The Silent Parade of July 28, 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 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 — to be picked off by gunmen.
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.
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 newspaper 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, the trailblazing film 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.”
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.”
Full Story – Politics and Protest, www.boweryboyshistory.com