The Peekskill rioters apparently believed that no "true American"
would disapprove their action. They were sadly mistaken.
The New York Herald-Tribune (9-6-49) stated:
". . . true Americans must feel deep shame and concern for the quality of citizenship that believes it is defending its country by catcalls and boos and rocks thrown at passing automobiles...."
The New York Times (9-4-49)
"Civil rights are rarely threatened except when those who claim them hold views hateful to the majority."
New York Sun (8-29-49):
"The local and county police clearly let the demonstration against the concert degenerate into a riot."
New York Post (9-6-49):
A mob of hoodlums has run wild ... proclaiming its contempt for democratic process, inflicting violence on real and alleged Communists and innocent bystanders with fine and frenzied impartiality...."
Christian Science Monitor (9-6-49):
"This is the Fascist pattern of violent suppression. The Ku Klux Klan pattern of lynch law...."
Fort Wayne (Indiana) News Sentinel (9-15-49)
"Whether or not Mr. Robeson follows the Kremlin manual is of less concern than that Americans shall not forget the First Amendment to the Constitution."
Des Moines Register (9-7-49):
"Those who gathered at Peekskill to hear Robeson were entirely within the law in doing so. Those who provoked the violence repudiated the Constitution, the Government and those things which Americans have long prided themselves on fairness and freedom."
Baltimore Sun (9-6-49):
"It is bad enough to know that such scenes could take place in a land presumably enlightened and presumably dedicated to the principles of free assembly and free speech...:.
Milwaukee Journal (9-6-49):
"There can be no surrender to mob rule and intimidation by force, from any quarter."
Indianapolis Times (9-7-49):
"The shameful violence that occurred after the Robeson meeting does not make pretty reading in American newspapers nor in the foreign press."
Akron (Ohio) Beacon-Journal (9-12-49):
.. A strange kind of patriotism...."
Oregonian (Portland) (8-30-49):
"Violence settles nothing ... Robeson had a Constitutional right to sing and to express his ideas at a public meeting...."
St. Louis Post-Dispatch (8-29-49):
"Veterans' organizations in Westchester County, New York, lowered themselves to the level of the Ku Klux Klan
Mr. George M. Craig, National Commander of the American Legion, issued the following statement on September 21, 1949
"The American Legion believes in the preservation of law and order and does not countenance violence in any situation short of war. The Legion will not give its official sanction to counter-demonstrations such as those at Peekskill. It prefers to leave pro-Communist demonstrations strictly alone."
The national headquarters of the Jewish War Veterans issued a directive to all units, prohibiting them from "initiating or participating in any public demonstration which poses potential consequence of riot or public disorder."
Yet even despite or perhaps because of the failure of this deliberate rioting to bestow leadership and national acclaim upon the anti-libertarians of Peekskill, the Associated Veterans' Council announced after the second riot that it planned a mass "patriotic" demonstration and parade on Sunday, October 2. In response to this obstinate claim to pride in what had occurred, Peekskill's first pronounced reaction against the rioting was expressed on September 15, through the words of thirteen Protestant and Jewish local clergymen:
"We, the undersigned clergy of Peekskill and surrounding communities, desire to express our attitude toward the recent disturbances at Hollow Brook and the aftermath in the community. . . . Acts of violence have been committed. Lies, malicious rumors about responsible citizens, vilification and inflammatory language about members of our minority races and faiths have been circulated. A vicious example of lawlessness has been held up to the world as our way of life.... There is no need to try to convince ourselves or the world that the ugliness is not real or that it is not here ... we must admit our fault and mistake. Admitting them, let us show shame and contrition for these violent and unlawful acts and attitudes. That outward and visible expression be given to this by a day of repentance and prayer in our places of worship on Sunday, Sept. 18th...."
A separate statement was made by the Rev. Joseph Stuhr, Catholic pastor of the Church of Assumption, in which he condemned the use of violence. "Acts of violence are contrary to the teachings of our church and the lawful procedure required by our form of government. While offended sensibilities are understandable they offer no excuse for violence. The use of force solves nothing. Instead it accentuates grievances and promotes discord and disunity."
A not dissimilar statement was later signed by clergymen in Scarsdale, New Rochelle and Mount Vernon.
Under this growing pressure from religious groups, the Associated Veterans' Council found it ill-advised to hold a patriotic mass rally. Eventually, the face-saving device was adopted of merging the proposed "patriotic" demonstration with the traditional Armistice Day Parade which Peekskill holds each November 11.
The Town Council of Cortlandt, scene of the riots, early in October passed an ordinance requiring permits to be obtained before public meetings could be held. The unconstitutionality of such an ordinance was clearly settled, as the town members of Cortlandt knew, in the American Civil Liberties Union test of the Jersey City Ordinance enacted by the then Mayor Frank Hague, in 1937. On the 18th of October, the town of Cortlandt enacted a second ordinance, making it a criminal offense to give a speech or to hold a meeting which is intended to break down law enforcement. The effect of this would be to penalize the sponsors of a meeting if it were attacked by an outside group. Thus, responsibility for the outbreak of violence at the concert would have been the sponsors, even though the attack was made by the inflamed veterans' group.
As Arthur Garfield Hays, general counsel of the ACLU, insisted to the Town Council, such an ordinance was clearly unconstitutional under the Supreme Court's recent decision in the Terminiello case, was simply a club to use against unpopular minorities, and would make such minorities criminal because of what their opponents might do to them. The ACLU immediately announced its intention to bring a test case of both ordinances.
Four Yale Law School professors called upon Attorney General McGrath to launch a federal investigation of the outrages because Governor Dewey "from the beginning failed to take decisive action." They said that "positive measures on behalf of the American tradition of political freedom must be taken now. If a situation of this sort is allowed to drift, without action from the leaders of our government, it can only too quickly get completely out of hand."
Signers of this statement were Professors Thomas I. Emerson, Fleming James, Jr., Fowler Harper and David Haber.
Clifford J. Durr, president of the National Lawyers Guild, appealed for a federal inquiry: "Any idea that the present officials of the State of New York could be relied upon to vindicate the ends of justice and the principles of democracy without federal intervention should be completely set aside by the statement and action of Governor Dewey on ordering a grand jury inquiry."
The American Veterans Committee (AVC), through its National Vice-Chairman, Joseph A. Clorety, Jr., called upon national leaders of the Legion, the VFW, CWV and JWV, "to prevent further outrages such as have occurred in Peekskill." The AVC said it blamed Peekskill veterans' organizations for the "two disgraceful episodes."
Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt stated: "This is not the type of thing that we believe in the United States. I dislike everything that Paul Robeson is now saying.... I still believe, however, that if he wants to give a concert, or speak his mind in public, no one should prevent him from doing so. No one who disagrees is obliged to stay or even to go to hear him."