De Toledano,









M. Wesley




INT: Can you tell me a little bit about what groups were there, especially on the second occasion? What groups you know, were forming, this sort of coalition against your father, who was there, that they were armed and so on and so forth.

PR: The people who staged the Peekskill riot were a variety of people. First of all, the first concert was attacked in editorials in the local newspaper, which nobody paid much mind. The core of people who formed the rioters were conservative veterans groups, the American Legion and veterans of foreign wars to be specific and they recruited veterans and especially blue-collar ethnic folks, who in classic ways have always been set against blacks. I mean, they were themselves kept down, but they were always quote above the blacks, so there was always this tension for, you know, more than a century and in times of conservatism when unions are under attack, when the left is under attack, those tensions between ethnic working class whites and blacks tend to get exaggerated. So, they recruited from that class, if you will, of white people, but the organisational thrust was from the conservative veterans unions and they were aided and abetted by local police, politicians and press. That is, the local police were there, laughing and joking with the mob as they beat people up who came. The FBI was out in force taking notes and not intervening. So it was clear that local law enforcemeofficials were hostile and the slogans were Racist... Anti-Black, Anti-Semitic, Anti-Communist, woven together, not necessarily in that order. So the Anti-Communist hysteria, Robeson is a Red, Black Traitor to the Country was woven together with, well, son married a Jewish girl, so it was [unintelligible], that was the framework for the hysteria, which then gathered in a lot of ordinary people, who were caught up in the anti-Communist, anti-black hysteria. And they said, well this is an invasion, these people are coming in to our community from down there in New York, where all the blacks and Jews are, you see. There was also that aspect that was whipped up.

INT: But Peekskill become a sort of touchstone for American liberals and liberals... why do you think that was?

PR: Peekskill became a turning point because when the second concert was organised, twenty five thousand people came, about a quarter of the audience was black, mainly because many black people hadn't heard dad sing. I mean, they couldn't afford to come to Carnegie Hall, so they came just to come to a concert. There was a huge security force of unarmed union men from left wing unions from New York, mostly the Fur-workers Union, Local Sixty Five, Marine Cooks and Stewards, other New York unions who brought a force of four thousand men, about two thousand of them made a human wall around the perimeter of the concert area, an extraordinary sight. Total discipline, it was an extraordinary operation. They didn't have a single weapon, not even a penknife. Secondly, there were over a thousand state policemen who were brought by the state authorities, quote to keep order, so and they kept the anti-concert demonstrators separate from the concert, so ostensibly, things were quite normal. Until shortly before the concert began, the state police forced the perimeter to withdraw about a hundred yards into the concert grounds and we began to get a barrage of rocks thrown at the perimeter men. So the rocks were being piled up in full view of the police, so obviously we figured out that the police weren't going to be on our side. The other thing were the slogans of the... it went, go back to Russia you white niggers, for instance, over and over. Commies, niggers, Jews, you got in, but you're not going to get out alive. Hitler didn't finish the job, we will. So and then the other slogan was, wake up America, Peekskill did, which evokes the Nazi slogan of 1933, Deutschland erwachen, Germany awake. So all of a sudden, it was like you had a replay of Hitler Germany, real Nazi stuff right outside of New York. That was scary, weird. And they weren't just rednecks, quote unquote. I mean, there were hundreds of people, school kids, grandmothers, faces contorted with hate, screaming obscenities. I mean, ordinary people were whipped up in hysteria, not just some thugs. So it was scary in that regard too. People were totally caught up in this.

INT: Well, where were you and what did you see?

