100th Anniversary of the Silent Parade.

Silent Parade, New York City July 28, 1917

That large banner has the famous line from the American Declaration of Independence, followed by “If of African descent tear off this corner”. TomP had a diary last month on the 100th anniversary of the East St. Louis massacre that described the events and their causes in detail.

Today is the 100th anniversary of the Silent Parade in New York City, organized to protest that massacre which claimed the lives of 100-200, the vast majority of them black people. Google changed it’s doodle today to commemorate the protest. They are also highlighting a documentary project from the Equal Justice Initiative called Lynching in America which is supported by Google.

The NY Times reported on the protest with this:

NEGROES IN PROTEST MARCH IN FIFTH AV.; 8,000 Men, Women, and Children Demand That Discrimination and Oppression End.

Among the banners was one which immediately attracted the notice of the police. It displayed a picture of a negro woman kneeling before President Wilson and appealing to him to bring democracy to America before carrying it to Europe. The police declared the banner to be objectionable, and the committee in charge of the parade readily withdrew it.

— timesmachine.nytimes.com/… (July 29, 1917)

It’s remarkable that the protesters were asked to remove that banner, almost as if the First Amendment in the Bill of Rights didn’t apply to them.

Along with the 8,000 marchers, another 20,000 black people lined the streets to witness the “silent protest against acts of discrimination and oppression” inflicted upon them in this country and in other parts of the world (we had a diary on the silent parade last year). The parade featured dozens of banners, some of the more notable ones included:

  • “Make America Safe for Democracy”
  • “India is Abolishing Caste, America is Adopting It”
  • “Memphis and Waco — Centers of American Culture?”
  • “Your Hands are Full of Blood”
  • “Pray for the Lady Macbeths” (of East St. Louis)
  • “We are Maligned as Lazy, and Murdered When we Work”

The last banner was a reference to the origins of the East St. Louis race riot, the employment of black persons in East St. Louis factories. Sadly, labor union members participated in and led the massacre.

The Waco reference evoked the lynching of Jesse Washington, who was tortured and burned to death by a crowd of thousands. The Memphis reference was to the notorious Memphis race-riot/pogrom of 1866.100 years on, many of these protest signs remain relevant.

There are contemporaneous accounts suggesting the rapid growth of the city’s population left services (including law enforcement) understaffed and the municipality bankrupt. Echoing the prejudices of the day, the Times reported with little examination on an “epidemic of hold-ups and shootings by negro footpads in the months of April and May” as contributing factors in the riot/massacre. The same article notes that black people and immigrants (from the Balkans and Austria) competed for the “hard, dirty and unpleasant work which no white American would consent to do”. That should be a reminder that though we see ourselves as a “nation of immigrants”, many among us have expressed prejudice towards the most recent group of immigrants, no matter where they are from. Of course, in the background was World War I which the US had entered earlier that year. Many residents of East St. Louis were drafted into the US army, and many newly arrived immigrants returned to their country of origin to enlist or serve.

The massacre was eventually halted by the arrival of the national guard. A mob of 500 was surrounded by the national guard and arrested, quelling most of the arson and killing. While it had raged, young boys and women had joined in to beat or shoot at unarmed black men and women.

The NYC protest’s organizers asked NAACP branches to help prepare signs, some of the “mottos” they distributed are above, others included:

  • “Taxation Without Representation is Tyranny”
  • America has lynched without trial 2,867 Negroes in 21 years and not a single murderer has suffered.
  • 200,00 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
  • We are excluded from the unions and condemned for not joining them.
  • Repelled by the unions we are condemned as scabs.
  • Our music is the only American music.
  • Race prejudice is the offspring of ignorance and the mother of lynching.
  • If fault is to be found with color, blame God and yourselves.
  • Mothers, do lynchers go to heaven?
  • We have 60,000 iron and steel workers.
  • Patriotism and loyalty presuppose protection and liberty.

The role of organized labor in the massacre is worth examining because it is a window into a dynamic that would play out over several decades as unions desegregated. The NY Times interviewed the local Congressman, Rep. William A. Rodenberg who noted that tensions had been brewing for some time, and a smaller riot five weeks prior had led to the deaths of six black and three white persons. He had this to say about the

“Several months ago there were strikes for shorter hours and higher wages at the packing houses and in the aluminum works. All these demands of the labor men were granted. Then the packing houses and the American Aluminum Company declared for open shops, and there was another strike based on the demand that the employers recognize the unions. This was not granted, so the workmen stayed out. Thereupon the companies concerned filled their plants with black labor. The white strikers declare that the companies sent agents all through the south to induce the blacks to come to the town. The employers deny this, and say that East St. Louis already had a plentiful supply of black labor when the whites went on strike and that the negroes were put to work because they were the only labor available to keep the plants going. As to the truth of the matter, I do not know.”

— timesmachine.nytimes.com/… (July 8, 1917)

The entire interview from the Times archives makes for an interesting read since it reveals both bias and clarity on the part of the Congressman. For example, this statement:

“Of course, the negroes were not members of the labor unions. I don’t know that they could have got in if they had tried; but it is a notorious fact that black laborers are not capable of being successfully unionized. They don’t understand why they should pay dues.”

timesmachine.nytimes.com/… (July 8, 1917)

Rodenberg knows that the unions, much like most other American institutions, were biased against black persons. But in the next breath, he indulges in some straightforward prejudice.

The events of 1917 do have relevance for us today. They illustrate the many ways in which workers and ordinary people can be divided. The organizers of the Silent Parade distributed a pamphlet with logistical information on the protest march. The National Humanities Center has a PDF of the pamphlet, which included a statement of objectives written by the organizers:

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 rousing the conscience of the country and 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, Disenfranchisement, 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, thee massacre of the honest toilers who were removing the reproach of laziness and thriftlessness hurled at the entire race. The 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.

You could take that last paragraph and run it verbatim in an article analyzing Trump’s speeches about immigrants or Chicago. Once again, we are plagued by “shallow-brained agitators, scheming pundits and political tricksters” who seek “fleeting popularity” and “financial support” by promoting “disunion”. Once again, we confront the specter of demagogues who seek to further their political careers by pitting us against one another.