Thursday, February 24, 2022

Way Before Black Lives Matter New York’s Black Silent Parade Stood up to Racist Killings

Behind drummers the NAACP's James Weldon Johnson and W.E.B, Du Bois, center, lead the Silent Parade in New York City in 1917.  

On July 28, 1917 the Silent Parade in New York City was an orderly but mute demonstration by as many as 10,000 African-Americans in protest to the continued brutal onslaught of lynching across the Jim Crow South and border states as well as the anti-Black pogrom that killed as many as 200 and displaced thousands in East St Louis, Illinois that May. 

It may be obscure today, but it was one of the most significant events in the creation of a modern, Black led civil rights movement and the direct ancestor of the Black Lives Matter movement.

I was vaguely aware of the Silent Parade and have mentioned it in passing in a couple of posts, including a history of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and a bio of W. E. B. Du Bois, but I was not clear on the timeline and particulars.  Now I am delighted to share what I learned.

Racial tensions in America had been ratcheting up for decades particularly after the complete abandonment of Reconstruction Era reforms in the South and the disenfranchisement of Southern blacks in the Jim Crow Era.  Hardening racial attitudes were spreading to Northern cities and states as well.   The rising wave of lynching was just one of the forms of violent intimidation used to keep Blacks in their subservient places.  Although the old Ku Klux Klan had disappeared and its reincarnation not taken root, night riding, vigilantism, and pop up mobs were all on the rise.  Kidnappings, beatings, rapes, arsons, and deportations were common. 

Even more troubling, was the rise in race riots, most of them in Northern or borders states, especially as the Great Migration began to get underway as oppressed Southern Blacks relocated to North seeking factory work in booming war industries.   In those days race riots meant one thing—a bloodthirsty rampage of Whites against the Black residents of their communities.  Although in isolated incidents some Blacks had fought back in self-defense there had never been a riot in which Blacks targeted White communities.

The 1917 East St. Louis Race Riot spurred African Americans to new action

The riot which erupted in East St. Louis on May 28, 1917 was just the most recent and one of the bloodiest.  Whites angered at Blacks taking jobs at local factories staged a mass protest meeting followed by a march by at least 3,000 into the downtown district where they spread out attacking any Blacks they encountered, burning homes, and looting businesses.  It took the Illinois National Guard to quash the violence, though tensions remained high.

Some efforts at investigating the causes of the disturbance were made and some officials gave lip service to community reconciliation.  But it was too little, too late.

On July 2, a carload of white men drove through a Black neighborhood and fired several shots into a group of men standing outside in the oppressive summer heat—exactly what we would call a drive by shooting today.  As the car sped away crowds gathered and milled about. An hour later, two Police detectives and a reporter were among four men in a car that cruised the same area.  The detectives may have displayed weapons.  Suspecting it was the same car involved in the first shooting or another on the same mission, someone opened fire on their car, killing one officer instantly and mortally wounding the other. 

Thousands of white spectators gathered to view the detectives’ bloodstained automobile then rampaged through the black section of town. They cut the water hoses of the Fire Department, burned blocks of the city, and shot residents as they tried to escape the flames.  Police and National Guardsmen called to quell the violence instead either stood aside and let it run its course or in many instances actively joined the rioters. 

After the rioters simply exhausted themselves and almost 6000 Black survivors were turned into homeless refugees the liberal St. Louis Post Dispatch editorially concluded:

All the impartial witnesses agree that the police were either indifferent or encouraged the barbarities, and that the major part of the National Guard was indifferent or inactive. No organized effort was made to protect the Negroes or disperse the murdering groups. The lack of frenzy and of a large infuriated mob made the task easy. Ten determined officers could have prevented most of the outrages. One hundred men acting with authority and vigor might have prevented any outrage.

The breathtaking scope of the violence and a staggering death toll galvanized Black outrage across the country.  Various key players sprang into action.

Journalist and anti-lynching crusader Ida B Wells came to East St. Louis to investigate and report for the Chicago Daily Defender.

