Robert Scheer SI Podcast

Joel Whitney: That Time the KKK Tried to Kill Paul Robeson

The "Finks" author joins Robert Scheer to discuss a little-told episode in the socialist actor and singer’s life and why it’s seemingly been erased from our collective American memory.
Paul Robeson, in 1942, leads Oakland shipyard workers in the singing of the National Anthem.
Paul Robeson, in 1942, leads Oakland shipyard workers in the singing of the National Anthem. [National Archives]

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Writer Joel Whitney grew up near the site of the “Peekskill riots,” where Klu Klux Klan members violently attacked a Paul Robeson fundraiser concert for the progressive Civil Rights Congress. In a recent piece for Jacobin, Whitney reflects on how strange it is that he and his fellow classmates in the region “never heard about Robeson in our history or social studies courses.” Robeson, a socialist actor, singer, and civil rights activist, played an important role in 20th century American history, as Gerald Horne brilliantly documents in his 2016 biography “Paul Robeson: The Artist as Revolutionary.” Yet Whitney is just one of many Americans who didn’t learn about Robeson in school—and a familiar name has a lot to do with it: President Harry S. Truman. 

The “Finks” author joins Robert Scheer to discuss the little-known Peekskill riots as well as Robeson’s legacy and his ties to the Soviet Union on this week’s installment of “Scheer Intelligence.” In 1946, Robeson helped found the American Crusade Against Lynching (ACAL), but rather than find support in Truman’s White House, the actor and musician was targeted by an anti-left witch hunt—that in many ways set the stage for McCarthyism—and was smeared as a “dupe of communists.”

 “This climate of anti-communism and red-baiting served as the backdrop for his performance” in 1949 in Whitney’s hometown, the author explains. While exploring the significance of these riots, in which it became clear rioters wanted to kill Robeson, Whitney also effectively ties the harrowing episode and its erasure from U.S. collective memory to today’s “recent wave of right-wing hostility to leftist books, wokeness, and critical race theory.” 

Listen to the full discussion between Whitney and Scheer as the two consider how a very American tradition of right-wing persecutions is still rearing its ugly head today, and why Paul Robeson is an American we should celebrate rather than forget.



Robert Scheer


Joshua Scheer


Robert Scheer:

Hi, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of Scheer Intelligence, where the intelligence comes to my guest. In this case, someone I’ve had on before, Joel Whitney, who wrote a great book called Finks: How the CIA Tricked the World’s Best Writers. And we did a show on that, but I wanted to talk to him again.

First of all, we’re in a period where we now have a new McCarthyism. It’s a little more difficult to define since it all has to do more with Russia, which is no longer a communist country. In fact, Putin defeated the communists and so forth. But that doesn’t seem to bother anybody. And, but we’re in a troubled time having dissent about foreign policy. And then I read this article that Joe Whitney wrote in Jacobin Magazine. Very good. And it was about Paul Robeson. And as he points out, even though he grew up in Peekskill, New York, which was the scene of this terrible Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazi riot against Paul Robeson singing there in 1949, even though he grew up in that town, he didn’t know anything about Paul Robeson and then he proceeded to learn something.

So take us back to your hometown and that drive in, well, abandoned drive in theater, where the 1949 concert was held and set the stage of your article.

Joel Whitney:

Absolutely. Yeah. And thanks for having me. And it’s a pleasure to speak with your audience again. Yeah. I think when Robeson came to perform in Peekskill in August 1949, it was very much kind of the Truman moment. He had been kind of the conservative vice president under FDR, and there was kind of this reorientation, not unlike the one we’re going through now, Robeson had played in Peekskill with great success, I think three times prior to this event. But the event was aborted in August, thanks to violence that saw at least a dozen injured. I think that was probably a low estimate. He had his car pelted with rocks as did other performers. Cars were flipped over. It was canceled before it even started with the police sort of gloating about that. Veterans of foreign wars, the American Legion worked together with the Peekskill evening star and Catholic organizations, along with the Republican party to whip the town up into a frenzy.

