Silent March Against Lynching

In July of 1917, the NAACP organized a silent march against lynching in New York City. Author James Weldon Johnson is credited with the idea for the march, which was designed to resemble a funeral procession in response to horrifying anti-Black violence in East St. Louis that resulted in the death of between 50-200 African Americans, leaving 6000 black residents homeless.

Michael Morand, writing in the introduction to a Yale University Collection of resources related to the March explains:

Racist violence and racial tensions had reached alarming levels throughout the U.S. in 1917. The mass migration of African Americans from the rural south to northern urban centers—what would become known as the Great Migration—was well underway, and the ensuing tensions were exacerbated by competition for housing and jobs. The white supremacist order had mounted a fierce backlash.

NAACP leaders distributed a flier with their own stated rationale for their action.

Why 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 arousing the conscience of the country, and to 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, disfranchisement, 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, 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. 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.

Below is historic newsreel footage of the protest from Universal Animated Weekly.

Teaching Ideas

The relationship between the Silent March and the Great Migration may not be obvious to everyone. Learn more about the riots in East St. Louis here. Allow students a chance to explore that connection.

What does the violence in East St, Louis suggest about the conditions African Americans met when they left the South? Manly scholars attribute the racial violence targeting African Americans in cities across the United States in 1919 to increased racial tension in response to the Great Migration. How do students explain that tension? What do they think leaders can do to reduce tension when large numbers of migrants settle in a region? What can ordinary people do?

Analyze the media sources. We have included an image as well as historical newsreel footage of the protest. Use the See-Feel-Think-Wonder Thinking Routine from Project Zero to guide reflection on the protest.

Some consider the Silent March one of the first Black-led civil rights marches in the United States. If you wanted to know about the impact of the march, where would you look? What would you look for? And, what would you want to know?