Thanks to Google, today many will learn about a forgotten moment when a young National Association of Colored People (NAACP) without a word showed America how relevant and effective they would be in raising awareness of the plight of Blacks. On July 28, 1917, the New York chapter where the legendary voice of Black literature at the time, James Weldon Johnson who also served as the local president of the NAACP, helped to organize what many considered to be the first African-American civil rights march.
In the minds of many, African American protests marches begin with Dr. Martin Luther King during the Civil Rights era. This is because for most students, with the possible exception of New York, those are the marches taught in history class, spotlighted in books and movies. The Silent Parade of 1917, led by the fledgling NAACP not yet 10 years old yet, is not frequently taught.
Showing that history merely continues to repeat itself in some ways, we see the parade was organized to bring awareness to the East St. Louis Riots which left nearly 200 Blacks dead. The riots in May and July of 1917 was reportedly motivated by the influx of Blacks at the rate of 2,000 a week was seen as a threat to white union members. The unions sought to keep Blacks out while also going on strike during ongoing negotiations. Meanwhile, companies simply begin hiring Blacks to replace them.
In retaliation, on May 28 reportedly nearly 3,000 Whites came into East St. Louis and begin beating Blacks and destroying buildings before the National Guard was called in to quell the situation. For a few weeks, things quieted down. Then in July, the second round of riots led to more deaths, entire sections of the community destroyed which resulted in thousands left homeless. The Silent Parade was held to bring awareness nationally to the plight of the killed and harmed by the riots.
East St. Louis is less than 12 miles from Ferguson, Missouri, where the 2014 shooting of an unarmed Michael Brown by a White cop led to protests setting the stage for the Black Lives Matter to gain national attention as an organization. Black Lives Matter was actually founded a year before the shooting after George Zimmerman was acquitted for the murder of Trayvon Martin in Florida. What started as a hashtag in 2013, has grown into a recognized movement.
NAACP in 2017
Earlier this month, Ed Gray, NDG’s Senior Columnist, posed the question if the NAACP is still relevant? If they can recapture the focus and clarity on their purpose in 2017 demonstrated in the effective 1917 Silent March the answer is a resounding yes. Then the once highly vaulted organization will begin to regain their role at the forefront of addressing issues impacting African Americans today, instead of being relegated to a seat on the back of the bus while groups such as Black Lives Matter command attention and respect from today’s activist.
Derrick Johnson, selected as the interim leader of the NAACP last week, is embarking on a “listening tour” around the country to listen to the concerns of local chapters. His predecessor, Rev. Cornell Brooks’ whose contract was not renewed last month, visited Dallas recently, was able to identify the issues according to NAACP Board Chairman Leon Russell when Brooks was released. Now the organization must move to the next level.
“But we are now at the point where the issues are raised. Everyone is aware of them. But it’s time to put something on the table to actualize solutions,” Russell said in a statement.
To learn more about the Silent Parade, visit here.