One hundred years ago this week, thousands of African American children, women and men flooded New York City’s Fifth Avenue, dressed all in white.
That march on July 28, 1917, was a massive silent protest against racial violence. Outraged by several recently-publicized lynchings in Memphis, Tennessee, and Waco, Texas, along with attacks on black workers in East St. Louis, Illinois, the NAACP organized a march that some historians now call the beginning of the civil rights movement.
We spoke to Isabel Wilkerson, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author of “The Warmth of Other Suns,” about the Silent Parade’s impact and the importance of mass protests.
What was the historical context of the Silent Parade?
If we were to scroll back 100 years, we would see that the country was in the midst of a major watershed moment known as the Great Migration. African Americans were arriving in great numbers to the big cities in the North and were recruited by northern industries. And they were also anxious to flee the Jim Crow South, to free the caste system in which they were born.
So that meant that thousands and thousands of African Americans were suddenly arriving to places like Chicago, East St. Louis, Detroit and New York. So when you look at the Silent March of beautifully-dressed African Americans, some carrying signs and walking wordlessly to the somber beat of the drum core, you recognize that they were expressing their citizenship, a citizenship that they had not been able to express before when they were restricted to the fields and the kitchens of the South. And so this was a display that has not been seen on this scale in the United States by people who had been held in a fixed place in the South.
What were they protesting?
This demonstration was protesting mounting violence that was occurring all over the country, but more specifically, in the places that the people were seeking refuge in the North. So earlier in the summer, in May, late May, and earlier in the month of July in 1917, there were attacks on African Americans in East St. Louis. It was a massacre of African Americans that arose because of the tensions that had been set in motion because of the response to African Americans during the Great Migration.
So as the industrialists recruited African Americans from the South to the North, they frequently used them as strikebreakers. They pitted African Americans, the new arrivals from the South, against white workers who were already there. So early in July of 1917 there were massive attacks on African Americans. As many as 200 African Americans died, and thousands more were injured and left homeless in the North, in this new place that was supposed to be a place of refuge for their homes and dreams and families.
How was the NAACP involved?
When leadership in the NAACP, among them James Weldon Johnson, heard about what happened to African Americans in St. Louis, they organized to figure out a way to reach the American public. How can we put pressure on President Woodrow Wilson? How can we appeal to the conscious of our fellow Americans?
They decided to have a demonstration that would take them down to Fifth Avenue, one of the most recognizable promenades in all of the country, and they would have women, children and men. They would have a drum core and signs that would say, “The first blood shed for American Independence was shed by a Negro” They were appealing to the country to recognize their citizenship, to recognize their humanity, and the pageantry and the discipline and the organization ultimately would become one of the first mass demonstrations against racial injustice. It would become much an inspiration for much of what we saw in the 20th century.
Was the Silent Parade a success?
Sadly, their appeal went unheeded. President Woodrow Wilson actually stepped up his actions to for further segregate the federal government. In fact, the racial tensions that the silent march was protesting against and that had sparked this silent march would only grow in the coming years. Little did they know when they were marching down 5th Avenue that things would only get worse and that in 1919, two summers from that date, there would be even further violence on a massive scale — to such degree it would be called the Red Summer of 1919.
This is important today, because their appeal and their message went unheeded, and we as a country still deal with the aftereffects of our unresolved history, of unresolved tensions and misunderstandings and misreadings of how we came to be in this place and in our country. I think we can see a direct link, a direct connection between their appeal for racial justice, their appeal for a social awareness of the commonality of the American citizens. Because those appeals went unheeded, we are now seeing the continuing challenges of police overreach and violence against African Americans. And the cases have become so undeniable from Eric Garner to Philando Castile and the ongoing cases that we are still dealing with. If the message of the Silent March had truly been heard and truly been acted upon, perhaps we would be a very different country than the one we are now.
Do you think that that mass protests really lead to political change?
I believe that massive change requires multilayer action. It’s not one thing, it’s not only political, it’s not only economic, it is not only social, it’s everything. It takes everything to have the massive change that we did ultimately see in the 20th century. But I think that our recent era has shown that if the entire country does not know or recognize the history — how and why change needed to occur, action needed to happen, or laws needed to be signed, such as the Civil Rights Act of ‘64, ‘65, ‘68 — then progress can be at risk. In other words, progress is only as strong as the will to maintain it. And the will to maintain it is dependent upon knowing why these things needed to happen.
So how large of a role do protests really play in social justice movements?
The imagery of people taking a stand in a mass demonstration sometimes becomes the only visual representation of what the larger movement might be. In other words, because we have the photographs of what the people are doing, it’s the visible manifestation of the resistance to injustice. It’s a reminder that there are many people who are willing to put themselves on the line, to march, to show the world that they are representing many thousands, if not millions, of people who agree with them.
How does this mass protest compare to protests that are happening today?
I think the analyses for our time would obviously be the Black Lives Matter movement. Many of those protests occurred on those same streets, on the same boulevard where protests were occurring in 1917. I ask people to recognize this watershed moment — African Americans marching down 5th Avenue. That was such a singular, early indication of what was coming down the line. How brave, courageous and innovative they were to do that. I think they need to be given their due when it comes to what they brought to that moment. When you look at what has happened in our current day, particularly mass protests that occurred in 2015, it’s sombering to think that that’s still happening. I would imagine that they thought they were making such a statement, that perhaps future generations would not have to do this anymore. And we realize that this long effort towards social justice in our country is far from over, is far from resolved.
Why don’t more people know about it?
I think one of the reasons people don’t know about it is that we as Americans don’t really think about history anyway. We have a kind of historical amnesia. A lot of history gets lost, and it’s not just history of people of color or marginalized groups. History in general is not something that Americans spend as much time as we could in really trying to understand it. We think about technology and moving forward and the future. We don’t think about how the past has formed our present stage for the future.
Because of the magnitude of the 1960s civil rights movement, in which there was tremendous violence against protesters, those images have preempted the peaceful outpouring of pictures we see of the Silent March. That moment in 1917 speaks so loudly through its silence to those of us today. These are the origins of our current tensions.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.