And the veterans even destroyed the stage. If you believe the literature that they themselves wrote, it was an attempt to lynch Robeson, Gerald Horn, the author of a biography of Robeson also echoes this as did Robeson’s wife. It was clear they were trying to kill him, but he escaped basically unscathed and came back to sing to the people of Westchester, that part of Northern Westchester, where as you said, I came from, part of my youth. He successfully pulled off the second concert. It was not without its violence, but the whole thing was a charity event to raise money for the Civil Rights Congress. It was trying as hard as it could to end lynching as was Robeson, to end the poll tax and the Civil Rights Congress even came to call the violence against black people a genocide before the UN a year later. So obviously communist, according to the establishment, who could not tell the differences between left wing activists who were patriotic about the constitution, and communists.

So of course it had to be disbanded. And I mean the Civil Rights Congress had to be disbanded along with the concert itself. It fell victim to the Smith, maybe the McCarran act. Now of course, as you say, I was from there, I wasn’t yet born. I heard about it much later, too late, as far as I was concerned, since I grew up there. It was after my single mother’s job brought her there, that I moved there in middle school and high school. And I just never heard about it in my social studies courses. I didn’t know people who would talk about it.

Robert Scheer:

You never heard much about Paul Robeson, and I know because I teach in college that my students have never heard about Paul Robeson and he was one of the major cultural political figures in American history and talk about, I mean, canceling out people and because he was highly respected one of the great opera singers actors, an all American football player at Rutgers, a great symbol of hopefully integration coming after World War II, a great internationally known artist, but he dared to criticize Truman, his role in getting us into the cold war and dared to express some different view of our enemy and boom. He became a non person to this day. Very few people know about it. So what I loved about your Jacobin article was that you brought Robeson back to life. Tell us about him.

Joel Whitney:

Yeah. I think you put your finger right on it. I mean, to understand what happened, it’s helpful to understand the moment. This is post World War II, which in some ways maybe at least as far as the democratic party is concerned is undergoing a reorientation. FDR proved in many ways to rise to the moment after the great depression and World War II by moving left. And he had to fix many of the maladies of capitalism that had become so glaringly obvious, but his VP Truman, Harry S. Truman, of course moved back to the center, which is a rightward motion. And I think that’s what’s similar to the moment we’re in now. It was, Harry Truman was facing pressure in 1947, as Greece was moving to civil war, the forces on the left, the socialists were at war effectively with the monarchists, the US sided with them on his way to creating the Truman Doctrine and it’s worth considering his words.

He contrasted the kind of boogeyman of the left with, with capitalism by calling it a second way of life based upon the will of a minority forcibly imposing upon the majority. He said, it relies upon terror and oppression, a controlled press and radio, fixed elections, and the suppression of personal freedoms. I believe that it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures. I believe that we must assist free peoples to work their own destinies in their own way. If you contrast that soaring rhetoric, Bob, with the US’ support for right wing dictators and colonialists, you have a hint at the hypocrisy, or if you contrast it with what happened in Peekskill, you have a major hint at the hypocrisy.

But even worse, the so-called Truman doctrine of intervention likewise ushered in the loyalty program, whereby Truman tried to preempt right wing anti communist red-baiters, doing their work for them, essentially. Not everywhere. He vetoed some of the worst of it later on, but with executive order 9835, he tested the loyalty of government employees, loyalty being a very ill defined word.

He opened up files on the two million government employees who were employed by the government at that time who could now be subject to, an officially sanctioned government witch hunt that viewed them as presumptively guilty from the outset. In total, by 1951, 3 million officials from the American government were investigated with no due process. And it was a huge waste of money. No cases of espionage were uncovered. A few hundred employees were dismissed for reasons we’ll never know. All of this preceding the Korean war, which was a human rights nightmare for the Korean people in the north and the south, but especially in the north. So that’s part of what leads up to Robeson going to Peekskill. But he was almost entirely against this program that I just described, this paranoia over loyalty. He, Robeson had no sympathy for that. He was looking for a different kind of response to questions of loyalty and disloyalty.

So Robeson was-

Robert Scheer:

Well, one of the inconvenient realities is that these communists actually had been very strong and very early supporters of the civil rights movement. And in Robeson, who was the son of a slave, runaway slave, who had ended up in Princeton, New Jersey and got involved with a more, much more educated wife and had a child, Paul Robeson, who was a stellar intellect student, great performer and so forth. And he was an early participant in the civil rights movement.

