THE 1917 Silent Parade
“ . . . the streets of New York have witnessed many strange sights, but I judge, never one stranger than this; among the watchers were those with tears in their eyes.” James Weldon Johnson
July 28, 1917 -- 100 years ago today -- The Silent March made history as the very first organized civil rights march.
It was held in response to more than 200 African-Americans being killed in what would later be called the East St. Louis riots.
White mobs burn down homes of African-Americans, turned off fire hoses, and snipers picked off the residents -- men, women and children -- who fled those burning homes.
The cause of the white mobs ire? Fear that blacks migrating from Louisiana to East St. Louis MIGHT begin to take labor jobs away from white union laborers.
Little was written in the media about the riots, and many in the North had no idea what had occurred.
James Weldon Johnson, who was president of the NAACP, suggested the soon-to-be legendary march to bring attention to the violence against African-Americans, including the victims of the St. Louis riots, and the many lynchings that was taking place in post-Reconstruction America.
One of the fliers that were distributed announcing the March read in part:
“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, theu 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.”
It was estimated that more than 8000 participants silently marched down fifth Avenue, from 57th St. to 24th St., silent the entire time, except for muffled drumbeats from a procession of drummers who march just ahead of the March organizers who were followed by a large grouping of children dressed in white, followed by an even larger grouping of women dressed in white… And ending with a group of men in black business suits. Including James Weldon Johnson and W.E.B. Du Bois.
African-American Boy Scouts flanked the paraders, handing out flyers to onlookers explaining the purpose of the March:
"We march because the growing consciousness and solidarity of race coupled with sorrow and discrimination have made us one: a union that may never be dissolved in spite of shallow-brained agitators, scheming pundits and political tricksters who secure a fleeting popularity and uncertain financial support by promoting the disunion of a people who ought to consider themselves as one."
Though no songs were played, and no words were mouthed, the signs and banners carried by the marchers expressed their sentiments.
"Mother, do lynchers go to heaven?"
"Mr. President, why not make America safe for democracy?"
"Thou shalt not kill."
"Pray for the Lady Macbeths of East St. Louis."
"Give us a chance to live."