100th Anniversary of the Silent Parade
On July 29, 1917, prominent news sources reported that nearly 10,000 African American men, women, and children had staged a silent march down Fifth Avenue in New York City the previous day. In what is considered one of the first public demonstrations by African Americans in the 20th century, the NAACP mobilized thousands of members of the black community in the New York “Silent March” or “The Negro Silent Protest Parade.”
Formulated by James Weldon Johnson, this march was intended to be a public response and criticism of the racial violence that had been committed against African American communities in the United States that summer, particularly in the East St. Louise riots. Threatened by a growing African American labor force, a group of white men gathered in the downtown area of East St. Louis in May 1917 and began attacking and beating unsuspecting African Americans to death. That July, an armed white mob drove into black residential areas and opened fire on men, women, and children; when black residents shot back and accidentally killed a police officer, riots erupted. Whites flooded the black community, shooting black residents as they fled, lynching black people from street lamps, and burning black homes and businesses to the ground.
The thousands of marchers in New York City were also spurred to action by the racially-motivated murder of 17-year-old Jesse Washington, who was lynched, burned, and dismembered by a white mob in front of the Waco, Texas, City Hall on May 15, 1916.
The silent marchers communicated their frustration to the nation by holding signs and banners, but without speaking one word. Children led the march wearing white, followed by prominent NAACP members like W.E.B du Bois and a banner that read “Your Hands Are Full of Blood.” The American flag was also carried as a reminder of the democratic ideals that failed to protect African Americans. This march launched the NAACP’s public campaign against lynching and racial violence.