Despite being a successful artist, he chose to take his fame further and he became a victim of this red-baiting. And we see a lot of that. Now, ironically, there’s a barely reported story that, again, they found some Russian now, but now they’re no longer communist Russians who supposedly gave money to a black group in America calling themselves black socialists and their homes were raided and there were press conferences in Florida and Chicago and elsewhere denouncing them. You have that same hysteria about the enemy dividing us. And once again, using issues of race to somehow confuse us as if these issues of race are not real. And the Robeson story is really a precursor of what we’re talking about now. And I’d like you to just describe the attacks on him when he came back in ’49 and–


Robert Scheer:

… when Robeson by 1949, because he was objecting to the cold war, they made him a non-person and they challenged his patriotism and everything. And the Jacobin article, which I would recommend people read, it’s very good. And it’s a very interesting publication, which tries to get us to think seriously about ideas of socialism as inherent to the American experience and relevant and not a foreign dangerous import. And your article, talk a little bit about what you were trying to get across in that article. And it’s very relevant to the moment.

Joel Whitney:

I’ve been extremely interested in sort of heroic activists and writers who’ve pushed back against kind of the cold war’s unprecedented persecution and Robeson just struck me after I realized the connection to my hometown as someone I just really needed to read more about. So this is kind of one of my first ways of approaching that. He was at the height of his fame before the Truman moment when he did kind of a patriotic radio show with CBS called Ballot for Americans. And it was the most popular CBS program in its history, according to some of its producers. And he was probably one of the most famous black men in the world, let alone the United States, after that program and through his portrayal of Othello on Broadway around that time. So he was coming from a great year into 1947, ’48 and ’49.

When his rage over lynchings in the United States brought him actually to Truman’s office in September of ’46, after a sort of a rally in Washington, he went to see the President and they exchanged some pretty harsh words where Truman told Robeson he wasn’t alone. He was with his group, his anti lynching group. Truman said it wasn’t a convenient time to push legislation against lynching because he had this pressure to respond to the Greek Civil War, other things preceding his Truman doctrine. So he had a really sharp exchange where Truman was defending the US and England and Robeson was calling basically the bastion of imperialism. Right after that Robeson appears before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Some people think that’s not a coincidence. It was only two or three weeks later, I think, and he’s grilled. This one, he was still quite famous.

So he was grilled with less hostility than some of these later recordings, which I think James Earl Jones portrayed where they’re actually saying to Robeson why don’t you go back to Russia? Because he traveled to Russia many times in the thirties and forties and Robeson said, my father was essentially a slave and you have no right to talk to me like that for what I’ve earned and what I’ve carved out of my legacy in this country. And so that’s the backdrop. And then some fateful things happened to Robeson as he’s sort of finding his place in this new pivot against the Soviet Union, he again had traveled there so many times that he actually put his son in school there, his son, Paul Junior, was in classes with the son, I think, of the Soviet foreign minister Molotov. Robeson learned Russian. He sang in Russian and he was absolutely committed to peace with the Soviet Union.

He knew that at Stalingrad effectively, the Russians stopped the Nazi onslaught. And there’s no question that without that battle having been won, a whole different history would’ve unfolded. So Robeson is fascinated by this impulse to push back against this sudden propagandistic need to bait and to test loyalty and to ask people about their sympathy for the Soviet Union back when the United States itself was allied with the Soviet Union. So he ends up going to Paris in 1949, appearing on stage with people like Pablo Neruda and Pablo Picasso and w.E.B. Du Bois and basically saying that it’s a little bit ironic and I’m just paraphrasing in a gentle way, a little bit ironic for the United States to ask black people who are still being lynched to go fight another war with people who are not the United States’ enemy. People who, a country that helped be an ally and stopped Nazism. But what immediately happened was some of the US outlets distorted his words so that it sounded like a call for black Americans to wildly disobey. And in the buzzword-

Robert Scheer:

It was like the Muhammad Ali moment over the Vietnam war.

Joel Whitney:

Absolutely right.

Robert Scheer:

The Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali moment, yeah.

