“There’s not really another place in the U.S. that you could pick that would tap into these deep veins of anti-government hatred—Christian nationalist skepticism of the government,” said one extremism expert.
Former President of the United States Donald Trump speaking with supporters at a “Save America” rally at Country Thunder Arizona. Photo: Gage Skidmore/flickr/CC
While former U.S. President Donald Trump’s 2024 campaign insists it is purely coincidental that his planned Saturday rally in Waco, Texas falls during the 30th anniversary of a deadly 51-day siege targeting a religious cult, some Texans and extremism experts aren’t buying it.
Since law enforcement—including Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agents—carried out the botched operation at a Branch Davidian compound near Waco from February 28 to April 19 in 1993, the event has been a source of anti-government sentiment for the likes of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh and U.S. militia movement members. Continue reading →
The only sounds were those of muffled drums, the shuffling of feet and the gentle sobs of some of the estimated 20,000 onlookers. The women and children wore all white. The men dressed in black.
On the afternoon of Saturday, July 28, 1917, nearly 10,000 African-Americans marched down Fifth Avenue, in silence, to protest racial violence and white supremacy in the United States.
New York City, and the nation, had never before witnessed such a remarkable scene.
The “Silent Protest Parade,” as it came to be known, was the first mass African-American demonstration of its kind and marked a watershed moment in the history of the civil rights movement. As I have written in my book “Torchbearers of Democracy,” African-Americans during the World War I era challenged racism both abroad and at home. In taking to the streets to dramatize the brutal treatment of black people, the participants of the “Silent Protest Parade” indicted the United States as an unjust nation.
This charge remains true today.
One hundred years later, as black people continue to insist that “Black Lives Matter,” the “Silent Protest Parade” offers a vivid reminder about the power of courageous leadership, grassroots mobilization, direct action and their collective necessity in the fight to end racial oppression in our current troubled times.
Racial violence and the East St. Louis Riot
One of the great accomplishments of the Black Lives Matter movement has been to demonstrate the continuum of racist violence against black people throughout American history and also the history of resistance against it. But as we continue to grapple with the hyper-visibility of black death, it is perhaps easy to forget just how truly horrific racial violence against black people was a century ago.
Prior to the “Silent Protest Parade,” mob violence and the lynching of African-Americans had grown even more gruesome. In Waco, a mob of 10,000 white Texans attended the May 15, 1916, lynching of a black farmer, Jesse Washington. One year later, on May 22, 1917, a black woodcutter, Ell Persons, died at the hands of over 5,000 vengeance-seeking whites in Memphis. Both men were burned and mutilated, their charred body parts distributed and displayed as souvenirs.
Even by these grisly standards, East St. Louis later that same summer was shocking. Simmering labor tensions between white and black workers exploded on the evening of July 2, 1917.
For 24 hours, white mobs indiscriminately stabbed, shot and lynched anyone with black skin. Men, women, children, the elderly, the disabled – no one was spared. Homes were torched and occupants shot down as they attempted to flee. White militia men stood idly by as the carnage unfolded. Some actively participated. The death toll likely ran as high as 200 people.
The city’s surviving 6,000 black residents became refugees.
The devastation of East St. Louis was compounded by the fact that America was at war. On April 2, President Woodrow Wilson had thrown the United States into the maelstrom of World War I. He did so by asserting America’s singularly unique place on the global stage and his goal to make the world “safe for democracy.” In the eyes of black people, East St. Louis exposed the hypocrisy of Wilson’s vision and America itself.
The NAACP takes action
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People quickly responded to the massacre. Founded in 1909, the NAACP had yet to establish itself as a truly representative organization for African-Americans across the country. With the exception of W.E.B. Du Bois, one of the NAACP’s co-founders and editor of The Crisis magazine, the national leadership was all white. Branches were overwhelmingly located in the North, despite the majority of African-Americans residing below the Mason-Dixon line. As a result, the NAACP had largely failed to respond with a sense of urgency to the everyday horrors endured by the masses of black folk.
