Marking the Centennial of the Silent Protest against Lynching in America
July 29, 2017
NAACP & Chad Williams / Brandeis University
At the break of summer 1917, racial tension simmered across the nation. In East St. Louis, white residents launched a bloody attack on the rapidly expanding black community. Dozens of black residents were killed and thousands more were left homeless after their neighborhood was burned to ashes. The NAACP wasted no time in composing a retort and soon issued a call for a Silent Protest Parade. Their tactic was silence, but their message resounded: anti-black violence is unjust and un-American.
Marking the Centennial of the Silent Protest Parade
Lynching in America / NAACP
(July 27, 2017) -- We celebrate the centennial of the NAACP's Silent Protest Parade, held on July 28, 1917.
At the break of summer 1917, racial tension simmered across the nation. In East St. Louis, white residents launched a bloody attack on the rapidly expanding black community. Dozens of black residents were killed and thousands more were left homeless after their neighborhood was burned to ashes.
The NAACP wasted no time in composing a retort and soon issued a call for a Silent Protest Parade. "You must be in line," the Association commanded.
On July 28, nearly 10,000 black men, women, and children wordlessly paraded down New York's Fifth Avenue. Silently marching to the beat of a drum, the throngs of protesters clutched picket signs declaring their purpose and demanding justice.
"Make America safe for democracy."
"We march because we deem it a crime to be silent in the face of such barbaric acts."
"We march because we want our children to live in a better land."
Their tactic was silence, but their message resounded: anti-black violence is unjust and un-American.
It was the first protest of its kind in New York, and the second instance of African Americans publically demonstrating for civil rights.
The NAACP has issued marching orders many times in the years since: in 1965, we marched in Selma in pursuit of our right to vote; in 2012, we held a second Silent March in New York to denounce stop-and-frisk policing; in 2015, we marched 1,002 miles from Selma to Washington, D.C. on our Journey for Justice.
At our 108th Annual Convention in Baltimore this week, we marked the Silent Parade's centennial with an interactive art installation. Art Force 5 invited convention attendees to collaborate on a mosaic memorial that will debut today in New York City.
Activists created the NAACP in 1909 to fight racialized violence. Then, we called it "lynching." Today, we call it "police brutality." But the effect is the same, and so is the ferocity of our retort.
For more than a century, the NAACP has protested, litigated, and legislated to defend our dignity and our lives. Today, we keep marching. We are at school board meetings, county courthouses, and in the halls of government fighting for our rights because we still cannot afford to stand idle in the face of an administration that is so keen on rolling back our rights.
We're marching. And we need you beside us.
A Silent Protest Parade in 1917
Set the Stage for Civil Rights Marches
Chad Williams / The Miami Herald
(July 28, 2017) -- The only sounds were those of muffled drums, the shuffling of feet and the gentle sobs of some of the estimated 20,000 onlookers. The women and children wore all white. The men dressed in black.
On the afternoon of Saturday, July 28, 1917, nearly 10,000 African-Americans marched down Fifth Avenue, in silence, to protest racial violence and white supremacy in the United States.
New York City, and the nation, had never before witnessed such a remarkable scene.
The "Silent Protest Parade," as it came to be known, was the first mass African-American demonstration of its kind and marked a watershed moment in the history of the civil rights movement.
As I have written in my book "Torchbearers of Democracy," African-Americans during the World War I era challenged racism both abroad and at home. In taking to the streets to dramatize the brutal treatment of black people, the participants of the "Silent Protest Parade" indicted the United States as an unjust nation. This charge remains true today.
One hundred years later, as black people continue to insist that "Black Lives Matter," the "Silent Protest Parade" offers a vivid reminder about the power of courageous leadership, grassroots mobilization, direct action and their collective necessity in the fight to end racial oppression.
One of the great accomplishments of the Black Lives Matter movement has been to demonstrate the continuum of racist violence against black people throughout American history and also the history of resistance against it. But as we continue to grapple with the hyper-visibility of black death, it is perhaps easy to forget just how truly horrific racial violence against black people was a century ago.
Prior to the "Silent Protest Parade," mob violence and the lynching of African-Americans had grown even more gruesome. In Waco, a mob of 10,000 white Texans attended the May 15, 1916, lynching of a black farmer, Jesse Washington. One year later, on May 22, 1917, a black woodcutter, Ell Persons, died at the hands of over 5,000 vengeance-seeking whites in Memphis.
