there on that hot summer evening, and the manner in which that old, gilded ballroom was packed with humanity did not lessen the heat. Men sat in their shirtsleeves, but the sweat ran off them, and the heat hung like a heavy cloud under the ceiling. But no one rose to go, and one after another, people spoke of Peekskill, of what had happened on Saturday night, of the meaning inherent in it. You could not watch that crowd of serious,
troubled faces faces of people who had known little else than trouble and not understand that something new was in the making here. It was a bitter coming of age. "You have harassed our people so long, and now you go against this man whom we love and honor, because he is such proof of our seed of greatness."
I had read the papers by now. How does one write of such things? It is said that every man's gorge has a point of eruption, a moment when his stomach empties itself out of nausea and disgust; but there is no such point for the men who write in our "great" newspapers. The New York Times "regretted" that such un-American doings had occurred. The New York Herald Tribune added that such displays of vulgarity were "understandable," for all that they might be deplored. It is so wrong to make martyrs of these Reds, since it is precisely what they want. Contempt for Robeson; more contempt for Howard Fast. There is a better way to do these things, the New York Times sighed. But the obvious rags, the News and Mirror and Journal, howled with glee here it is, and you can bet we'll do better than Adolf ever did; and of reaction's press, only the social democratic New York Post showed a tremor of fear, a reluctant knowledge that for every Communist who dies in this particular auto da fé, there are a hundred "sincere" anti-communists who also go into the flames. All this I thought of as I spoke to those troubled, upturned faces, and again as I heard Robeson speak.
It is better than a year later now, and the conscience if so it can be called of the New York Post is dead, and also dead is any reluctance of the New York Times to embrace that fifth horseman of the Apocalypse whose name is fascism. Fascism, we have come to know, sits easily with the big buck, and a government with a dollar in one hand and a gun in the other can produce a remarkable silence within its own population; but those people who sat in the Golden Gate that night had a less than intimate acquaintance with the dollar, and as for the gun, it had never been turned away from them. They did not read the editorials in the Times too carefully, so they did not fully comprehend that Paul Robeson was a willing "tool" of Moscow, "duped" by the Communists, and that he had given up a vast income, gold-plated glory, and the approval of those same editorial writers in order to be pulled by the ears into some "foreign" conspiracy and risk his life and face prison and death, and know never a moment free from the threat of Mr. Hoover's gestapo, all because (Well, even insanity in editorials has its limits, and how can you argue ethics or morality with those who have no ethics and no morality either.) because he is a "tool," and wants to be a "tool," and isn't it nice to be a "tool?"
"Yes, I will sing wherever the people want to hear me," he said. "I sing of peace and freedom and of life!"
I have seen Harry Truman speak, and heard him too, for what it was worth, but I never saw tears pour from the eyes of those who listened, and I never saw love on their faces...
When the meeting was over, finally, the people poured out of the hall. The crowd outside had increased, and now the whole joined throng flurried and swept the police away. It swept them away without violence, but swept them away, and then turned into the avenue and formed ranks, and suddenly there was a massive parade marching down Lenox Avenue. Now the horse cops had come up, the "great" ones on their chestnut-colored steeds, but they would not stop this tonight and they too were swept out of the way and the huge concourse of people marched on down Lenox Avenue... .
It was late when I returned to Croton, and later still before I could fall asleep. There are a great many some ignorant, some shrewd who will tell you that there are no classes and no class struggle in America, and they are by and large cut out of the same cloth as those who insist that the Negro is perfectly free in this "most free" of all lands and that there is no oppression whatsoever in the home of the washing machine and the refrigerator. Thereby, Peekskill was the work of a few hoodlums expressing somewhat "excessive" resentment against "un-American" elements, although no one has fully explained why Americanism, or what passes under that title these days, always attracts to itself the filthiest, rottenest elements in the land, the jack-booted pimps and perverts who glory in the brass knucks and a chance to kick a woman in the stomach.
I was beginning to break through the remains of any such illusions. Peekskill did not just happen; it was not by the merest chance that the state and county police remained aloof until an opportunity arose to pin a framed murder rap on us; this was not the local doings of the local lumpen, and the FBI, agents did not just happen to be out for an evening stroll in the Hudson River Valley. The three sheriffs did not suddenly contract amnesia and stroll off at precisely the right moment, and the whole matter was by no means a spontaneous outbreak of local filth. After that evening at Golden Gate, I was able to see many more pieces of the puzzle than I had been able to see before. There was the Negro liberation movement, and there was Paul Robeson; and in that first attack there was no way for the fascists to know that Paul Robeson was not already within the picnic grounds. There was a plan somewhere for the imposition of a police state in America a plan brought to fulfillment at the time of this writing and certain aspects of the matter had to be tested. Piece after piece became clear, but still too many were missing for me to have the whole picture.
Most horribly, the remaining pieces were finally added a few days later.