The Silent Parade, one of the first mass protests against lynching and anti-black violence in the United States, is the subject of a July 28, 2017 Google Doodle that commemorates its 100th anniversary.
The parade took place on July 28, 1917 along New York City’s Fifth Avenue, and, as Google notes, the only sound “was the muffled beat of drums.” Google chose the Silent Parade for a Google Doodle to honor “those whose silence resonates a century later.”
At the time, the parade was also called the “Silent Protest Parade.” Its NAACP organizers wrote in a promotional flyer for the parade that they were marching to rouse the “conscience of the country.”
Here’s what you need to know:
1. Nearly 10,000 People, Including Children, Marched in Silence During the 1917 Silent Parade
On July 28, 1917, notes Google, “the only sound on New York City’s Fifth Avenue was the muffled beat of drums as nearly 10,000 African American children, women, and men marched in silence in what came to be known as the Silent Parade.”
The parade had a dress code that created a scene of unity.
As Alexis Newman described it for Black Past.org, “Children, dressed in white, led the protest, followed by women behind, also dressed in white. Men followed at the rear, dressed in dark suits. The marchers carried banners and posters stating their reasons for the march. Both participants and onlookers remarked that this protest was unlike any other seen in the city and the nation. There were no chants, no songs, just silence.”
A 1917 NAACP flyer urging people to join the march described how it would unfold.
“The children will lead the parade followed by the Women in white, while the Men will bring up the rear. The laborer, the professional man – all classes of the Race – will march on foot to the beating of muffled drums,” the flyer reads. “The native born, the foreign born, united by the ties of blood and color, all owing allegiance to the Mother of races will parade silently with the flags of America, England, Haiti and Liberia.”
The flyer also contained a list of mottos that were to be used on posters during the Silent Parade. Among them:
“Make America safe for Democracy.”
“Thou shalt not kill.”
“America has lynched without trial 2,867 Negroes in 31 years and not a single murderer has suffered.”
“200,000 Black men fought for your liberty in the Civil War.”
“The first blood for American Independence was shed by a Negro- Crispus Attucks.”
“12,000 of us fought with Jackson at New Orleans.”
In that way, of course, the parade wasn’t really silent at all. It delivered a resounding and powerful message.
2. The Silent Parade Followed Escalating Mob Violence & Lynchings Against African-Americans, Especially in East St. Louis
The Silent Parade in 1917 was, in part, a demonstration against mob violence and lynchings of African-Americans that, according to Chad Williams of Brandeis University, “had grown even more gruesome.”
Williams recounted the violence that predated the parade in a column published by The Miami Herald. “In Waco, a mob of 10,000 white Texans attended the May 15, 1916, lynching of a black farmer, Jesse Washington. One year later, on May 22, 1917, a black woodcutter, Ell Persons, died at the hands of over 5,000 vengeance-seeking whites in Memphis,” Williams wrote.
That was followed by historic scenes of violence in East St. Louis on July 2, 1917, wrote Williams, in which “white mobs indiscriminately stabbed, shot and lynched anyone with black skin. Men, women, children, the elderly, the disabled — no one was spared.” According to Black Past.org, the mob violence is also called the East St. Louis Massacre, and “was a major catalyst of the silent parade. This horrific event drove close to six thousand blacks from their own burning homes and left several hundred dead.”
In its blurb under the Google Doodle, Google places the death estimates for the 1917 East St. Louis mob violence at between 40 and 250 African-Americans. According to The Riverfront Times, the East St. Louis Massacre was “one of the most brutal and shameful episodes of mass violence in American history… The violence was largely one-sided, with mobs of armed whites burning hundreds of black homes and beating, lynching and shooting black residents. Most historians estimate that more than 100 people died.” Two police officers had been killed the night before when an armed black military opened fire, although an investigative account later said they were “mistaken for a carload of white drive-by shooters who had previously attacked the neighborhood,” according to the newspaper.
The Riverfront Times reprinted a newspaper story from the time. It read in part, “For an hour and a half last evening I saw the massacre of helpless negroes at Broadway and Fourth Street, in downtown East St. Louis, where black skin was a death warrant.” Survivors’ accounts included “an elderly woman with horrific burn scars on both arms and a 20-year-old whose arm had been shot off by soldiers and police officers,” the newspaper reported.
