1. Sidney Marcus: A Peekskill Case History by Howard Fast
Reprinted from The New York Fur Worker
On September 4, 1949, when the bad trouble of Peekskill happened, Sidney Marcus was where you would expect to find him, a part of the inside circle of fur workers who made an honor guard for Paul Robeson. If someone had said, such and such is Sidney Marcus, you would have looked for a tall, broad-set young man of twenty-eight, maybe a hundred and eighty pounds, big of limb and wide on his feet, with the large competent hands of a worker; the face is open, round and honest. A good man if things should become rough, but it is rougher on the truck where one of his brothers stands between Robeson and the dirty sniper, lying on the hillside, waiting for a chance to shoot the way his kind have always shot.
But, as you know, nothing happened in the summer sunshine of the morning, and Sidney Marcus stood in his place and his brother stood on the truck, and beyond the thousands who listened to the singing, they could see the line of workers on the outside perimeter, stretching over hill and dale, trade union men against the fascist scum parading back and forth on the road.
And in time, the day would be over, and Sidney Marcus would go back to his wife Sylvia whom he had not seen in six weeks. That was because things had been bad for ten months before this morning, which I will have to explain somewhat. Sidney Marcus had been a cutter, good, skilled work which paid over a hundred a week; but not good work when you don't get it, and in all that time of ten months he had only two weeks of work. And because his little girl, Pauline, five years old, had developed a bronchial condition and needed fresh air and a touch of sunshine, his wife had become a waitress in a summer place and the little girl had gone with her. A man gets lonely for a wife and kid, but now theirs was going to be a good homecoming, since only two days before this, Sidney Marcus had gotten a new job, a good job, a steady job.
And he would have seen them both today if not for his being there. The funny part of it was that when his local business agent called up the night before and told him that they wanted some workers to see Robeson through at Peekskill, the kid was coughing again. Otherwise, all three of them would have been here today, in this lovely valley and lovely sunshine and country place.
The concert finished, and Sidney Marcus did his job, which was to stand guard stand guard for a people's artist, a tall, brave man with a deep and wonderful voice. Which was proper, for his voice was the workers' voice, and their way of acknowledging it was to make a wall between him and the sick, distorted creatures of fascism who postured and gestured on the road.
Then Sidney Marcus started home, in a bus full of workers, their wives and their kids; and as the bus passed out onto the road, the rocks came flying, hurled by the brave defenders of "the American way of life." The kids and some of the women lay down on the floor of the bus. But some had to sit up and watch the way; the driver had to sit up and drive his bus, and Sidney Marcus sat next to him, and there he was sitting when a great rock was hurled through the windshield and caught him full in the face, rock and a thousand pieces of knife-like glass full in the face; so that this worker who was sitting there one moment strong and unafraid, was the next moment in agony and pain, with a mass of bloody, broken flesh where his face had been, with no nose where his nose had been, with splinters of smashed bone where his cheek had been, and with a glass-torn mask of horror where his eyes had been.
This in a moment, and so was America defended by such filth as had defended Nazi Germany; and later, in the course of Sidney Marcus' treatment, Dr. Joseph Goldman, former Lieutenant Colonel in charge of plastic reconstruction in Western Europe, was moved to remark that never, in all his war experience, had he seen a wound so horrible, so painful, so destructive as this.
But in the bus, Sidney Marcus had no comparative knowledge; he only knew as he lay in his blood and his comrades tried to make him comfortable, that the pain was dreadful and he was no stranger to pain. The bus halted and they asked a state trooper for help, and the trooper gave them a string of obscene curses and beat them on with his club, and told them to "find the god damned hospital by themselves!" So by themselves, they found Peekskill Hospital, where those who carried Sidney Marcus inside were met with hatred, anti-Semitism and implied threats. Not relief from pain such as one gives to the enemy in wartime but hatred and threats....
And thereby began for Sidney Marcus eight weeks of a most peculiar and awful hell, eight weeks of blindness, eight weeks of unremitting pain. His sinus nerves were smashed. His cheek-bone was pulverized. His nose had to be reconstructed plastically. One eye was gone forever, cut to pieces by glass. The other eye is still in danger. He had to submit to operation without anesthetic; he had to lie sleepless for days, wondering whether he would ever see again. Moved finally to Mt. Sinai Hospital, he lay for what seemed to be endless days and nights, racked by pain which can only be noted, not described. "The nerves are mending," they told him. "The nerves are building." This was a Jewish hospital, so there was no anti-Semitism; but a doctor in attendance, Dr. Mark Baum was his name, picked up the Peekskill thread, and taunted the blinded, pain-racked worker with news that eleven Communists had been sentenced to prison.
So Sidney Marcus learned the role of the working class; blinded, suffering, looking for a future where he could find only pain and more pain, he learned the quality of hatred that capitalism distills and he reflected upon the price that the worker pays for fascism. His was the essence of the price, a deeper hurt, but in other ways no different from the endless and countless hurts inflicted on American workers for a hundred years. Still denied to him was the day he had planned to
spend with his wife and his child, and now there was the ghost risen of all the days ahead that he could not plan for since how does the wife and child live, when the husband, a worker, is blinded?
Then there came a day when he was able to open one eye just a little, and through the stabbing barbs of light, there was sight. Since then, a good deal of the sight in that eye has returned, but there is no positive assurance yet that he will retain his sight.
Now there is this to say for what are we when we forget a Sidney Marcus? If we forget, who will remember? So there is this to say, concerning a Colonel Sweeney, a representative of the little man who is governor of New York State, who came to visit Sidney Marcus at Peekskill Hospital; and there he hammered at the man behind the broken flesh and the bandages, saying:
"Who paid you, Sidney Marcus? Who paid you to come to Peekskill with Robeson?" Asking him, "In the name of the governor of New York State, who paid you, Sidney Marcus?"
