The Silent Parade of July 28, 1917, was unlike anything ever seen in New York City. Today it is considered New York’s (and most likely America’s) first African-American civil rights march.
“We march because we are thoroughly opposed to Jim Crow cars, segregation, disenfranchisement and the host of evils that are forced upon us. 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.” "To the beat of muffled drums 8,000 negro men, women and children marched down Fifth Avenue yesterday in a parade of ‘silent protest against acts of discrimination and oppression’ inflicted upon them in this country, and in other parts of the world. Without a shout or a cheer they made their cause known through the many banners which they carried, calling attention to Jim Crowism, segregation, disfranchisement, and riots of Waco, Memphis and East St. Louis.” — New York Times
This extraordinary procession was organized by the burgeoning National Association of the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), a group of concerned black and white activists and intellectuals which had formed less than a decade earlier in New York.
The march was organized in direct response to a horrible plague of violence against black Americans in the 1910s, culminating in the East St. Louis Riots*, a massacre involving white mobs storming black neighborhoods in sheer racial animus. Two sets of riots in May and July 1917 left almost 200 people dead. Rioters burned black neighborhoods, cutting off water hoses and watched as families fled the burning buildings — to be picked off by gunmen.
This massacre was but one of several violent incidents aimed at new black laborers, pointed attacks meant to strike fear in the hearts of black Americans.
The circumstances of World War I exacerbated an already volatile crisis. As W.E.B. DuBois would explain it,
“The Negro, attracted by higher wages in the North and repelled by the menace of lynchinig and caste in the South moves in to fill the new labor demand [caused by the war]. The common laborer in the North is caught between the tyranny of exclusive trade unions and the underbidding of blacks. The rest is murder and riot and unrest…. White Northern laborers find killing Negroes a safe, lucrative employment which commends them to the American Federation of Labor.”
In New York, at a meeting of the NAACP in Harlem, president James Weldon Johnson (at the suggestion of New York Evening Post editor Oswald Villard) proposed an unusual but effective form of protest — an army of marchers along Fifth Avenue, drawing attention to the victims of the East St. Louis riot.
And in an unprecedented decision by the organizers, it would consist only of black marchers.