The Negro Silent Protest Parade of 1917, commonly known as the Silent Parade, was a silent march of approximately 10,000 African Americans protesting against the widespread racial violence and discrimination inflicted upon their community.
The early 20th century was a time of profound racial tension and discrimination against African Americans in the United States. Jim Crow laws enforced segregation, denying black citizens access to public spaces, education, and equal opportunities. Violence against African Americans, often perpetrated by white mobs and sometimes even by law enforcement, was prevalent across the country. Lynchings, in particular, were an egregious expression of racial hatred and terror, with thousands of black individuals murdered extrajudicially during this period.
In response to the escalating racial injustices, the NAACP was founded in 1909. The organization aimed to fight racial discrimination through legal means, education, and grassroots activism. The NAACP sought to protect and defend the rights of African Americans, challenging segregation, discriminatory legislation, and racial violence.
The East St. Louis Riots: A Tragic Catalyst
The Silent Parade was sparked by the shocking East St. Louis Riots of July 1917. The incident began on July 1, 1917, when a white mob attacked black neighborhoods in East St. Louis in what would become one of the most brutal race riots in American history.
Over the course of three days, white mobs roamed the streets, indiscriminately attacking African American residents. They burned homes and businesses, leaving a trail of destruction in their wake. African Americans were mercilessly beaten, and reports of horrifying acts of violence, including lynching, surfaced during and after the riots. The situation deteriorated to the point where the Illinois National Guard was called in to restore order, but their presence did little to protect the black community.
The East St. Louis Riots resulted in an appalling death toll. While exact numbers remain uncertain due to the chaos of the events, it is estimated that hundreds of African Americans lost their lives in the violence. This tragic loss of life left scars on the community and sent shockwaves throughout the nation. The violent events of East St. Louis sent shockwaves throughout the nation and galvanized the civil rights movement into action.
Following the East St. Louis Riots, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and other influential community leaders convened in New York City to strategize an appropriate response. They understood the power of a united, nonviolent protest and envisioned a peaceful demonstration that would serve as a solemn statement against the rampant atrocities and discrimination faced by African Americans across the nation.
The New York Age, a prominent African American newspaper, carried an advertisement inviting African Americans of all ages and backgrounds to participate in a “mute but solemn protest against the atrocities and discrimination practiced against the race in various parts of the country.” The organizers aimed to show the nation and the world that the African American community was determined to stand together in the face of injustice and oppression.
On July 28, 1917, an estimated 8,000 to 15,000 African Americans assembled at 57th Street and Fifth Avenue in New York City, ready to make history. The parade was meticulously organized, with men, women, and children participating side by side. The marchers conveyed their message through silence, as they believed that their dignified presence and solemnity would speak volumes about the urgency of their cause.
Protesters carried powerful signs, some directly appealing to President Woodrow Wilson, who had been elected on a promise to address the concerns of African American voters. A mounted police escort led the procession, ensuring the safety of the demonstrators. The women and children, dressed in white, marched first, followed by the men dressed in black.
The signs and banners carried by the protesters bore messages that reflected the depth of their discontent and their vision for a better future:
“We march because by the Grace of God and the force of truth, the dangerous, hampering walls of prejudice and inhuman injustices must fall.”
“We march because we deem it a crime to be silent in the face of such barbaric acts.”
“We march because we want our children to live a better life and enjoy fairer conditions than have fallen to our lot.”
The Silent Protest Parade was a resounding success in drawing national attention to the plight of African Americans and the urgent need for civil rights reform. The peaceful demonstration garnered widespread media coverage and resonated with people of all races, highlighting the resilience, unity, and determination of the African American community.
While the protesters had hoped to influence President Wilson to take action on anti-lynching legislation and other civil rights issues, their immediate goals were not realized. Nevertheless, the parade marked a crucial turning point in the civil rights movement, inspiring future generations of activists to continue the fight for justice, equality, and human rights.