5 Things You Were Never Taught About The Silent Protest But Should Know

The demonstration in 1917 is generally considered to be the first civil rights protest in the country.

On July 28, 1917, almost 10,000 African American men, women and child marched in silence down Fifth Avenue in New York City. Their protest, the first of its kind, quietly paved the way for future demonstrations that would eventually manifest in civil rights reform in the 1960s and can still be seen in the Black Lives Matter movement today.


In 1917, tensions between Black and white communities across the country continued to escalate. It was the historical and present discrimination and violence directed toward African Americans in the U.S. that these some 10,000 had gathered to protest. Dressed in black and white and carrying placards, the demonstration was unlike anything people in New York had ever seen. 

But the protest, and its legacy, are often forgotten. 

In honor of its 100th anniversary this week, continue reading below for more about the history of The Silent Protest Parade and its lasting impact on our country.

1. It was one of the first mass protests against racial violence in the U.S.

The Silent Protest Parade tapped into a long history of racial violence in the U.S., but was also a direct response to race riots in East St. Louis, Illinois that had taken place at the beginning of the month and were arguably the worst the country had ever seen. Mobs of white workers across the city burned, beat and lynched African Americans indiscriminately in a tidal wave of violence that lasted for hours. Historians estimate that as many as 200 people were killed, although the official death toll at the time was 39.

The idea for a protest came from James Weldon Johnson, a field secretary for the NAACP at the time, at an executive meeting of the organization's Harlem branch. His vision was to include New York's entire Black community. 

Children march in the Silent Protest Parade. New York Public Library/Schomburg Center

2. It moved some onlookers to tears.

An estimated 20,000 people lined the streets to watch the demonstration, and the NYPD were called to the scene in case of disorder. Per The Washington Post, author and activist Johnson later described the experience in his autobiography: "The streets of New York have witnessed many strange sights, but I judge, never one stranger than this; among the watchers were those with tears in their eyes."

3. Yes, their signs were just as poignant and powerful as any modern day protest.

Demonstrators did not mince words. They carried placards with messages such as "Your hands are full of blood" and "Racial prejudice the offspring of ignorance and the mother of lynching." One asked, "Mothers, do lynchers go to heaven?"

4. And protesters also sent a message with their clothes.

Women and children dressed in white led the parade with men dressed in black followed. Per the Miami Herald, the color choices were meant to symbolize innocence in the country's cycle of racism and grief for those who had already been killed, respectively. 

5. The Silent Protest Parade set the tone for demonstrations today.

Protesters did not utter a word until the march ended. Even without chants or songs, demonstrators had a large impact on the community. 

Chad Williams, professor of African and Afro-American studies at Brandeis University, argues in the Miami Herald that one of the greatest strengths of the parade was its design to counter stereotypes with behavior and dress that would have been considered dignified to the larger society. He writes: "The protest, within its context, constituted a radical claiming of the public sphere and a powerful affirmation of black humanity."


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