Organizer says unlike 1917 march against Woodrow Wilson’s civil rights failures, this had no demands but adds: ‘I don’t know that we’re in such a different space’
This article titled “Activists marking 100th anniversary of NAACP’s silent parade see scary parallels” was written by Jamiles Lartey in New York, for theguardian.com on Saturday 29th July 2017 15.15 UTC
On a July day in 1917, in the face of a presidential administration seen as taking regressive steps on civil rights, nearly 10,000 black Americans walked down Fifth Avenue in New York. Wearing uniform clothing and carrying signs, demanding federal action over the lynchings of black men, they marched in total silence.
A century later, also clad in white, a much smaller group assembled outside Bryant Park on Friday. They were there to commemorate the occasion in a world, attendees said, that did not feel altogether changed.
“It just seems like we’ve gone in a circle,” said Sacha Dent, an educator from the city. “And it’s the same thing with not just things that are like lynchings and close to lynchings but just the hate … everywhere.”
The attendees held portraits of well-known victims of police and vigilante violence – Philando Castile, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice – and of people who lost their lives after traumatic encounters with the criminal justice system, such as Sandra Bland and Kalief Browder.
“I called around and I realized that no one was marking the moment,” said the march organizer, Marsha Reid, “and that seemed astonishing and a little sad to me considering the relevance of the current moment … So I did it.”
The original march was organized by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the famous civil rights thinker WEB DuBois, a founder of the organization. It was conceived in a direct response to a white race-mob attack in East St Louis in which more than 100 black Americans were killed and another 6,000 had their homes burned to the ground.
According to the NAACP, the 1917 march was the first protest of its kind in New York and the second instance of African Americans publicly demonstrating for civil rights.
On Friday, visitors to the US Google homepage were greeted with a “doodle” commemorating the centennial. The tech giant recently partnered with Equal Justice Initiative for a digital project on lynching.
“Make America safe for democracy,” read one sign carried in New York. “We march because we deem it a crime to be silent in the face of such barbaric acts,” read another.
There was no march down Fifth Avenue, though. The city would not grant access to the street where Trump Tower now sits, and where Donald Trump claimed last summer that he could shoot someone in broad daylight and not lose any voters. Instead, participants numbering no more than 100 clustered between police barriers on Sixth Avenue with their posters while a marching band played Sam Cooke’s A Change Is Gonna Come and SpottieOttieDopaliscious by OutKast.
The original march addressed a set of grievances to then president Woodrow Wilson. Reid said her march was not asking for anything in particular.
“There’s no demand as such,” she said, “but just reiterating the need for keeping this in everyone’s consciousness.”
That may be all for the better. DuBois’ march did not push the Wilson administration to act, even though civil rights activists had seen him as a potential ally.
Many black activists supported and even campaigned for Wilson, including DuBois. He became disillusioned by the 28th president, though, describing his first term as the “worst attempt at Jim Crow legislation and discrimination in civil service that [blacks] had experienced since the civil war”.
“The original march was an appeal to the Wilson administration to make lynching illegal, to make it so there was a consequence for the violence on black bodies,” Reid said.
“I don’t know that we’re in such a different space so there’s an appeal here that’s in line with the original, for people to be allowed to live in safety with dignity, basic rights, health and respect for our differences.”
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