This month’s march against New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s infamous Stop-and-Frisk policies, which have humiliated millions of Black and Brown New Yorkers over the past decade and spread like a racist virus to cities across the country, was “silent” by design.
NAACP executive director Ben Jealous, one of the principal organizers, maintains that the soundless procession was intended to convey the “solemnness” and “seriousness” of the occasion, in the spirit of the 1917 NAACP silent march against White mob violence.
The real truth
The deliberately subdued tone of the protest provided a politically safe environment for the politicians in attendance to register varying degrees of reservations about stop-and-frisk in a kind of non-threatening quiet zone, where they could avoid permanently burning bridges with Mayor Bloomberg and his billions. This was doubtless an important consideration for march co-organizer Rev. Al Sharpton, who is on Bloomberg’s payroll and acts as President Obama’s Black pit bull.
The 1917 NAACP “Silent March” also needs to be put in historical perspective. There were profound political reasons that Black folks were both silent and dressed in their finest clothes on Fifth Avenue 95 years ago.
Ben Jealous and others say that silence was the order of the day to express mourning for the many victims of racist violence, including the hundreds killed and thousands driven from their homes by White mobs in East St. Louis, Illinois, earlier that year.
Certainly, there was much mourning in Black America, but the dress code and silence of the 10,000 Black marchers was meant to convey a more fundamental political message: that Black people were industrious, clean, church-going, patriotic, well-mannered, and respectful of White people’s sensitivities. That is, ordinary Americans who did not deserve to be lynched on the street and burned out of their homes, as had occurred in Springfield, Ill. in 1908 and Atlanta in 1906.
In 1915, only two years before the silent New York march, President Woodrow Wilson screened the viciously racist film “Birth Of A Nation” at the White House, and declared it “terribly true.”
By 1917, much of Black America was desperate to prove to White people that they were not like the animalistic caricatures portrayed in racist propaganda. So they marched in their Sunday best, to the sound of muffled drums. They abstained from shouts and sloganeering so as not to appear dangerous in the eyes of Whites. They put what they thought were their best, most dignified faces forward, and muzzled and muffled that which might offend the White powers-that-be.
The political imperative to bring “credit to The Race” by one’s dress and demeanor, even in protest, persisted deep into the Sixties. Blacks dressed to the ‘nines’ to line up to register to vote in Baltimore in 1943. They wore suits and ties to integrate lunch counters in 1960, and got beaten half to death on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in clothes fit to be buried in.
Only with the rise of the Black Power movement did Black folks dress for a fight and shout and curse the racist dogs out – like we always wanted to do. And one silent Sunday is not going to roll us back.
Glen Ford is executive editor of BlackAgendaReport.com.