“To the beat of muffled drums 8,000 negro men, women and children marched down Fifth Avenue yesterday in a parade of ‘silent protest against acts of discrimination and oppression’ inflicted upon them in this country, and in other parts of the world. Without a shout or a cheer they made their cause known through the many banners which they carried, calling attention to Jim Crowism, segregation, disfranchisement, and riots of Waco, Memphis and East St. Louis.” — New York Times
The Silent Parade of 1917 was unlike anything ever seen in New York City. Today it is considered New York’s (and most likely America’s) first African-American civil rights march.
New York had seen its share of protest parades since the start of World War I, but none had featured so prominently the city’s African-American population, gathering in such impressive numbers along New York’s wealthiest street.
This extraordinary procession that occurred on July 28 was organized by the burgeoning National Association of the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), a group of concerned black and white activists and intellectuals, which had formed less than a decade earlier in New York.
The march was organized in direct response to a horrible plague of violence against black Americans in the 1910s, culminating in the East St. Louis Riots*, a massacre involving white mobs storming black neighborhoods in sheer racial animus. Two sets of riots in May and July 1917 left almost 200 people dead. Rioters burned black neighborhoods, cutting off water hoses and watched as families fled the burning buildings — only to be picked off by gunmen.
From the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on July 3:
This massacre was but one of several violent incidents aimed at new black laborers; pointed attacks meant to strike fear in the hearts of black Americans.
The circumstances of World War I exacerbated an already volatile crisis. As W.E.B. DuBois would explain it,
“The Negro, attracted by higher wages in the North and repelled by the menace of lynching and caste in the South moves in to fill the new labor demand [caused by the war]. The common laborer in the North is caught between the tyranny of exclusive trade unions and the underbidding of blacks. The rest is murder and riot and unrest… White Northern laborers find killing Negroes a safe, lucrative employment which commends them to the American Federation of Labor.”
In New York, at a meeting of the NAACP in Harlem, president James Weldon Johnson (at the suggestion of New York Evening Post editor Oswald Villard) proposed an unusual but effective form of protest — an army of marchers along Fifth Avenue, drawing attention to the victims of the East St. Louis riot.
And in an unprecedented decision by the organizers, it would consist only of black marchers.
New York newspapers’ reports of the riot passively mentioned the tragic cost to the black residents of East St. Louis; a dramatic march down the city’s most prosperous street — comprised of those very people most likely to be victimized in such riots — would jar the delicate sensibilities of insulated New Yorkers.
This was a fairly radical idea for its time. Decades after the Civil War, most Americans, even in the most progressive states, still looked skeptically at organized black movements. Part of the NAACP’s early legitimacy for many was that it was formed by a mixture of black and white activists.
In 1915, the NAACP (in a crusade led by newspaper editor William Monroe Trotter) protested the release of the film Birth of a Nation, a trailblazer that positively depicted the Ku Klux Klan while demonizing African-Americans. The protests failed to stop the film’s release but this organized resistance galvanized the NAACP and the black community for future battles.
While the East St. Louis tragedy was the focus of the mournful July 28th gathering, the march was intended as a larger protest against civil rights abuses in the United States. One of many flyers passed around during the march declared :
“We march because we are thoroughly opposed to Jim Crow cars, segregation, disenfranchisement and the host of evils that are forced upon us. We march in memory of our butchered dead, the massacre of honest toilers who were removing the reproach of laziness and thriftlessness hurled at the entire race. They died to prove our worthiness to live. We live in spite of death shadowing us and ours.”
Below: The organizers marched in front of the women and children. At far right is W.E.B. Du Bois and James Weldon Johnson.
The thousands of people who marched that day came from virtually every African-American church in New York City and the surrounding area. A drum corps and a troupe of black Boy Scouts vibrantly led the parade, with women and children following behind, garbed in white dresses.
The men, some in United States Army uniforms, marched last behind a row of flag bearers, holding representative flags from the United States, Great Britain, Liberia and Haiti.
There were no chants or rallying cries. The throng remained silent during the length of the parade, a common practice for peace parades but one pregnant with meaning here. The black communities in East St. Louis and in the South had little opportunity to engage in such protests. New Yorkers, in solidarity, would echo that reverberating silence. (It may also have been prudent for large groups of African-Americans marching along the city’s whitest street to keep themselves calcified.)
The marchers were orderly and stone-faced as they walked down Fifth Avenue — from 57th Street to 24th Street, culminating at Madison Square Park. They were not allowed to gather there; according to the New York Sun, “When the marchers reached Twenty-Fourth Street, they turned west and were dismissed.”
While there were no chants, political intentions were made known via a series of banners interspersed among the marchers:
‘Your Hands Are Full of Blood’
‘Pray for the Lady Macbeths of East St. Louis’**
‘We Are Maligned as Lazy and Murdered When We Work’
‘From Bunker Hill to Carrizal*** We Have Done Our Duty’
One ‘controversial’ sign was thrown out of the march. According to the Times, the sign “displayed a picture of a negro woman kneeling before President Wilson and appealing to him to bring democracy to America before carrying it to Europe.” The police intervened, and the sign was removed.
Below: A newspaper illustration that was most certainly used in the offending sign
No other incidents surrounding the march were reported that day. Thousands of onlookers lined the parade route that day out of curiosity, amusement, pride, anger and joy. Some were shaken to the core.
“[T]he streets of New York have witnessed many strange sites, but I judge, never one stranger than this; among the watchers were those with tears in their eyes.” — James Weldon Johnson, The Autobiography of James Weldon Johnson, 1937
NOTE: The number of marchers so widely varies from source to source that I can safely say that it was between 5,000 and 15,000 marchers. Not exactly precise! Judging from all reports, I would guess the actual number is closer to 15,000.
*East St. Louis, on the Illinois side, is about 15 miles away from Ferguson, the St. Louis suburb on the Missouri side.
**According to author Nikki Brown, the ‘Lady Macbeth’ sign references “an alleged incident wherein at least two white women pulled black women off a streetcar, tore off one woman’s clothing and ‘then took off her shoes and beat her over the face and head with their shoe heels’.”
***The Battle of Carrizal had been fought in Mexico a year before the march. Unlike the battles in Europe, African-American soldiers served with American units on the front lines of this engagement.