The St. Louis mob also “caused substantial property damage, displacing nearly 6,000 African American residents in the city,” according to the Art Newspaper.
3. W.E.B Du Bois & James Weldon Johnson Were Among the Leaders of the March, Which Was Meant to Pressure Woodrow Wilson During World War I
The leaders of the march – who included well-known iconic figures like James Weldon Johnson and W.E.B. Du Bois, wanted to pressure President Woodrow Wilson to stay true to his rhetoric about freedom.
“The protest demanded that President Woodrow Wilson take the legislative action to protect African Americans that he had touched on during his presidential campaign,” Google noted. “Although the demonstrators marched in silence, their message was very clear. One sign read, ‘Mr. President, why not make America safe for democracy’ — a challenge at a time where the President was promising to bring democracy to the world through World War I while Black Americans were being stripped of their civil rights at home.”
According to Biography.com, James Weldon Johnson was “a civil rights activist, writer, composer, politician, educator and lawyer, as well as one of the leading figures in the creation and development of the Harlem Renaissance.” He founded a newspaper, was the first African-American to pass the Florida state bar, and wrote, with his brother, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” later the official anthem for the NAACP, which he ran. That’s just the start of his many accomplishments.
W.E.B Du Bois is, of course, one of the most well-known and esteemed African-America leaders in U.S. history. He “was one of the most important African-American activists during the first half of the 20th century. He co-founded the NAACP and supported Pan-Africanism,” according to Biography.com. He was also the first black American to receive a Ph.D from Harvard University. He had traveled to St. Louis to photograph survivors and gather their accounts of the horrors of the East St. Louis Massacre, according to The Riverfront Times.
Johnson was deeply moved by the scene that emerged during the Silent Parade that formed, writing in his autobiography of the Silent Parade: “…the streets of New York have witnessed many strange (sights), but I judge, never one stranger than this; among the watchers were those with tears in their eyes.”
4. An Arts Group in New York Is Restaging the Historic Protest
On Friday, July 28th, the non-profit group Kindred Arts was to march in tribute on the 100th anniversary of The Silent Parade, following the same path. The march is occurring “in partnership with the NAACP and the arts initiative Inside Out,” reports The Art Newspaper.
Organizers want to raise public aware of the Silent Parade and its message.
“Children aren’t taught about the protest in school and, while I was researching it, I realized there was no one was doing anything in New York to remember it—it was shocking that there nothing was going on,” Marsha Reid, executive director of Kindred Arts, told The Art Newspaper.
According to the newspaper, marchers are encouraged “to wear all white, as protestors did 100 years ago” and to gather “on the Fountain Terrace of Bryant Park” to “march with art pieces and signs that reflect on the original demonstration and address current political and social concerns.”
Some on social media have equated the modern protest movement, such as Black Lives Matter, to the Silent Parade and used it as an inspiration.
5. The Flyer Urged People to March in 1917 Because ‘We Want Our Children to Live in a Better Land’
It is very powerful to read the message and intentions of the 1917 Silent Parade marchers in their own words. The National Humanities Center has published a copy of the NAACP flyer that urged people to come and march.
It says in part:
Why do we march?
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 want to make impossible a repetition of Waco, Memphis and East St. Louis, by rousing the conscience of the country and bring the murderers of our brothers, sisters, and innocent children to justice.
We march because we deem it a crime to be silent in the face of such barbaric acts.
We march because we are thoroughly opposed to Jim-crow Cars, etc., Segregation, Discrimination, Disenfranchisement, LYNCHING and the host of evils that are forced on us. It is time that the Spirit of Christ should be manifested in the making and execution of laws.
We march because we want our children to live in a better land and enjoy fairer conditions than have fallen to our lot.
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 an entire race. They died to prove our worthiness to live. We live in spite of death shadowing us and ours. We prosper in the face of the most unwarranted and illegal oppression.
We march because the growing consciousness and solidarity of race coupled with sorrow and discrimination have made us one: a union that may never be dissolved in spite of shallowbrained agitators, scheming pundits and political tricksters who secure a fleeting popularity and uncertain financial support by promoting the disunion of a people who ought to consider themselves as one.