For the past three summers, activists and supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement have marched in the streets of New York City, seeking to raise awareness of African-American victims of institutional violence.
And though the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter may be new, the sentiment is anything but: In fact, the first march in New York City for black lives happened 98 years ago today, on July 28, 1917.
Reviewing the photos and the speeches and the banners from that day reveals that the marchers of 1917 wanted the same things the protesters of 2015 still do.
Here’s the backstory: In early July 1917, racial tensions boiled over in East St. Louis, when rumors circulated that a black man had killed a white man. The city erupted into violence–drive by shootings and arson lead to the deaths of hundreds of African-Americans, compared to nine whites. It was in one of the worst race riots America has ever seen.
In response, Marcus Garvey and other black leaders held a public forum about the riots in Harlem. Garvey closed the event with a thunderous speech, saying:
Millions of our people in slavery gave their lives that America might live…From the labors of these people the country grew in power, until her wealth today is computed above that of any two nations. With all the service that the Negro gave he is still a despised creature in the eyes of white people, for if he were not to them despised, the whites of this country would never allow such outrages as the East St. Louis massacre. …This is a massacre that will go down in history as one of the bloodiest outrages against mankind for which any class of people could be held guilty.”
African-American civic leaders decided to have a protest march in New York City. The New York Times reported on the plans thusly: “It is intended as a protest against lawless treatment of the negro through the country.” Sound familiar?
To prepare for the march, the NAACP printed out a flyer and distributed it to black churches throughout the city in order to draw as large a crowd as possible.
“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.”
Along with that flyer, they printed an explanation of the banners that would be flown during the march which were passed out by children as the parade progressed.
When the parade actually started, the 8,000 marchers proceeded down Fifth Avenue wordlessly, the only sounds coming from the drummers steadily making a beat. According to police estimates, a further 20,000 African-Americans lined both sides of Fifth Avenue.
The banner contains the section of the Declaration of Independence about inalienable rights and all men being created equal. The bottom line says that this part of the document does not apply to those “of African descent.”
“The First Blood For American Independence Was Shed By A Negro: Crispus Attucks”
Attucks was shot during the Boston Massacre in 1770.
“Race Prejudice Is the Offspring Of Ignorance And The Mother Of Lynching”
Notice the only white person you can clearly make out in this photo appears to be a police officer (lower left corner).
Around 800 children led the parade. Some of the placards read:
“MOTHER, DO LYNCHERS GO TO HEAVEN?
“GIVE ME A CHANCE TO LIVE”
“TREAT US SO THAT WE MAY LOVE OUR COUNTRY”
“MR. PRESIDENT, WHY NOT MAKE AMERICA SAFE FOR DEMOCRACY?”
“YOUR HANDS ARE FULL OF BLOOD.”
For the most part, possibly because the protestors wore their finest clothes and were not disruptive during their march, police interference was at a minimum. According to the NYT‘s report on the event, there was only one banner that was deemed “objectionable” and removed:
“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.”
Wilson had recently reneged on a re-election campaign promise to initiate anti-lynching legislation in Congress.
Here’s the NYT:
In 2012, a mass silent protest was staged in New York again to decry the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk policy. That event was also organized by the NAACP and intentionally called back to the 1917 march. Talking to the New York Times then, William Kornblum, a professor of sociology at the City University of New York, remarked, “a silent protest evokes feelings of mourning and loss, a deprivation of rights, people who have lost their voice or withheld their voice. This creates a real effect on the bystander and on the people doing the marching.”
Kornblum could have said those words 100 years ago as easily as today and they would carry the same weight.