Silent Protest parade on Fifth Avenue, New York City, July 28, 1917, in response to the East St. Louis race riot. In front row are James Weldon Johnson [far right], W. E. B. DuBois [2nd from right], Rev. Hutchens Chew Bishop, rector of St. Philip's Episcopal Church [Harlem] and realtor John E. Nail.]
JULY 29th, 1917
Ten Thousand African Americans March in New York City to Protest Racial Violence
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.
Down Fifth Avenue
They piled them tier by tier while the crowd in silence watched them.
And as the pile rose and spread, to many it seemed
Like the red .blood of Russia welling from a mortal wound. And some saw red fagots of freedom rising and kindling
a fire that would warm all the world. But no man there could tell the truth of it.
The crowd makes way for them.
The mob of motors-women in motors, footmen in motors, Manhattan's transients in motors, life's transients in motors-has cleared and disappeared.
And their mothers and ·their children, their wives, their lovers and friends, are lining the curb and knitting and whispering.
The flags are floating and beckoning to them, the breezes
are beckoning and whispering their secrets,
That the city has hushed to hear, while trade and trivial things give place.
And through the crowd, that holds its breath too long, a restless stir like the starting of troubled breathing says, "They are coming." And the distant beat of feet begins
to blend with the beat of laboring hearts;
And the emptiness that missed a beat in the heart of the city becomes the street of a prayer and a passion.
This is a street of mothers and their sons-for an hour in the life of Manhattan.
And today makes way for them.
The past makes way for them.
This morning's discontent, yesterday's greed, last year's uncertainty, are muted and transmuted to a surging urge to victory.
Spirits that stood at Bunker Hill and Valley Forge, Ticon
deroga, Yorktown, Lundy's Lane, Fort Sumter, Appomatox, are resurrected here;
With older fathers and mothers who farmed, and pushed frontiers and homes for freedom westward steadily;
With freedom's first grandfathers and forerunners, whu grew to hold hill towers and forest fastnesses, and range the sea and all its shores and islands for the right to live for liberty.
And their blood beats in these boy hearts, and their hill
bred and sea-bred strength is stirring in these feet that beat their measured cadences of courage.
For now the tide is turning eastward at last.
And the sound of the fall of their feet on the asphalt IS the sound of the· march of the waves of a tide that IS flooding-
Waves that marched to the western coast past forests and plains, mountains and deserts, and wrought their work in a world gone by.
And the ripple of the ranks of these regiments that march to suffer and to die, is the ripple of a great brown river in floodthat forges seaward;
And the ripple of the light on eyes and lips that watch and work, is the swelling of a greater flood that forces them to go.
And the ripple and arrest of light on dull gun-barrels that
crest their flow are runes of a ritual spelled in steel and a service enduring.
And each beat of their feet and each beat of their hearts is a word in a gospel of steel that says the nations through ruins grow one again ;
When God's drill-master War has welded nations in ranks
that their children may serve Him together.
For tomorrow makes way for them.
John Curtis Underwood
Down Fifth Avenue
Author(s): John Curtis Underwood
Source: Poetry, Vol. 12, No. 3 (Jun., 1918),
Published by: Poetry Foundation
A report on the East St. Louis Riot
A report on the East St. Louis Riot