PR: My wife and I came down from the concert, from the summer camp and as we got there, we got there early, there were... the concert guards, the trade union guards with their caps and we didn't know what we were going to run into and we saw these guys on both sides of the road smiling, telling us to come in and then we saw these thousands of men, unarmed, guarding the place. It was extraordinary, just an extraordinary sight. And a kind of an atmosphere. I mean, thousand of concert-goers came and brought their lunches, kids, you know, spread out on the lawn, so it was kind of like a festive picnic and then the concert began and it's interesting. Dad sang ten songs, beginning with 'Go Down Moses', ending with 'Ol' Man River', no speeches, no nothing, just performance. I mean, you don't need to make a political speech, which is interesting. There was one incident, though, that I remember vividly, because I was in the... I relieved some of the guys, those of us who came, the able-bodied men relieved some of the guys who had been standing in the perimeter and in the security detail inside the grounds. And I spent time in both areas, I happened to be inside the grounds as dad's car came in and, you know, they greeted him, he got out and they said, no, stay in the car, all right, until we check security. Well, checking security was not just inside, but it turns out they had found snipers on the hill and he was going to sing under an oak tree in the open. So he would be a sitting duck. So they came back to the car and they said, maybe you don't want to... shouldn't perform, because there's this risk of a sniper's bullet. He said, no, thousands of people have come, it's a free speech issue, I'm going to sing. All right, we'll take special precautions. The special precautions was calling for a dozen volunteers to put their bodies between dad and the hill, to take the bullet if there is one. And so I saw three dozen, maybe fifty guys, most of them white, about to come to blows for the privilege of risking their lives for my father, right. The first guy, he said OK, we'll draw straws. The commander said, we'll draw straws. The first guy, who happened to be, I remember, a guy named Sid, big guy, happened to be Jewish, drew a short straw and sat down and cried, 'cos he couldn't. we can't guarantee that you won't be the target. So I recall that because, I was then twenty one years old, and you know all about the right things, you shouldn't be prejudiced and so on but having witnessed that, if I lived several life times, it would make it impossible for me to hate white people in the abstract and what impressed in me about that experience is that the absence of prejudice, you get rid of prejudice in your gut from experience, not just from the fear, and that was the important thing. But one of the most important experiences I have ever had, to witness that.

INT: Extraordinary story. So after there was this huge violence and then your father... what happened to your father after that, was he scared incidentally during Peekskill?

PR: Well, sure. Only a fool wouldn't be scared. What happened at the end of the concert is that this picnic then dissolved into an enormous violence, 'cos what the demonstrators had done is have piles of rocks all the way for miles along the road, in both directions. What the state police did is make the cars go out and go ten miles an hour through that gauntlet, so the road, I mean, cars were smashed, the windows were smashed, the road was actually slick with human blood for a mile in both directions. Fortunately, nobody was killed, but anybody who got out and asked for help, the cops would literally beat them. And when dad's car came out, the police, he was in a car of a seven car convoy, three, one and three, when his car came out, the police tried to smash in the windows with their clubs and people on the side of the road were throwing rocks, so there were four guys in the car with dad, they made him get down on the floor, two guys on top of him, they held blankets up to the side and the driver said to the guy sitting next to him, if something happens to me, push me out, take the... but get this thing out of here. So, fortunately they got out, in part because the lead two cars peeled off on both shoulders, cleared the shoulders with the cars, drove the cars and forced the cops and everybody else to get out of the way and dad's car went straight up the hill, rather than turn right or left, gunned it up the hill and got out through a side road. So hundreds of people were injured, especially blacks. There were buses from Harlem, where every window was stoned, was broken out and buses were stoned all the way down to Yonkers, I mean they were targets, anybody black was a target. But you asked was dad frightened. I think anybody but a fool would be frightened. It's what you do about it and I think all of us, including dad, we just... we did what we had to do. I mean, I think you kind of... Time slows down for you, you, you know, you draw on all your resources and you get...

(Sound breaks up)

PR: ...and you don't worry... You find if yworry about being frightened, you become totally paralysed, so by then I had been a college athlete and so I think I learned not to be and certainly dad had... I know he was frightened, 'cos I worked with him afterwards in many situations, but he handled it well, he handled it well. A man of great dignity. So, we got throuthat, but it left an indelible mark, I think, on all of us who experienced it. I mean, you could get killed by a nasty mob in your own back yard, I mean that was clear.