Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Black Lives Matter, 100th Anniversary Edition the Nation Had Never Seen Anything like It. on July 28, 1917, African-Americans Marched En Masse to Demand Their Rights, Recounts Brandeis Professor Chad Williams

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Black Lives Matter, 100th Anniversary Edition the Nation Had Never Seen Anything like It. on July 28, 1917, African-Americans Marched En Masse to Demand Their Rights, Recounts Brandeis Professor Chad Williams

Article excerpt

The only sounds were those of muffled drums, the shuffling of feet and the gentle sobs of some of the estimated 20,000 onlookers. Among the spectators, the women and children wore all white. The men dressed in black.

On the afternoon of Saturday, July 28, 1917, nearly 10,000 African-Americans marched down Fifth Avenue in New York, in silence, to protest racial violence and white supremacy in the United States. The nation had never before witnessed such a remarkable scene.

The "Silent Protest Parade," as it came to be known, was the first mass African-American demonstration of its kind and marked a watershed moment in the history of the civil rights movement. As I have written in my book "Torchbearers of Democracy," African-Americans during the World War I era challenged racism both abroad and at home. In taking to the streets to dramatize the brutal treatment of black people, the participants of the "Silent Protest Parade" indicted the United States as an unjust nation.

This charge remains true.

One hundred years later, as black people continue to insist that "Black Lives Matter," the "Silent Protest Parade" offers a vivid reminder about the power of courageous leadership, grassroots mobilization, direct action and their collective necessity in the fight to end racial oppression in today's troubled times.

The East St. Louis riot

One of the great accomplishments of the Black Lives Matter movement has been to demonstrate the continuum of racist violence against black people throughout American history and also the history of resistance against it. But as we continue to grapple with the hyper-visibility of black death, it is perhaps easy to forget just how truly horrific racial violence against black people was a century ago.

Prior to the "Silent Protest Parade," mob violence and the lynching of African-Americans were growing increasingly gruesome. 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 more than 5,000 whites in Memphis. Both men were burned and mutilated, their charred body parts distributed and displayed as souvenirs.

Even by these grisly standards, what happened in East St. Louis later that same summer was shocking. Simmering labor tensions between white and black workers exploded on the evening of July 2.

For 24 hours, white mobs indiscriminately stabbed, shot and lynched anyone with black skin. Men, women, children, the elderly, the disabled - no one was spared. Homes were torched and occupants shot down as they attempted to flee. White militia men stood idly by as the carnage unfolded. Some actively participated.

The death toll likely ran as high as 200. The city's surviving 6,000 black residents became refugees.

East St. Louis was an American pogrom. The fearless African-American anti-lynching activist Ida B. Wells traveled to the still-smoldering city on July 4 and collected firsthand accounts of the aftermath. She described what she saw as an "awful orgy of human butchery."

The devastation of East St. Louis was compounded by the fact that America was at war. On April 2, President Woodrow Wilson had thrown the United States into the maelstrom of World War I. He did so by asserting America's singularly unique place on the global stage and his goal to make the world "safe for democracy." In the eyes of black people, East St. Louis exposed the hypocrisy of Wilson's vision and America itself.

The NAACP takes action

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People quickly responded to the massacre. Founded in 1909, the NAACP had yet to establish itself as a truly representative organization for African-Americans across the country.

With the exception of W.E.B. Du Bois, one of the NAACP's co-founders and editor of The Crisis magazine, the national leadership was all white. …

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