Joel Whitney:

It was a test of loyalty and it was a bit of a… The Times reported his words correctly, but other outlets, I think, paraphrase them in a way to play up this call to actually engage in disloyalty. And that was a little bit strange. The press at the time was just sometimes an outlet of the administration. So he wasn’t really aware of his words at the… It was the World Partisans for peace in Paris where this happened in April 1949. And it was quite a chore for Neruda to get there himself. As I’ve written about elsewhere, he had to escape through the right wing regimes of Chile, his native country, to get out and be able to speak there because there was a dragnet closing around him. So it was a rallying cause for people who believed in peace and there might have been some justification for the US’ belief that the Soviet Union was funding the peace movement as kind of a Trojan horse to make the United States look bad.

And so that’s how it was treated. Again, the difference between an activist or a leftist and a communist was blurred deliberately in this time. But also in some people’s mind, probably somewhat honestly. So he continues, his travels goes to Eastern Europe and by June, he’s in Moscow. Now something amazing happened there just before Peekskill. And I think all of this backstory is worth it. So it’s the article is rich in backstory and I have to thank my editor, John-Baptiste Oduor, who carved down some of this history that I was trying to layer in there. But basically he had heard on his way to the Soviet Union, his beloved Soviet Union, which he loved so much. He heard that there was possibly a reaction against left wing Jews or liberal Jews, disloyal Jews. It was a similar question of disloyalty and some number of them, including his friend Itzik Feffer, were said to be in Lubyanka prison in Moscow and Robeson, who loved the Soviet Union, felt like the constitution outlawed racism basically had lived there with his family.

He’d demanded to see Feffer, quite courageously. A few days later, Feffer was brought to his hotel and signaled that it was bugged and that everything they were saying was being recorded. And I’m sure this gave Robeson some food for thought and a chill down his spine. And so they spoke of small talk and passed notes and the notes said, things like keep quiet, or those of us who are in prison will be killed. And Robeson nodded and left the meeting and went on stage soon thereafter singing his normal fare of songs, probably getting close to ending with Old Man River. But as he ended, this amazing thing happened under Stalin, he basically asked the audience for silence said he was only going to play one Encore and said that he just saw his friend Itzik Feffer, which was…

Robert Scheer:

He played [inaudible], right?

Joel Whitney:

Yeah. He played this Warsaw resistance song and he sang it as an act of complete defiance against Stalin’s antisemitism. And Stalin may not have been in the audience. I’m not sure if he was, but Soviet officials were, and there was a chill that went through, but the audience was completely with Robeson and they cheered. And it was just an amazing act of defense. Anyway, the flip side of that is he came home and he didn’t want to be part of this reaction against the Soviet Union. He was trying to make peace.

So when he was asked about it by a small newspaper, he kept his mouth shut. And as his son said and promised to carry to his father’s grave, he never talked about it. And so he actually even kind of actively lied when asked about this pushback or this illegal repression of Jews. And so that complicates Robeson’s legacy and is part of the rage, mostly from Paris, partly from Moscow that followed him as he came to Peekskill. And so by the time he gets to Peekskill, he is fast becoming public enemy number one. Now I’ve already said how the first concert was canceled. The second concert happened a week and a day later at a place-

Robert Scheer:

When you say cancel, you should mention, there were Ku Klux Klan crosses burning, right? It was a horribly violent response and they wanted to kill him.

Joel Whitney:

Yeah. He needed bodyguards. It was talked about in the biographies, including Gerald Horn’s as a lynching, the murder of Robeson was on the agenda is how some people, some biographers put it. So he had to use union members and progressive veterans as security. They formed a ring around him when he sang. Snipers were flushed out of fields above the Hollow Brook Country Club. This is the one in which he was able to go forward. So imagine how bad the first one was. So the Hollow Brook Country Club was the grounds of the second concert. And when I lived there in middle and high school, it was a defunct drive-in. I think my friends saw Twilight Zone: The Movie and The Color Purple there. By the time I moved to the area, I don’t remember it being functional, but even back in the time of Robeson’s concert, there was a new population of progressives, many of them Jewish and black moving there first as weekenders from the city. One such progressive Helen Rosen was a close friend.

