Santayana said that those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it. He might better have said that those who do not know the history made by others are doomed to misunderstand their own. The more that one reads and understands the history of this country, with its great blessings and the curses that came with them, the more one comes to know that we will never be free of our evils until we air them–fully–and come to terms with them.
Thomas Jefferson recognized slavery America’s original sin, a deep and unrepented evil present at the founding that contaminates everything we do. In modern times, our knowledge of history is so eroded that we imagine that slavery was a southern matter. But this is a false history:
Ira Berlin, in his Generations of Captivity: A History of African-American Slaves, shows that the Northern states, despite having gradually emancipated their own slaves between the Revolution and the 1830s, were deeply implicated in the protection and preservation of slavery in the South. Northern free blacks agitated vigorously for the freedom of their brethren in bondage, but the discrimination and violence to which they were exposed in the North left them for the most part disfranchised, impoverished, and (especially after the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850) unsure whether they could maintain their own freedom against slave catchers and kidnappers.
And it is worse than even that, since pockets of slavery remained in the north. The most infamous of these was perhaps the Philipsburg Manor in Westchester County, yet slavery continued in New York State until 1827. Even so, there were diehards in New York State:
the counties most vociferous in their opposition and who voted, “nay” were Ulster, Dutchess, Richmond and King’s,
these being the rural counties that bracketed New York City from north and south.
And so I was struck today by a DemocracyNow show on the
Battle of Peekskill Peekskill Riot (in Westchester County) in 1949:
AMY GOODMAN: Well, talk about the Peekskill Riots. Exactly what happened?
WILL KAUFMAN: OK, 1949, August, late August, early September of 1949, the Civil Rights Congress, through People’s Songs, got Paul Robeson to agree to sing a benefit concert at the golfing grounds up in—or the Lakeland picnic area up in Peekskill, Westchester County. And before Robeson even got to the grounds, he never—in fact, he never even made it to the grounds, because for the whole previous week, the Peekskill Evening Star and other local newspapers and the Ku Klux Klan and other right-wing organizations were firing up the populists to prevent Robeson and to prevent his followers from coming to Peekskill. Robeson—you know, it was all this Robeson, you know, Jew-loving commie kind of stuff like that, because Robeson had declared—his crime was declaring, in the midst of the Cold War, that no African American would voluntarily go to war with the Soviet Union. He’d been to the Soviet Union. He said he was treated with more respect there than he was ever treated in the United States. And for that heresy, he was met with a burning cross on the hills above Peekskill, which, you know, kind of proved his point. And so, he never made it to the grounds there, but the concertgoers did. They were on the grounds there, and they were met by masked gangs of men and women and teenagers hurling rocks and abuse and beating them up with, you know, fence posts and baseball bats, and destroying the grounds and what have you.
And so, Robeson is not able to sing at Peekskill that week. But he makes a declaration. He says, “I don’t get scared when fascism comes near, like it has at Peekskill.” And he says, “I’m going to come back in a week, and I’m going to sing this concert.” And in the intervening week, they amass between 20,000 and 30,000 supporters to protect Robeson and to protect the concertgoers. And they make it into the grounds. He sings the concert. He’s buzzed by police helicopters, FBI helicopters, who try to destroy the sound. But he sings the concert. And then, there’s no violence on the grounds, but the concertgoers, as they’re leaving, they are directed deliberately into an ambush road by the Westchester County police. And all along the road there, there are gangs of teenagers and mostly young people with rocks and boulders piled high at periodic staging posts along the road all the way towards the Bronx, on bridges overhead. And they are destroying the cars. They’re throwing boulders through the windows. Glass is shattering. Hundreds of people are getting injured. Pete Seeger was there. He recalled what it was like to have his car surrounded by mobs, rocked back and forth. He’s got, even now, embedded into his chimney breast in his home up in Beacon, New York, a huge boulder which had crashed through the windscreen and almost killed his young son Danny. And this is collusion between the Westchester County police and the Ku Klux Klan and the gangs and the newspapers and what have you.
The Ku Klux Klan was not only able to get about 4,000 people to engage in racially-motivated (though politically-rationalized) violence, they had the Westchester police and the FBI on their side– almost one hundred years after the civil war and in a liberal, northern state!
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