“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 in a better land and enjoy fairer conditions than have fallen to our lot.“
“We live in spite of death shadowing us and ours. We prosper in the face of the most unwarranted and illegal oppression.“
These words may seem drawn from current reactions to the protests and social unrest spreading across the country in the wake of the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and Tony McDade. But they are actually more than 100 years old: They appear on a flyer created by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in response to both a specific incidence of racial violence and years of lynching, rape, segregation, and discrimination. The organization’s activism resulted in the Silent Protest Parade on July 28, 1917, which gathered together native born African Americans and immigrants; professionals and working class; and men, women, and children to march down Fifth Avenue and declare that they could not “be silent in the face of such barbaric acts.”
Today, the United States is consumed with complex responses to the death of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis, an incident that’s been widely compared to a lynching. That these demonstrations are happening during a pandemic is no coincidence: COVID-19 has laid bare persistent inequalities in health care, housing, and employment, leading to disproportionate fatalities and economic losses among Black, Latinx, and Indigenous communities. As protests grow, it is essential to see the events of our moment within a longer history of struggles for civil and constitutional rights.
The seed of the Silent Protest Parade was the East St. Louis Massacre, which erupted in early July 1917. As World War I raged in Europe, thousands of black Americans migrated north to cities like East St. Louis to work in factories and escape racist violence in the South. The largely white workforce of the Aluminum Ore Company had gone on strike earlier in the spring of 1917, and the company hired black workers as replacements. Tensions grew, and the city exploded in violence on July 1. Police stood by as white men and women attacked black residents and destroyed their homes, businesses, and neighborhoods. By the end, the official death count was 39 black residents and 9 white, but many believed at least 100 men, women, and children had been killed.
The NAACP, which had been founded in 1909 by a diverse coalition of black and white activists (including both men and women), moved to protest the “lawless treatment of the negro throughout the country.” The organization wrote formal petitions to President Woodrow Wilson and Congress, informed the press, and printed signs. Many black civic, political, and social organizations in New York were asked to support a protest parade, and pastors rallied their congregations. Children led the parade, followed by women, and then men. Women and children wore white to signify their innocence, while men dressed in dignified suits. Signs spoke for the protesters, who remained silent throughout the march.
While the police insisted that a sign portraying a woman begging Wilson to secure democracy at home before fighting for it in Europe be removed from the march—part of restrictions on anti-war speech—others with slogans such as “Make America Safe for Democracy,” “Repelled by Unions We are Condemned as Scabs,” and “Your Hands Are Full of Blood” were permitted. The only sound—besides the footsteps of the marchers—was the beat of muffled drums. The New York Times reported that another 20,000 African American New Yorkers lined Fifth Avenue to witness the parade, and wrote, “Those in the parade represented every negro organization and church in the city. They marched, however, not as organizations, but as a people of one race, united by ties of blood and color, and working for a common cause.”
Marchers hoped the protest would spark federal action against lynching. The following day, NAACP leaders, including entrepreneur Madame C.J. Walker, traveled to Washington, D.C., where they believed they had a meeting scheduled with President Wilson to present their petition urging him to act. Instead, they met with his secretary.
Black Americans in other cities responded to the massacre as well. In Chicago, journalist Ida B. Wells reported on a local group’s mass meeting and subsequent resolution that “the wholesale slaughter of colored men, women, and children was the result of the reckless indifference of public officials, who, with the power of the police, sheriff and governor, could have prevented this massacre if they had discharged the duty which the law imposed upon them.”
Despite the lack of congressional or presidential action, black Americans continued their advocacy against discrimination and violence. In her book Southern Horrors, Wells investigated over 700 lynchings in the late 19th century, emphasizing the hypocrisy and untruth of claims that lynching was a justified response to black men raping white women by calling out the enduring sexual exploitation of black women by white men.
The Great Migration led African Americans in the north to establish a bolder national response to racial violence via both the black press and newly founded organizations, including the NAACP and the National Association of Colored Women (NACW). The NAACP had formed a Committee on Anti-Lynching in 1916, and began dispatching field secretaries to investigate lynchings. In 1920, their office headquarters building in Greenwich Village began their provocative practice of flying a flag reading “A Man Was Lynched Yesterday.” The same year, officials testified before Congress about election day violence in Florida. Women of the NAACP formed the Anti-Lynching Crusaders in 1922, focusing on the sexual politics of lynching and garnering interracial support for an anti-lynching bill.
Publicizing these atrocities led to increased awareness of violence, and both black and white Americans advocated for anti-lynching legislation. In 1918, Republican representative Leonidas Dyer introduced the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill to establish lynching as a federal crime. However, that bill and others like it never passed in the Senate because of Southern opposition. It wasn’t until 2018 that the Senate unanimously passed anti-lynching legislation. In February 2020, the House of Representatives passed the Emmett Till Anti-Lynching Act by a vote of 410-4. The bill awaits further action before it can become law.
The Center for Women’s History has included footage of the 1917 Silent March in two exhibitions, including Women March, to show the deep roots of present-day understandings of protest; to demonstrate how generations of activist movements learn from one another; and to underscore women’s role in anti-lynching activism. It is incumbent upon us to understand the history of peaceful protest as we take a full accounting of the legacies of colonialism, slavery, lynching, segregation, and racism. How can those lessons be useful today? What can we learn in pursuit of a shared and equitable future? How can we speak out “in the face of such barbaric acts?”
Written by Sarah Gordon, Curatorial Scholar in Women’s History, Center for Women’s History and Laura Mogulescu, Curator of Women’s History Collections, Center for Women’s History