The Silent Civil Rights March of Thousands in New York in 1917
It was 100 years ago, July 28, 1917, when around 10,000 black Americans marched through New York City without speaking a word. History records this event as The Silent Parade of 1917.
Theirs was the first march of its kind, a powerful procession down Fifth Avenue, organized in protest to the mounting violence and discriminatory laws waged against blacks at the time.
The march down Fifth may not have stopped ignorant and hateful people from being what they were, but it was an important event for the black community. It was an even more important event for the people of the United States.
There were several events leading up the march, which pressed its importance upon the black leaders of that day.
In the East St. Louis race riots, arsons attacked black residents in one neighborhood, forcing 6,000 out of their homes. A rumor had made the rounds at the time that a black man killed a white man.
East St. Louis blazed out of control. From the fires, some 50-200 people died.
Instead of help as they ran from the burning building, some of the people suffered beatings at the hands of angry white mobs in their final moments.
Adding to this, the state of affairs in the south had been steady if not increasing lynchings, most of which came to no justice.
Waco, Texas, at the time, suffered a rash of these lynchings, but there were hate crimes committed in Tennessee, Illinois, and other states.
President Woodrow Wilson
President Woodrow Wilson had run on the platform that he would make the world “safe for democracy.” Specifically, he made campaign promises that he would implement anti-lynching laws and that he would promote black causes.
While there were many admirable aspects of Wilson’s presidency, his adherence to these promises was not one of them.
Then, when given the opportunity to rise up against the tyranny committed against the black community, he did nothing. In fact, he denied those promises. During his presidency, the federal discriminations against blacks only worsened.
It was President Wilson the people called out on the day of the march. One protest sign read, “Mr. President, why not make America safe for democracy?”
Organized by W.E.B. DuBois and the NAACP, the march down Fifth Avenue would take place in silence but for some muted drums. From the flyer distributed at the time:
“We march because we want to make impossible a repetition of Waco, Memphis, and East St. Louis, by rousing the conscience of the country and bring the murders of our brothers, sisters, and innocent children to justice.”
The organizers gathered the permits, then notified the community. It would be a black-only march. The victims of this hatred needed to be the voice for change.
Starting in Harlem, the first in line would be the children, followed by women dressed in white, then the men dressed in black.
Protesters carried signs, with haunting statements on them like, “200,000 black men fought for your liberty in the Civil War,” and “America has lynched without trial 2,867 negroes in 31 years and not a single murderer has suffered.”
The NAACP kept detailed data on lynchings, those that made the paper, which were not all, but more than enough to make a point.
What the march started to teach the people of the United States, what we are still trying to learn, is that there are more powerful tools in our toolbox than violence and shouting.
These were the same tools leveraged by Gandhi against the British in India, and Martin Luther King Jr. against the segregationist in the U.S.
What the silent parade intended to do was demand justice and peace, but what it did was more valuable. It taught all of us that we could fight without violence, without words, and that it was possible to send a louder message that way.