Even by these grisly standards, East St. Louis later that same summer was shocking. Simmering labor tensions between white and black workers exploded on the evening of July 2, 1917.
For 24 hours, white mobs indiscriminately stabbed, shot and lynched anyone with black skin. Men, women, children, the elderly, the disabled — no one was spared. Homes were torched and occupants shot down as they attempted to flee. The death toll likely ran as high as 200 people.
Looking Back at the 1917 East St. Louis Race Riots
East St. Louis this weekend is commemorate the 1917 race riot, which resulted in dozens or hundreds of deaths and injuries, as well as burned buildings in the city. Tim Vizer email@example.com
The city's surviving 6,000 black residents became refugees.
East St. Louis was an American pogrom. The fearless African-American anti-lynching activist Ida B. Wells traveled to the still smoldering city on July 4 and collected firsthand accounts of the aftermath. She described the incident as an "awful orgy of human butchery."
The devastation of East St. Louis was compounded by the fact that America was at war. On April 2, President Woodrow Wilson had thrown the United States into the maelstrom of World War I. He did so by asserting America's singularly unique place on the global stage and his goal to make the world "safe for democracy." In the eyes of black people, East St. Louis exposed the hypocrisy of Wilson's vision and America itself.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People quickly responded to the massacre. Founded in 1909, the NAACP had yet to establish itself as a truly representative organization for African-Americans.
With the exception of W.E.B. Du Bois, one of the NAACP's co-founders and editor of The Crisis magazine, the national leadership was all white. Branches were overwhelmingly located in the North, despite the majority of African-Americans residing below the Mason-Dixon line.
James Weldon Johnson changed things. Lawyer, diplomat, novelist, poet and songwriter, Johnson was a true African-American renaissance man. In 1916, Johnson joined the NAACP as a field secretary and made an immediate impact. In addition to growing the organization's southern membership, Johnson recognized the importance of expanding the influence of the NAACP's existing branches beyond the black elite.
Johnson raised the idea of a silent protest march at an executive committee meeting of the NAACP Harlem branch shortly after the East St. Louis riot. Johnson also insisted that the protest include the city's entire black community.
By noon on July 28, several thousand African-Americans had begun to assemble at 59th Street. Crowds gathered along Fifth Avenue. Anxious New York City police officers lined the streets, with clubs at the ready, prepared for trouble.
At approximately 1 p.m., the protest parade commenced. A group of black clergymen and NAACP officials made up the front line. W.E.B. Du Bois, who had recently returned from conducting an NAACP investigation in East St. Louis, and James Weldon Johnson marched side by side.
The parade was a stunning spectacle. At the front, women and children wearing all-white gowns symbolized the innocence of African-Americans in the face of the nation's guilt. The men, bringing up the rear and dressed in dark suits, conveyed both a mournful dignity and stern determination to stand up for their rights as citizens.
They carried signs and banners shaming America for its treatment of black people. Some read, "Your hands are full of blood," "Thou Shalt Not Kill," "Mothers, do lynchers go to heaven?" Others highlighted the wartime context and the hollowness of America's ideals: "We have fought for the liberty of white Americans in six wars; our reward was East St. Louis."
A Poem Dedicated to East St. Louis
Eugene Redmond reads a poem dedicated to East St. Louis and what it has overcome. Kaley Johnson firstname.lastname@example.org
Throughout the parade, the marchers remained silent. The New York Times described the protest as "one of the most quiet and orderly demonstrations ever witnessed." The silence was finally broken with cheers when the parade concluded at Madison Square.
The "Silent Protest Parade" marked the beginning of a new epoch in the long black freedom struggle. While adhering to a certain politics of respectability, a strategy employed by African-Americans that focused on countering racist stereotypes through dignified appearance and behavior, the protest, within its context, constituted a radical claiming of the public sphere and a powerful affirmation of black humanity.
It declared that a "New Negro" had arrived and launched a black public protest tradition that would be seen in the parades of the Universal Negro Improvement Association, the civil rights demonstrations of the 1960s and the Black Lives Matter marches of today.
Chad Williams is associate professor of African and Afro-America Studies at Brandeis University.
Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.