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Gilbert: The Silent Protest Parade

When there’s political or social unrest, people take to the streets and protest. Recent examples include the Women’s March, the People’s Climate March, and the March for Science. There’ve also been marches in many cities around the country in response to shootings of African American men by police. There’ve been marches for many causes throughout American history, but marches for the civil rights of African Americans are comparatively new. They may have begun one hundred years ago tomorrow.

On July 28, 1917, nearly 10,000 African Americans marched down Fifth Avenue in New York City. The children at the front and the women who followed them were dressed in white; the men brought up the rear dressed in black. They marched, not walked, and they marched in line. They carried signs and banners, but there was no chanting or singing. They marched in silence. The only sound was of the muffled drums that led the procession.

The 1917 NAACP Silent Protest Parade was organized by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, founded only eight years earlier, and W.E.B. Du Bois. It was in response to recent lynchings in Memphis and Waco, and a race riot in East St. Louis, Illinois, where a white mob burned the black section of town to the ground and killed scores of African American men, women, and children.

Historians consider the Parade the first of its kind in New York, and one of the first times that the NAACP showed that the nation had an aggressive national civil rights organization.

One marcher in the parade carried a sign that read, “India is abolishing caste; America is adopting it.” Another, alluding to President Woodrow Wilson’s comment that America was entering World War I in order to “make the world safe for democracy” read, “Make America safe for Democracy.”

Protest organizers sought to press Wilson to fulfill his election promises to pass anti-lynching legislation and implement related policies. In this they were unsuccessful, but the Silent Protest Parade demonstrated that organized mass protest by African Americans was possible.

In a way then, it was a first step on the path toward not only the 1963 March on Washington at which Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech, but also the civil rights protests and marches of today.

Peter Gilbert is executive director of the Vermont Humanities Council.
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