1917 NAACP Silent Protest Parade, Fifth Avenue, New York City

July 26, 2020

By Michael Morand

Note: ​This article is adapted from a post originally published in July 2017 in conjunction with the Beinecke Library’s exhibition of photographs of the 1917 Silent Protest Parade to commemorate its centennial.
The July 28, 1917 Silent Protest Parade on Fifth Avenue in New York City was one of the first major mass demonstrations by African Americans. Conceived by James Weldon Johnson and organized by the NAACP with church and community leaders, the protest parade united an estimated 10,000 African Americans who marched down Fifth Avenue, gathering at 55th–59th Streets and proceeding to Madison Square, silently carrying banners condemning racist violence and racial discrimination. They gave powerful witness in the wake of brutal episodes of mass anti-Black violence in the city of East St. Louis, where between 50 and 200 African Americans were murdered and 6,000 were left homeless by arson attacks. The marchers indicted the U.S. and President Woodrow Wilson, who had just pledged to make the world safe for democracy.
“The Silent Protest Parade is among the most important, yet too little remembered, early events in the long civil rights movement in the U.S.,” according to Melissa Barton, Curator of Prose and Drama in the Yale Collection of American Literature. The event was highlighted in her book, Gather Out of Star-Dust: A Harlem Renaissance Album, published to accompany an exhibition on the Harlem Renaissance she curated at the library, January 13 – April 17, 2017, drawing on the library’s extensive James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection of African American Arts and Letters.
The Beinecke Library stewards sets of photographs of the march made by Underwood and Underwood and by Cyril T. Adams in 1917. The photographs are drawn from the personal papers and archives of Johnson and his wife, Grace Nail Johnson, in the library. Their papers also include scrapbooks that document the protest and its coverage in the media, and the Petition re Lynching the organizers wrote to the President and Congress of the United States. 

The collection features the petition signed by eleven of the members of the committee who traveled to Washington, D.C., to present it to President Wilson on August 1, 1917: John E. Nail, James Weldon Johnson, Everard W. Daniel, George Frazier Miller, Fred R. Moore, A. B. Cosey, D. Ivison Hoage, Isaac B. Allen, Maria C. Lawton, Madam C. J. Walker, and Frederick A. Cullen (chairman). As the printed version of the petition notes, the committee was turned away by J. P. Tumulty, Secretary to the President, who said that Wilson was “too busy” to receive the delegation.

Throughout the march, the only sound came from the drums leading the procession. Behind the drummers marched a small band of NAACP officers and other organizers, including W. E. B. Du Bois and Johnson, who had joined the NAACP as a field secretary just eight months previously.
Framed as leading the procession, there followed a group of children dressed in white, followed by women dressed in white, emphasizing the vulnerability of the victims in East St. Louis and throughout a country plagued by racial violence. Finally, men in dark suits brought up the rear, with banners expressing their outrage at racial injustice.
Racist violence and racial tensions had reached alarming levels throughout the U.S. in 1917. The mass migration of African Americans from the rural south to northern urban centers—what would become known as the Great Migration—was well underway, and the ensuing tensions were exacerbated by competition for housing and jobs. The white supremacist order had mounted a fierce backlash. 
A flyer distributed by the NAACP in advance of the Silent Protest Parade enumerated the many reasons to participate with the refrain “We march.” These included, “We march because the growing consciousness and solidarity of race coupled with sorrow and discrimination have made us one.” As the flyer suggests, organizations like the NAACP and African American churches met the growing racist violence with a consolidation of Black political power.

The events in East St. Louis provided a preview for the terrible summer of 1919, when white supremacist violence broke out in cities throughout the country including Chicago, Washington, D.C., Omaha, Nebraska, and Knoxville, Tennessee. Johnson gave the season of horror its name: “Red Summer.” But, in spite of that reversal, the Silent Protest Parade had established the organization of mass protest as possible. As Johnson wrote in his autobiography Along this Way: “The streets of New York have witnessed many strange sights, but, I judge, never one stranger than this; certainly, never one more impressive.”

“The ‘Silent Protest Parade’ marked the beginning of a new epoch in the long black freedom struggle,” noted Chad Williams, Samuel J. and Augusta Spector Chair in History at Brandeis University, in an article in its centennial year. To learn more about the Silent Protest Parade and its resonance for the present, read Williams’s article in The Conversation, published on July 25, 2017.

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 arousing the conscience of the country, and to 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, disfranchisement, 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 honest toilers who were removing the reproach of laziness and thriftlessness hurled at the 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 shallow-brained 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.