The old refrain of the dishonorable ones; all things they can measure with a buck, including the soul of a man.
"God damn you to hell," cried Sidney Marcus, "I am a worker, do you understand, a fur worker in Ben Gold's union!"
Well, we learn a little at a time, and how slowly, and with how much pain; but our debt to Sidney Marcus is that we learn, and that debt is still unpaid. As he said, he knew what he was doing; his mother and his father were workers and his two brothers as well; and he hasn't any regrets, and this wasn't the first time he went out on a picket line or a demonstration, and it came to him this way and to others in Spain and to others in France or North Africa. Peekskill is as good a place as any, providing we don't forget.
Sidney Marcus is not going to forget; the score was engraved upon him, his body and his heart and his hopes; so he knows the score. He wants other people to know, and in that desire, he is right.
2. Eyewitnesses: Quoted by Westchester Committee
A. H. K. on the first concert: "At 8:15 I left the defense lines on the bridge and made my way through the ambush to telephone the state police. When I got out to the highway I saw a long line of cars waiting in the dark. As I stood there, a Negro and two white people approached the entrance to the grounds. They were stopped by a mob, which surrounded them and began to push them around. As I watched, I saw about a dozen men detach themselves from the mob and push the Negro up against an embankment. I followed. The Negro kept saying, 'I'm an American! I have a right to attend this concert!' Suddenly, one of the men struck him. He went down and the gang piled on top of him yelling, 'Kill him! Let's finish him!' They were beating him unmercifully. I saw them kick him in the body and step on his neck. Then I saw a man in soldier's uniform standing on the side. I said to him, 'Come on, buddy, this ain't right,' He said, 'That's right, this ain't the American way,' and dashed into the gang. I managed to half drag the Negro through some parked cars and into the woods. If I hadn't, I think they would have murdered him."
B. Irving W., Corona, N. Y.: "Repeatedly, men in their late twenties and also middle aged, wearing American Legion hats, and light blue overseas caps of another organization, came up to the low stone wall near me, screamed filthy unprintable remarks, shook their fists and threatened, 'You'll never get out of here alive!' and 'Wait till you yellow bastards try to leave tonight!' These were definitely mature participants of the parade and not teen-age boys."
C. Max B., N. Y. City: "Suddenly a rock shattered the closed window on the right side where I was sitting. I was in the front seat. I immediately took off my glasses. This was followed by another rock which hit the windshield directly in front of me. The third rock crashed against the side window nearest me. I found blood on my face, my left ear, my right elbow. There were fine particles of glass around my eyes, both arms, and my chest."
D. Bernice B., Brooklyn: "Our driver tried to drive as quickly as he could, but the police kept slowing us down.
"One of the men in the bus yelled, 'Duck!', but before she could duck she saw a rock come through the window and felt both her eyes, her mouth, and her right hand burn. As soon as possible one of the people bandaged her eyes, and had her spit out saliva combined with blood and glass fragments."
E. Robert A., Bronx: "I took the bleeding woman to the Peekskill Hospital. When I tried to go upstairs and inquire about her, I was almost thrown out bodily. I cannot actually describe this entire affair, because it was like a nightmare. Block after block the crowd was throwing rocks and laughing. It was unbelievable. It's only a miracle that every passenger in the car was not killed."
F. Charles M., Bronx: reported that his bus was "stopped at Hartsdale by police of Greenburgh. All the way down, the bus was chased by cars who tried to run them off the road. People in the bus were covered with flying glass. They were stoned all the way to Briarcliff Manor. People came out of the bars to stone them."
G. Tim M., Bronx: "Never in my life have I seen innocent people attacked with such viciousness. I was born and raised in Ireland. I saw the Black and Tans at their worst. I have read of, and seen documentary films of, Fascist and Nazi atrocities in Europe. Last Sunday I saw the same thing happen in Peekskill, only more vicious. I saw American fascists, without provocation, deliberately attack, with intent to kill, peaceful, law-abiding citizens who were returning to their homes after attending an American musical concert, while the lily-white forces of law and order stood idly by.
"Fear to speak out at this time against these fascist attacks makes us silent partners of the attackers."
H. Nina P., N. Y.: "A group of hoodlums came directly in front of the bus and threw a huge boulder in. This boulder struck my left hand and when I looked down I saw that the third joint of my middle finger was barely hanging by one tendon. Witnessing this whole incident were state troopers who were laughing.
"As the stones kept coming, all I could think of was: This is not America. This is Nazi Germany. I don't want to live like this.
"The surgeon considered it necessary to amputate the third joint and part of the second so that the tendons could cross and I would have most use of the finger."
3. N. Y. Herald Tribune August 29, 1949
"Members of the audience entered cars and started up the hill. As they neared the top, they were stopped by a road block of boulders and logs, and ordered out of or pulled from the vehicles. The men were manhandled, the women permitted to depart with jeers. The machines were smashed on tops, sides and windows with rocks and eight of them turned over. They were removed by wreckers about 2 o'clock this morning.
4. Leslie Matthews, Staff Correspondent for the Negro Paper, New York Age
"This is being written a few short hours after my departure from the Hell on Earth that was Peekskill, N. Y., this Sunday before Labor Day, 1949. I still hear the frenzied roar of crowds, the patter of stones against glass and flesh. I hear the wails of women, the impassioned screams of children, the jeers and taunts of wild-eyed youths, I still smell the sickening odor of blood flowing from freshly opened wounds, gasoline fumes from autos and buses valiantly trying to carry their loads of human targets out of the range of bricks, bottles, stones, sticks. I still feel the violence, the chaos, which permeated the air. I still hear, smell, and feel Peekskill."