Robeson was very close to left-wing Jews, and he was hurt by what happened in Russia. And he discussed it with him and Robeson picked him up for the first concert. And by the time that was sort of shut down, these signs went up in a coordinated campaign in Peekskill that said, Wake up America, Peekskill Did. Now, if you remember, from German history, this was exactly the signs that went up in after Kristallnacht, except instead of Peekskill Did and America Did, it said, Wake up Germany, Munich Did. So this was the work of the area’s Republican party and its offshoot groups. And that was not the Peekskill that I knew growing up. It was much more sane and middle class. And I don’t know if it was centrist or not.

Robert Scheer:

The thing that got me, one of the things in your article was the canceling out of history, that you could, and it was obviously you didn’t hear about Paul Robeson so much in any other school district, but you actually could go to school and be raised in Peekskill, New York. And no one talked about this worldwide covered event.

Joel Whitney:


Robert Scheer:

And as I say students now, they don’t, for instance, I mean, W.E.B. Du Bois, who you mention, obviously is very important to the whole history of the civil rights movement. It’s never mentioned that he was, of course red-baited. And I think it was at the age of 94 actually did something very similar to Roosevelt. He supported or was positive about the Chinese Communists and actually joined what was remained of the American Communist party, because he felt alienated from the establishment. That history is not told.

Joel Whitney:

It’s not told. It’s a product of that backlash. By ’47, the backlash against Robeson was already underway. He went to the House Un-American Activities Committee several times. He was told before his concerts to go back to Russia. Concerts were being canceled around the country. And in response to that, I mean, he had his passport rescinded. Propaganda was published against him. It was filled with exaggerations, calling him naive. The phrase go back to Russia was literally like a chorus of the dunderheaded loyalty enthusiasts. His salary went from a hundred thousand to a few thousand almost overnight. Sorry. But the important thing is that he did not cave in. He fought back whether in the hearings about Peekskill that took place nationally or in Albany. I think there were hearings that he went to in Albany. He resumed giving concerts by using a combination of amplification and telephones so that his concerts in Europe and around the world were able to go forward remotely long before the internet.

He went to the Pacific Northwest to give a concert to 40,000 Canadians at the border with the US, setting a Canadian record in terms of audience. He corresponded with imprisoned Turkish poet Nâzım Hikmet, who was persecuted for speaking out against violence against the Kurds and Armenians.

And after Peekskill, allies like Hikmet wrote even from prison to say, I have heard your name for a long time and have seen your picture in my prison. He called Robeson eagle singer, negro brother, adding I love you, my brother. And then he said, they are scared. Our songs scared them. And so when the beleaguered Civil Rights Congress entered a petition against the United States, it’s genocide against black Americans effectively, it was a photo of Robeson’s extended finger of accusation that was featured on the cover.

And the result, according to historian Gerald Horn was that Robeson was effectively a sacrificial lamb. Horn writes in his biography of Robeson that his income and career in health were to erode as the people he sacrificed for saw their fortunes improve just as his petition was quote trumpeted globally, as yet another example of Washington’s hypocrisy and brutality, his own sacrificial work also served to prod the US authorities to ease the horrific maltreatment of African Americans and set the stage for what came to be called the civil rights movement.

Robert Scheer:

Well, and then let’s tie it up here with what the officially accepted civil rights movement that came out of this concern upheaval process that was much earlier. And when Martin Luther King, again, by the way, Democrats were in power, it was the Johnson administration. J. Edgar Hoover was head of the FBI. And they went out to destroy Martin Luther king, very well documented, certainly J. Edgar Hoover did. And he had to support of Lydon Johnson in doing that. And why? Because Martin Luther King had two people who go back to the Robeson years of opposition, who the FBI said they’re communists. And they really, and Hoover and Martin Luther King wouldn’t denounce him or get rid of them. And Martin Luther King said, no, these are people who have had a real history in the civil rights movement and Martin Luther King became then the victim of a red-baiting where the FBI actually was trying to get him to kill himself. Again, not much discussed, although very well documented. So red-baiting was really a major enemy of the civil rights movement.