James Weldon Johnson changed things. Lawyer, diplomat, novelist, poet and songwriter, Johnson was a true African-American renaissance man. In 1916, Johnson joined the NAACP as a field secretary and made an immediate impact. In addition to growing the organization’s southern membership, Johnson recognized the importance of expanding the influence of the NAACP’s existing branches beyond the black elite.
Johnson raised the idea of a silent protest march at an executive committee meeting of the NAACP Harlem branch shortly after the East St. Louis riot. Johnson also insisted that the protest include the city’s entire black community. Planning quickly got underway, spearheaded by Johnson and local black clergymen.
A historic day
By noon on July 28, several thousand African-Americans had begun to assemble at 59th Street. Crowds gathered along Fifth Avenue. Anxious New York City police officers lined the streets, aware of what was about to take place but, with clubs at the ready, prepared for trouble.
At approximately 1 p.m., the protest parade commenced. Four men carrying drums began to slowly, solemnly play. A group of black clergymen and NAACP officials made up the front line. W.E.B. Du Bois, who had recently returned from conducting an NAACP investigation in East St. Louis, and James Weldon Johnson marched side by side.
The parade was a stunning spectacle. At the front, women and children wearing all-white gowns symbolized the innocence of African-Americans in the face of the nation’s guilt. The men, bringing up the rear and dressed in dark suits, conveyed both a mournful dignity and stern determination to stand up for their rights as citizens.
They carried signs and banners shaming America for its treatment of black people. Some read, “Your hands are full of blood,” “Thou Shalt Not Kill,” “Mothers, do lynchers go to heaven?” Others highlighted the wartime context and the hollowness of America’s ideals: “We have fought for the liberty of white Americans in six wars; our reward was East St. Louis,” “Patriotism and loyalty presuppose protection and liberty,” “Make America safe for Democracy.”
Throughout the parade, the marchers remained silent. The New York Times described the protest as “one of the most quiet and orderly demonstrations ever witnessed.” The silence was finally broken with cheers when the parade concluded at Madison Square.
Legacy of the Silent Protest Parade
The “Silent Protest Parade” marked the beginning of a new epoch in the long black freedom struggle. While adhering to a certain politics of respectability, a strategy employed by African-Americans that focused on countering racist stereotypes through dignified appearance and behavior, the protest, within its context, constituted a radical claiming of the public sphere and a powerful affirmation of black humanity. It declared that a “New Negro” had arrived and launched a black public protest tradition that would be seen in the parades of the Universal Negro Improvement Association, the civil rights demonstrations of the 1960s and the Black Lives Matter marches of today.
The “Silent Protest Parade” reminds us that the fight against racist violence and the killing of black people remains just as relevant now as it did 100 years ago. Black death, whether at the hands of a Baton Rouge police officer or white supremacist in Charleston, is a specter that continues to haunt this nation. The expendability of black bodies is American tradition, and history speaks to the long endurance of this violent legacy.
But history also offers inspiration, purpose and vision.
Ida B. Wells, James Weldon Johnson and other freedom fighters of their generation should serve as models for activists today. That the “Silent Protest Parade” attracted black people from all walks of life and backgrounds attests to the need for organizations like the NAACP, following its recent national convention, to remember and embrace its origins. And, in building and sustaining the current movement, we can take lessons from past struggles and work strategically and creatively to apply them to the present.
Because, at their core, the demands of black people in 2017 remain the same as one of the signs raised to the sky on that July afternoon in 1917:
After a weeks-long standoff with federal and Oregon state police, 16 members of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge occupation have been arrested, one wounded and another killed. The occupation’s leaders, Ammon and Ryan Bundy, are among those in custody.
Although some of the foot soldiers remain on federal land, the occupation’s end is inevitable. But the end of the siege will do nothing to reduce the increasing threat from America’s radical right wing.
The official response to both this current takeover and last summer’s standoff at the Bundy ranch in Nevada has been subdued. Given that in both cases the radicals were heavily armed and threatening to kill anyone who tried to arrest them, the fact that only one militant has lost his life is startling.
