“We march because we deem it a crime to be silent in the face of such barbaric acts,” said a leaflet announcing the demonstration. “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.”
The protesters included W. E. B. DuBois, an NAACP founder and editor of the “Crisis” magazine, and James Weldon Johnson, then an NAACP field secretary and a Harlem Renaissance writer and composer, who had written the Negro National Anthem “Lift Every Voice and Sing” in 1900.
The marchers demanded that President Woodrow Wilson create legislation to protect the lives and property of black people.
Children led the parade, followed by women dressed in white and men in suits, bringing up the rear. They walked to the sound of muffled drums and carried flags of the United States, England, Haiti and Liberia.
Before the march, the NAACP calculated that more than 2,800 black people had been lynched in the United States over the course of three decades.
“Not a single murderer has suffered,” the NAACP said in a memorandum. “Two hundred thousand black men fought for your liberty in the Civil War. The first blood for American Independence was shed by a Negro—Crispus Attucks. We have fought for the liberty of white Americans in six wars; our reward is East St. Louis.”
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In the East St. Louis riots, which began July 2, 1917, and lasted two days, white mobs indiscriminately stabbed black people, beating them and hanging them. Police did little to stem the violence. The riot erupted after weeks of tension over the use of black workers to replace striking white workers at a plant, according to an account by the National Humanities Center, a nonprofit group that has collected primary source material on the violence.
A St. Louis Post-Dispatch newspaper reporter wrote in a July 3, 1917, front page story what he witnessed:
“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.”
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A protester in the Silent March down Fifth Avenue carried a sign that said: “Pray for the Lady MacBeths of East St. Louis.”
Other marchers carried signs that said: “Your hands are full of blood.” Another sign read, “Mothers, do lynchers go to heaven?” Another read: “Race prejudice is the offspring of ignorance and the mother of lynching.”
James Weldon Johnson would later write about the Silent March in his autobiography, “Along This Way,” which was published in 1933.
“The streets of New York have witnessed many strange sights,” wrote Weldon, “but I judge, never one stranger than this; among the watchers were those with tears in their eyes.”
Read more Retropolis:
‘Burn, baby, burn’: What I saw as a black journalist covering the L.A. riots 25 years ago
Hunting down runaway slaves: The cruel ads of Andrew Jackson and ‘the master class’
When Portland banned blacks: Oregon’s shameful history as an ‘all-white’ state
‘Life or death for black travelers’: How fear led to ‘The Negro Motorist Green-Book’
‘You’ve got bad blood’: The horror of the Tuskegee syphilis experiment