Anti-lynching activist and Chicago Daily Defender journalist Ida B. Wells rushed to the stricken city to investigate.  She concluded that 50-150 had been killed in days of rioting and its aftermath.  Investigators for the NAACP placed the dead in the range of 100-200. A latter Congressional Investigation Committee—influenced by several Southern members said the death toll could not be determined but gave credence to local official reports of 8 White dead and 38 Blacks.  Some modern scholars have estimated that as many as 400 may have died immediately or of wounds within weeks.  Most accounts now settle on a rough guess of 200.

Well’s accounts were spread across the county by the issues of the Defender distributed nationally by Pullman Porters.  Local Black press picked up the story. 

Black nationalist Marucs Garvey used the East St. Louis race riots to promote his vision of an independent Black nation as a refuge from rampant White racism and violence.  Many were receptive to the message.

Black separatist and Nationalist Marcus Garvey declared that the riot was “one of the bloodiest outrages against mankind” and a “wholesale massacre of our people….This is no time for fine words, but a time to lift one’s voice against the savagery of a people who claim to be the dispensers of democracy.”  He also argued for self-defense and ultimately the establishment of an independent nation, probably in the Caribbean as a refuge for the African diaspora in AmericaThis combination of militancy and a sort of Black Zionism had a lot of appeal to many who lost all hope of fair treatment in the United States.  Whites were torn between stark terror of a militant Black in a uniform at the head of a mass movement and a vague hope that Garvey could become an ally in removing Blacks entirely from the country.

For the NAACP the East St. Louis riots presented both a test and an opportunity.  The only national civil rights organization was only eight years old and not well established.  Largely the creation of White liberals it still was still dominated by them.  All of the national officers and board members were white except for Du Bois, the Black intellectual and editor of The Crisis and probably the most significant national Black leader since Frederick Douglass.  The white leadership was well meaning but an impediment to making the new organization an authentic voice for Black aspirations. 

Most of the organization’s chapters were in the Northeast and split between white liberals and the small Black educated elite.  It had little representation in the South where the overwhelming majority of Blacks still lived, or among poor and working class Northern Blacks.  The organization had first earned national attention for its protests and picketing of showings of D. W. Griffith’s Ku Klux Klan paean Birth of a Nation in 1915. 

It lately had become increasingly vocal in protest to the policies of President Woodrow Wilson.  During his three-way race for the Presidency against William Howard Taft, and Theodore Roosevelt in 1912 Wilson had made vaguer promises of enacting anti-lynching legislation and in favor of some civil rights protections.  Most Blacks who could vote were still loyal Republicans in gratitude for the end of slavery and the stab at Reconstruction.  But in some Northern cities Blacks were being successfully courted by local Democratic machines.  Wilson made promises in hopes for a sliver of the Black vote.  But he was the son of a Virginia mother who was an unreconstructed Confederate.  Upon election not only did he forget his promises about lynch protections, but he also scrapped what few shreds of Reconstruction era policies remained and introduced of segregation into all areas possible of federal government policy, workplaces, and hiring.

In his early reaction to the East St. Louis riots, Du Bois castigated Wilson for inaction on lynching and demanded action against spreading race riots.  Wilson did not even bother to respond. 

Portraits by Laura Wheeler Waring.

Du Bois knew that more dramatic action was required to both rally Blacks nationally and build the NAACP.  He found a new ally in the second Black elected to a leadership position in the organization, Second Vice President James Weldon Johnson.  Johnson was a perfect example of the Black elite who Du Bois believed would raise the race. He was a lawyer, Republican Politian, diplomat under Theodore Roosevelt, and a poet.  He had written Lift Every Voice and Sing which the Fisk University Singer would popularize as the “Black National Anthem.”  He would also soon become a leading figure of the Harlem Renaissance.