I have spent 14 years studying terrorism and extremism in conflict. The militants in Malheur aren’t, in my view, currently terrorists, but groups like theirs have performed acts of domestic terrorism in the past. I believe the country’s leadership needs to work quickly to stop that from happening again.
‘Act or do nothing’ is a false choice
Burns resident Jen Hoke. Burns, Oregon, January 30, 2016. REUTERS/Jim Urquhart
In Waco, the siege ended with a full-scale assault on the compound, four federal agents killed and 16 wounded. Eighty-two members of the Branch Davidians were killed, including 17 children.
Ruby Ridge ended with a U.S. marshall killed along with two members of the Weaver household, and two more wounded. One of the dead was Weaver’s 14-year-old son, and one of the wounded was his pregnant wife.
Even noting the double standard, the degree of restraint shown in Malheur is still admirable. The current U.S. domestic strategy for countering violent extremism correctly recognizes that while violent or armed responses are occasionally needed, they are usually more effective at driving further violence than at ending it. Threat reduction should focus on preventing the cause of radicalization rather than attempting to crush the symptom. That means focusing on inclusive governance, ending social marginalization and focusing on community policing instead of violent reaction.
In the current political climate, however, restraint also has a dangerous edge. It gives the impression of leaving the field to emboldened extremists, who are now claiming victory. That’s a dangerous precedent, especially as such groups are showing a shift toward direct action that the U.S. hasn’t seen for a long time.
Between President Obama’s election in 2008 and 2012, the Southern Poverty Law Center reports that the number of right-wing extremist groups operating in the U.S. increased by over 800 percent. While we’ve seen a slight decrease over the past year, the U.S. now faces a perfect storm of conditions for resurgent growth.
As the tone of the presidential election has proven, the prevailing American emotion is anger. Mistrust of government is at record high levels, along with several beliefs that make the problem worse.
First is the belief among extremists that the government is not simply untrustworthy but actually an enemy.
In addition, the perception by the Christian right wing is that they are fundamentally threatened with extinction by changing American demographics.
And the double standard in federal response to extremism on the left and right is driving an increase in tension on the nonwhite side as well.
It could get worse
All of this amounts to fertile ground for growing extremists. The presidential election is only adding fuel to the fire.
A Hillary Clinton victory would be seen by right-wing radicals as entrenching the same liberal sentiments that extremist organizations like the Oath Keepers – involved at both the Bundy ranch and Malheur – already hold up as the enemy. Bernie Sanders calling himself a socialist makes him seem even more alien.
On the Republican side, GOP candidates and officeholders alike have failed to condemn the occupiers. At least one – Representative Andy Holt of Tennessee – has made explicit statements of support. Not only does this legitimize the right wing, but it also sends an ominous message to non-Christian and nonwhite America.
The GOP as a whole has become more radical from top to bottom – to the point where an article written in bipartisan collaboration between Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein (the former with the liberal Brookings Institution, the latter with the conservative American Enterprise Institute) labeled the entire party an “insurgent outlier” in American politics.
The party faces a growing divide between its white, Christian base and a population that bears it less resemblance by the year. They have sought to bridge that divide by inviting more and more of their own fringe to the table, to the point where extremist “sovereign citizens” and “patriot militias” now find themselves close to the party’s mainstream. Nativist xenophobia coming from the GOP presidential candidates lends an air of legitimacy to language that should have been universally denounced as political extremism long ago.
All of this means that the U.S. government finds itself in a catch-22: becoming more assertive, having previously backed down, is likely to fuel aggression from right-wing radicals. On the other hand, if the government doesn’t become more aggressive, the trend toward direct action will continue.
Victory means navigating the narrow ground between violence and capitulation. It means avoiding the double standard and applying consistent restraint to everyone, regardless of color or religion. The perfect storm can still be averted, but course corrections need to be set in motion as soon as possible.
There is little more dangerous than an extremist who feels betrayed, as Timothy McVeigh taught us.