In Commemoration of the 1917 Silent Parade

W.E.B Du Bois and V.I. Lenin, illustrated by Rob Gray for the MDSO

The following is a speech prepared by the MDSO for an event held on July 28th, 2020 by Youth United for Black Lives to commemorate the 103rd anniversary of the famous Silent Parade of 1917. At this event four organizations, the May Day Student Organization, Youth United for Black Lives, Strategy for Black Lives, and NYC Students for Justice, came together to discuss our tasks as progressive youth in light of the recent mass rebellions around police brutality and the oppression of Black Americans. In the discussion a number of tasks were put forward by voices from each of the different organizations and generally agreed upon, which can be summed up as:

1) Now that the large demonstrations are subsiding it is time to set ourselves to the less spectacular and prudent work of education and investigation, so that we may better understand our reality in order to change it.

2) These large protests have demonstrated the limits of decentralized spontaneous resistance struggles. Many young people are arriving at the logical conclusion that we must construct organized bodies of popular power capable of centralizing and organizing the various disparate resistance struggles, which capitalism perpetually generates, into one unified revolutionary mass movement.

3) That we must turn the struggles against racism, misogyny, anti-gay and trans violence, etc. into struggles against capitalism, because only by abolishing class society can these various forms of oppression be overcome.

We think these kinds of political discussions are incredibly important and thank all who participated. We hope we can continue to come together for these kinds of forums, where youth can debate and work out the tasks which history has placed before them.

On this day 103 years ago, July 28, 1917, 15,000 protesters marched through the streets of New York City in silent protest against recent killings of Black people in brutal race riots across the country. The parade was organized and led by two prominent figures of the NAACP: W.E.B. Du Bois, editor of the NAACP’s journal called “The Crisis”, and James Weldon Johnson, a civil rights activist and poet associated with the Harlem Renaissance. The parade began on Fifth Avenue and marched from 57th Street to Madison Square. A leaflet was distributed among the crowds titled “Why Do We March?” which read:

“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.”

Mineola McGee who lost her arm to a gunshot wound inflicted by a soldier and policeman during the East St. Louis massacre, illustrated by Rob Gray for the MDSO.

The circular was referring to race riots that had recently taken place in Waco, Memphis and, particularly in East St. Louis, which saw the worst of it. W.E.B. Du Bois conducted an investigation into the East St. Louis tragedy for the NAACP journal “The Crisis” and gathered dozens of first-hand accounts containing unspeakable horrors. Entire blocks of Black-owned homes and businesses were ravaged by fires set by the white rioters. Six thousand Black people were driven from their homes, and in total the violence claimed the lives of between 100 and 200 Black men, women, and children, by hanging, shooting, and burning.

The riot was the bloody harvest of a racist propaganda campaign sown by white labor leaders affiliated with the American Federation of Labor. Trade union leaders began instigating hatred among the ranks of the multinational St. Louis working class after capitalists began using Black workers as scabs to break strikes. According to Du Bois’s investigation, although the violence was predominantly carried out by unorganized unskilled white workers and not trade unionists, the demagoguery of these treacherous labor leaders played a definite role in inciting the riot, which came on the back of a failed strike at the Aluminum Ore Company.

The year 1917 bore many valuable lessons for the international working class, many of which were paid for in blood. The episode in St. Louis has given us a lesson on the real class interests which underlie racial violence, and the disastrous consequences of a divided working class. Rather than unite and organize with their Black brothers and sisters on equal terms in order to fight against their common enemy, the white workers of St. Louis made themselves the stupid tools of the bosses, and the atrocities they committed ultimately served to strengthen the position of capital in the class struggle.

But across the world, just a few months later, humanity witnessed what a united multinational working class could achieve: the October Revolution. Russia at the time was no less embroiled in prejudicial violence. Another issue of the same NAACP paper “The Crisis” drew a comparison, saying the East St. Louis Race Riot: “was worse than anything Germans did in Belgium and comparable only to Jewish pogroms of the Czar”.

But, under the leadership of a revolutionary party, the workers of the Russian empire managed to conquer their unity and identify their true enemy, not Jews or immigrants, but their common exploiters among the landlord and capitalist classes. The result of this internationalist unity was so luminous that it is surely worth devoting one’s life to realizing here in the United States today.

According to W.E.B. Du Bois, “The one new Idea of the World War—the idea which may well stand in future years as the one thing that made the slaughter worthwhile—is an Idea which we are likely to fail to know because it is today hidden under the maledictions hurled at Bolshevism. It is not the murder, the anarchy, the hate, which for years under Czar and Revolution have drenched this weary land, but it is the vision of great dreamers—that only those who work shall vote and rule.”

And in another article he said the Russian Revolution was “the greatest event of the twentieth century” and that “I look upon Russia today as the most hopeful state in the world. Not because its efforts have been perfection without mistakes, but because it has attacked the fundamental problem of our day, the problem of poverty, ignorance, and disease of the great mass of mankind. If the world, especially the American World, would appreciate the significance of these magnificent efforts and realized how much has been accomplished [then]…they would be willing to study and understand her difficulties and her programs and they would not hesitate to adopt in the American way of life much that the Russians have adopted since the revolutions.”

It is precisely this call to study the difficulties and programs of past revolutions which the MDSO has taken up today. We have produced a revolutionary student program of our own based on the years of historical experience obtained by workers in struggle across the world in the struggle for equality, democracy, and socialism.

W.E.B Du Bois and V.I. Lenin illustrated by Rob Gray for the MDSO

We must pick up where activists like W.E.B Du Bois left off and conduct the patient work of ideological and political training, formulating a political program, elaborating a revolutionary tactics, and engaging in protracted, large-scale organizing among the masses. This means publishing journals and circulars, engaging in debate and discussion, and continuing to come together for marches like the one that was called by Youth United for Black Lives. The MDSO calls on all students to unite with us around our revolutionary program, to get organized, and to conquer our own unity so that we may realize the vision of great dreamers like W.E.B. Du Bois and make impossible a repetition of the modern-day lynchings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and others.