On July 28, 1917, thousands of Black children, women, and men stoically marched in silence down Fifth Avenue in New York City in what was called the “Negro Silent Protest Parade.”
The silent protest was in response to the ubiquitous horrors of Jim Crow terrorism, placing a spotlight on the horrifying reign of terror that took place in East St. Louis, where within a three day period, an estimated 100 black people had been killed by white mobs and more than 6,000 black people were burned out of their homes.
Reporter Carlos F. Hurd published an eyewitness report in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch regarding the domestic terror attacks where he recounted, “The East St. Louis affair, as I saw it, was a man hunt, conducted on a sporting basis, though with anything but the fair play which is the principle of sport,” Hurd wrote. “There was a horribly cool deliberateness and a spirit of fun about it. ‘Get a n*****’ was the slogan, and it was varied by the recurrent cry, ‘Get another.’”
Though vocally silent, the protesters spoke in volumes with their presence, and the signs that they carried, one of which read that, “America has lynched without trial 2,867 Negroes in 31 years and not a single murderer has suffered.” On an average, 39 black people were lynched per year during the Old Jim Crow era. In 1892, the worst year, 161 Black people in America were lynched and a 2015 report from the Alabama based nonprofit Equal Justice Initiative found that white mobs murdered a total of 3,959 black persons in 12 southern states between 1877 and 1950, which is 700 more than previously reported. During the New Jim Crow Era, Quartz states more Black men were shot dead by police in 2015 than were lynched in the worst year of the Old Jim Crow era.
Just as the lynching of Black people was heavy on the hearts of Black America in 1917 during the Negro Silent Protest Parade, so to are the deaths of Black children, women, and men at the hands the police in America a century later. And just as the Negro Silent Protest Parade marched because they deemed, “it a crime to be silent in the face of such barbaric acts,” as lynching, Colin Kaepernick silently protested, because:
I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.
Kaepernick—like the participants in the Negro Silent Protest Parade—represents a complex collision of being tactically silent as a direct action method of protest, while serving as a voice for those muted by untimely deaths.
Let me explain.
When we think of the term silence it produces various intellections. On a purely definitional level we see silence as the absence of sound or noise, but when applied to the human condition, the presence of silence takes on different meanings.
At one end of the spectrum of silence, it is associated with the silenced (group or individual) experiencing intimidation, fear, embarrassment, a lack of knowledge, and/or powerlessness. Being silenced is almost always conceptualized as negative. Examples of this type of silencing include the silencing of trauma in general and violent trauma in particular. Trauma survivors describe a ‘‘conspiracy of silence’’ where they feel a need to testify to their experiences, to make them real and to make themselves whole again, but society will not let them speak, leading to a fragmented or shattered self.
In the case of those that are victims of fatal encounters with the police, they are permanently silenced.
In contrast to being silenced (by force), being silent (by choice) can have unifying benefits. We see this at the cultural level, for example, during moments of silence, used to commemorate great losses, serving as a form of soundless remembrance. Moments of silence have been used to unite people in communal mourning and reflection, and in many cases, when grieving those that have lost their lives due to systemic social injustices; moments of silence serve as the calm before the storm that leads to communal mobilization.
Moments of shared silence can also provide space for the impetus of a new communal unification, a unification born out of mourning, revolving around reflection, leading to resistance, and thus giving rise to mobilizing via protest.
In the cases of the Negro Silent Protest Parade, and Kaepernick, these silences by choice serve as convergences of mourning, reflection, and protest, all taking place in a single action, providing a voice for the silenced without saying a single word. But unlike the Negro Silent Protest Parade—which took place on one day—Kaepernick’s silent protest took place every week for the entirety of an NFL season. Kaepernick’s tactical silence is a calculated action being used as a means of exercising agency. His utilization of wordless communication should be viewed as an exercise in patience and perseverance, as well as a source of strength and calm.
Kaepernick’s silence in 2017, screams in the same tone as his ancestors in 1917 parading through New York to protest the lynching of Black children, women and men in America. His silence speaks the same language as John Carlos and Tommie Smith as they stood atop the medal podium at the 1968 Summer Games in Mexico City with their Black fists firmly fixed in the air. His silence, like those silently protesting before him, is in honor of all of those who were silenced for simply being born Black in America.