At 1 p.m. on Saturday, July 28, 1917, a group of between 8,000 and 10,000 African American men, women and children began marching through the streets of midtown Manhattan in what became one of the first civil rights protests in American history—nearly 50 years before the March on Washington. Accompanied only by the sound of drums as they moved down Fifth Avenue, the protestors marched in silence, mourning those killed in a wave of anti-African American violence that had swept across the nation.
In the year preceding the march, two notorious lynching attacks had made headlines; one in Waco, Texas, which saw 10,000 people gather to watch a black man hung, and another in Tennessee that drew a crowd of 5,000. Even more shocking were the race riots that broke out in East St. Louis, Illinois, in the spring and summer of 1917.
Racial tensions in the city had been rising for years, as waves of southern blacks fled the Jim Crow South, traveling to industrial cities in the north in search of better living conditions and employment opportunities as part of what is known as the Great Migration. Business owners fanned the racial flames, hiring the newly-arrived black workers at lower wages than their white counterparts, and even using them as strikebreakers in their ongoing fight against unionized workers.
The first wave of attacks came in May, when a 3,000-strong mob descended on the downtown area, forcing the governor to call in the National Guard. After several weeks of relative calm, tensions exploded on the evening of July 2. Earlier that day, a car driven by several white men had shot into a crowd of people in the black section of the city. When another car (carrying police officers and a reporter) entered the same section a few hours later, black residents opened fire, killing two passengers.
Incensed white residents went on the attack, setting fire to large sections of black neighborhoods, and indiscriminately beating, stabbing, shooting and lynching any blacks they could find—including the young, old and disabled. Earlier they had cut off access to the fire department’s water supply. The National Guard was once again called in, but did little to quell the unrest (and, according to some reports, joined the mob’s efforts). After 24 hours of violence, at least 40 black Americans had been killed, although it’s likely that number was as high as 200. More than 6,000 black residents were left homeless, with an estimated $7 million (in today’s dollars) in property damage.
The brutality of the East St. Louis riots stunned many Americans, particularly those involved in the nascent civil rights movement. The NAACP, founded just eight years earlier by W.E.B. Du Bois and other activists, sprang into action. At a meeting in Harlem, James Weldon Johnson, who had joined the organization in 1916, called for a protest march through the heart of New York City’s business district. Women and children would take the lead (including a troop of young, black Boy Scouts), clad in white. Men would follow behind, dressed in darker, more mournful shades. And critically, despite the NAACP’s large white membership, only African Americans would participate.
An NAACP flyer advertising the march stated the group’s aims. “We march because we want our children to live in a better land and enjoy fairer conditions than have fallen to our lot,” the Rev. Charles Martin, an NAACP secretary, said. “We march in memory of our butchered dead, the massacre of the honest toilers who were removing the reproach of laziness and thriftlessness hurled at the entire race. They died to prove our worthiness to live.”
Participants carried posters and placards along the two-mile-long route, calling attention to recent murders and lynching attacks—one proclaimed that “America has lynched without trial 2,867 Negroes in 31 years and not a single murderer has suffered.” The protests also took aim at President Woodrow Wilson, who had campaigned on a pro-civil rights platform, but had repeatedly disappointed black reform leaders with his actions, which included allowing for the re-segregation of several federal government departments, and a failure to pass anti-lynching legislation.
The march was unlike anything New York—and America—had ever seen. There were no incidents of violence, and no arrests. The New York Times called it, “one of the most quiet and orderly demonstrations ever witnessed.” Despite the peaceful protest, attacks on African Americans continued, including the Chicago Race Riot of 1919, which lasted nearly a week and left 23 blacks and 13 whites dead (with more than 500 injured) just two years later.
More than a century after the “Silent Parade,” America continues to grapple with its legacy of racial inequality.