October 30, 1949
Howard Fast's Eyewitness Account of Fascist Mob's Attack
By Howard Fast
[Howard Fast, famous novelist, had been scheduled to be master of ceremonies at the Robeson concert. He led the group of 42 Negro and white men who held back the gang of hoodlums and protected the women and children from their attacks. -- Ed. Note.]
The following is my own personal account of what happened at the Lakeland Picnic Grounds, outside of Peekskill, on the evening of Saturday, the 27th of August. This includes only what I saw, what I took part in, and therefore I am willing to swear to these facts before any authority or committee. Since I was slated to be chairman of the concert, I arrived at the grounds an hour before the scheduled time, at seven o'clock in the evening. Mine was next to the last car admitted to the grounds by the organized fascist mob. I use the term fascist advisedly.
When I arrived, there were already 40 or 50 carloads of fascists at the spot and several hundred more on foot. When I entered, about 10 young people, boys and girls, representing the Civil Rights Congress, were at the entranceway. I drove a quarter of a mile and parked my car near the bandstand, where some 2,000 seats were already set up. In this part of the picnic grounds, there were about 150 people, many young folks, children and women, As it turned out later, there were not more than 50 men, including teen-age boys, on our side.
THE ATTACK STARTS
A few minutes after I arrived, a boy came running down from the state road and informed us that the fascists had started the attack and that the road was solidly blocked. All the available boys and men--about 25--ran up to the entrance to the grounds. There we discovered that the double entrance had been blocked, one part with a Legion truck, the other with a stone barricade. As we stood there, the fascists launched their first attack, about 300 of them against our handful. There was a brief melee, in which two of our boys were hurt, quite badly. We noticed now that most of the attackers were heavily liquored up; nor were they teen-age boys, as so many stories reported. Most of them were men between 35 and 50--and one of their leaders was identified as a prominent real estate man of Peekskill.
At this point, three sheriffs appeared. They were in plain clothes, with gold badges pinned on. Aside from three other men--who were identified as Justice Department agents, and who stood quietly by--these were the only police we on the inside saw for the next two and a half hours. The three sheriffs argued half-heartedly with the fascists; one of them with sufficient guts could have broken up the thing right there; but all three, in all their actions, were against us and on the side of the fascists.
While the sheriffs argued, we formed ourselves into three lines, sending the girls back to the bandstand [leaving the males] stretched across the road, which was embanked at this point. There were exactly 42 of us, and we organized into seven groups of six, with a squad leader for each group. We were about half Negro and half white, half teen-age boys, and half men. We had eight trade unionists among us, four of them merchant seamen. From here on, for the next two hours, we maintained our discipline.
At 7:30 p.m., the second attack came, by about 300 of the fascists. They used rocks, fenceposts, knives and billies. Their slogan, constantly shrieked at us, was, "No one of you leave here alive." This was the main refrain; they added to it, "You came in--you don't go out." "We're Hitler's boys--out to finish his job." "We're going to get Robeson." In beating off the second attack, four of our people were injured, but they remained in place. We were driven back about 20 years to a narrow part of the road, high and fenced in. We determined to remain here.
ATTACK ON WOMEN
At 7:45, word came up from the bandstand that a dozen fascists had crossed the fields and attacked the women and children. We detached one squad of six and sent them back. We told them to tell the driver of a truck, which had brought a load of children up from Golden's Bridge, to bring his truck up the road to barricade it. A few minutes later, the truck appeared, and we swung it broadside across the road, forming ourselves in three ranks in front of it with arms locked. By now, there were well over 500 of the fascists, and in the next half hour they attacked us twice without breaking our ranks. They had worked themselves into a screaming alcoholic frenzy, and they repeated their threats [that no one] would leave the picnic grounds alive. In the course of these two attacks, they tore up the fence rails and used them as weapons.
A little after eight o'clock, the burned a 12-foot cross on the picnic grounds. A hillock hid the cross, be we saw the glare. Three Negro girls came up and told us that the attack on the group below had been repulsed. We put the girls in the truck and had them lie down. It should be noted that the majority of the threats--and violence too--was directed against the Negro men in our ranks. It was quite evident that death faced any of them who might be caught, yet none of them bolted; no of them broke ranks. They gave a rare and fine display of quiet courage and discipline.
BARRAGE OF ROCKS
At 8:15, the fascists had spread out on either side of us. They did not attack, but started a barrage of heavy rocks, many as large as grapefruits. We stood in line in the gathering dark, arms locked, singing, "Freedom is our struggle, we shall not be moved." Every few seconds, there was a sickening thud as a rock crashed against the skull of one of our boys. Some held their places with the blood pouring from their torn scalps; others went down. Those we carried back and laid in the truck.
By now, we realized that in just a few minutes more, most of us would be out and that the field would be clear for the fascists to attack the women and children. Now only 20 of us were left on our feet; three had been detached to make a run through the fields in the darkness and call Governor Dewey; the rest were injured. So we decided to drive the truck back slowly, using it as a shield, and join the handful at the bandstand below. The truck, however, went off the road but did not crash; the 20 of us stayed together and ran down to the bandstand, pursued by a howling mob of 1,000 or so of the "new Americans."
A short distance from the bandstand, our 20 rallied, and, joined by a dozen more from around the bandstand, we halted the fascist attack. That sounds strange, but it happened that way; the thousand "new Americans" for all their big talk, were not very brave hand to hand in the dark.
It was a little after nine now, and we formed a half-circle against the bandstand, the women and children inside and the men and boys outside. One of the deputy sheriffs had pulled a switch, cutting out the floodlights, as a deliberate move to help the fascists. It boomeranged, however, for in the dark they were afraid to attack us. For the next half-hour, we stood in this tight circle, singing The Star Spangled Banner, God Bless America, and Solidarity [Forever; as accompaniment] to our singing, the fascists, a few yards away, made a bonfire of our books, music and pamphlets. They circled their fire, screaming obscenities, smashing chairs and tossing chairs onto the fire.
We learned later that state police had been on the main road since eight o'clock, but it wasn't until 9:45 that they made their appearance at the scene of the fighting. A little before that, the three immaculate Justice Department men appeared and offered to take our most badly injured to the hospital. There were no barricades for their car. Two of our boys with head wounds went with them.
From 10 o'clock on, order prevailed. The hundreds of fascist melted away like magic. State police took over, polite, non-committal, helpful now. Our people remained disciplined and quiet, and the state police took them out of the grounds in carloads of six. A half hour past midnight, our last car left the picnic grounds.
A few facts in conclusion. Everyone in the fight on the entrance road--of our people--suffered some injury. None of us were exempt. Simply because I was asked to write this, I want to pay my own tribute to the 36 people who held the road for almost two hours. If not for their calm and discipline, there would have been a shameful mass murder that would have echoed across the world as a national disgrace. The nature of what happened was organized fascism, with murder as its intent--directed particularly against the Negro people. It was tacitly approved and helped by every level of state and Westchester County police, and originally fomented in a public fashion by the Peekskill Evening Star.