Joel Whitney:

I agree with you one hundred percent. I think it’s a lesson for even today’s liberals. I mean, Truman may have meant well, he tried, but failed to veto, I think, the Smith and McCarran acts as well as the Taft-Hartley bill, which were part of this liberal participation in the reaction, the swing back to the right. But in signing the loyalty executive order, not asking more questions when he set up the CIA, he hastened a system whereby we all become hawks. And if we don’t question it at certain key moments, we’re fellow travelers on the right and quite suspect. We don’t know where these things are going to stop. First they came for so and so, and then they came for me. But much later in private conversations with friends, Truman even conceded that the loyalty program itself, he said, yes, it was a terrible mistake.

One Truman official, Bob, named Clark Clifford, told Carl Bernstein no less, quote it was a political problem. Truman was going to run in ’48. And that was it. My own feeling was there was not a serious problem. I felt the whole thing was being manufactured. We never had a serious discussion about a real loyalty problem. The president didn’t attach fundamental importance to the so-called communist scare. He thought it was a lot of baloney, but political pressures were such that he had to recognize it. There was no subsequent problem. We did not believe there was a real problem. A problem was being impacted.

Robert Scheer:

Okay. Right. We only have, I just want to keep this down to 30 minutes. I always make that promise, but let me do it for once. But we are at a moment now where, first of all, you mentioned that they went after Robeson on violations of the traditional laws against espionage and so forth. But Barack Obama had more cases than any preceding president and his then vice president, now president, Joe Biden is the one who is really whipping up a lot of the hysteria and I go and return to that. It’s not a news break because there’s not much covered, but here is a not very well known black socialist organization, part of a black peace movement and what, they got their homes broken into, the FBI is all over them.

And we have a play, it’s not being reported much, but a replay of exactly what was done to Paul Robeson, and then eventually even to Martin Luther King, that if you speak out and you dare speak out strongly about racism America, you thought to be giving aid and comfort to the enemy, you’re spreading bad stories. You’re dividing our people. And we have that right now, the weeks preceding our recording this, where the FBI actually, and the justice department, Joe Biden’s justice department had a press conference in Florida where they said, the Russians are interfering and controlling these people and these Russians aren’t even communist Russians. Just good to have an enemy.

Joel Whitney:


Robert Scheer:

I’ll let you have the last word on this.

Joel Whitney:

I mean, I like to look to history to find answers for this. And when I see what Paul Robeson’s response to this type of reaction that you’re describing this, this rightward tilt, this foreign policy hawkishness, and this so-called Truman doctrine, then as now, it’s really hard to carve out a voice. I mean, the powers that be kind of encircle each other and push aside anything beyond what’s being said by themselves.

And I think at the same time, liberals who participate in this have to try to imagine that there might be some value to the questions that were asked, for instance, before the Iraq war. People like Biden were signing up to whip the Democrats to get in line, to join the Iraq war. And, and what we lose when we let these scaremongers whether, or these boogeyman, whether it’s Paul Robeson or Saddam Hussein, or Stalin himself, define for us a kind of politics that lacks all nuance and all ability to dissent, even on somewhat narrow or broad grounds. So I think it’s something that we have to think a little harder about. And I think history and the story of Paul Robeson and is one way. Of course, there are other voices like folks who come on your show, who are questioning some of these.

Robert Scheer:

Yeah. And as Orwell pointed out, and Orwell was certainly a very strong anti communist, and 1984 was obviously a warning against any totalitarian system. It can happen here and that search for an enemy then justifies the end of freedom. But I’ll leave that at that note, Jacobin Magazine is where this article appeared. Finks is the name of the book that we were referring to by Joel Whitney.

And let me just say, I want to thank you for doing this again. I think we just don’t take history seriously enough, and you keep doing the leg work. It’s, they say journalism’s a first draft of history, but it’s good to look back and do actual history reporting, which is what you do so effectively.

Joel Whitney:


Robert Scheer:

So I want to also thank Christopher Ho and Laura Kondourajian, I always get her name wrong, at KCRW for hosting these shows. Joshua Scheer, who is our executive producer, Natasha Hakimi, who writes the introduction, and the JKW foundation in the name of Gene Stein, a terrific independent writer who helps fund these broadcasts. See you next week with another edition of Scheer Intelligence.

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