It was Johnson who first proposed a silent protest march at an Executive Committee meeting of the NAACP Harlem branch shortly after the East St. Louis riot.  Du Bois heartily supported the plan.  Johnson himself was the prime organizer, seeing to all of the myriads of details needed to mobilize an action like no other before it.  He took care to reach out and include all classes of Black citizens utilizing the Churches, Black Women’s Clubs, trade union members, social and benevolent clubs and laborers.  He knew that to be effective the march had to be absolutely peaceful and dignified.  As he recruited marchers, he trained them in discipline.  Any hint of violence or disorder would not only discredit the action, but likely bring down a catastrophic police response.

As a result of that meticulous planning and organization thousands of African American citizens rallied at 59th Street beginning at noon on July 28.  By the one pm starting time, they were organized into perfectly organized ranks, long rows of marchers stretched across the street and spaced rank after rank in order that would have been the envy of any military parade.   They fell in behind an American flag and a line of dignitaries, clergymen, and leaders with Du Bois and Johnson font and center.

The parade swung smartly south on 5th Avenue the broad main thoroughfare leading to the heart of heart of Manhattan’s fashionable districts.  That was the same route taken by the 1915 Women’s Suffrage Parade organized by Carrie Chapman Catt and the National American Woman Suffrage Association, and event that helped inspire this march and upon which it was partly modeled.

Women in the march wore white for the innocence of violence victims but the clothes were also an echo of Suffrage marchers.

Behind the leaders were rank upon rank of women and children decked out in white representing the purity and innocence of the victims of the riots.  It was also a tip of the hat to the Suffragists who had marched in white and was a symbolic linking of both struggles for the dignity of full citizenship rights.  Behind them came the men in their best black or somber colored suits.  The black was mourning for the victims.  The attitude was reserved dignity belying stereotypes of ragged idlers, ignorant laborers, and violent predators.  All marched in total and perfect silence.

Some carried professionally painted placards and banners with messages like:

Your hands are full of blood.

Thou Shalt Not Kill

Mothers, do lynchers go to heaven?

We have fought for the liberty of white Americans in six wars; our reward was East St. Louis.

Police turned out in force, lining the parade route with batons in hand or exposed from under their long coats.  They had been told to expect violence from the marchers and had orders to disperse them at the first sign of trouble.  Behind them large crowds thronged the sidewalks.  Supporters and virulent opponents of the Parade were both out but probably outnumbered by the curious and bewildered.  Amid some cheers cruses and occasional objects were hurled at the marchers as they passed by stoically.

The men of the Parade in black and dignified somber business apparel. 

The silence was finally broken with cheers by supporters when the parade ended at Madison Square.  There was no rally or fancy oration.  Du Boise, Johnson, and some of the clergy were interviewed quietly by the press.

Reactions in that press varied from outright hostility to mockery in many cases.  But some were impressed by the solemn dignity of the event.  The New York Times wrote, “one of the most quiet and orderly demonstrations ever witnessed.”

Was anything accomplishedNot immediately.  The Wilson administration never acknowledged the protest and continued to vigorously pursue it segregationist policies even as it deployed Black troops to France and relied on Black workers in the humming defense industries and in agricultural production.  Both lynchings and race riots continued, and the pace accelerated after the war as troops returned home and competed for jobs in a post-war slump.  1919 would be a banner year for race riots in cities like Chicago.  The revived Ku Klux Klan became an open power not only in the Old South but in Northern States like Indiana where it nearly took over state government.

On the other hand, Black communities across the country took enormous pride in the event and many were inspired to action.  The civil rights approach of the NAACP gained support over the militant separatism of Marcus Garvey.  As an organization it grew and prospered and added chapters, including those in the South.   It would be the primary civil rights organization until a new movement arose after World War II.         


Black Lives Matter marches like this one are a legacy of the Silent March.  

Chad Williams, Associate Professor of African and Afro-American Studies at Brandeis University and the author of Torchbearers of Democracy wrote of the long term significance in a Miami Herald op-ed on the 100th anniversary of the Parade in 2017:

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.

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