The Transnational Labor of Black Resistance

Caribbean Intellectuals Protest the East St. Louis Riots

• October 2017


“Silent protest parade in New York City against the East St. Louis riots, 1917.” © Underwood & Underwood. Photograph of the NAACP Silent Protest, 28 July 1917, New York City.Retrieved from the Library of Congress,

28 July 1917: Black women, men, and children—ten thousand strong—marched slowly down Fifth Avenue in New York City to the beat of muffled drums in silent protest against the East St. Louis Riots. The events of 1–2 July 1917 were among the bloodiest instances of labor-related antiblack violence in US history, leaving nearly two hundred dead and more than six thousand homeless. Spearheaded by W. E. B. Du Bois and James Weldon Johnson, the first Silent Parade of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), became a signal display of black resistance, owing in no small part to the now iconic photographs of the event: led by children and women dressed in white, who were followed by men dressed in black, the marchers project the understated dignity of a people quietly yet emphatically resisting invisibility.

While these images have been framed as part of a visual archive of African American resistance, they might also point toward a richly textured transnational narrative that makes audible the contributions of Caribbean laborers, intellectuals, writers, and activists. As a point of entry into this discussion, the photos of the Silent Parade are not mere documentary evidence of a singular ideological front but an invitation to ask about the transnational labor of black resistance. In a rousing speech titled “The Conspiracy of the East St. Louis Riots,” presented on 8 July 1917, Jamaican nationalist Marcus Garvey intoned, “This is no time for fine words, but a time to lift one’s voice against the savagery of a people who claim to be the dispensers of democracy.”1 Garvey’s strong words are a critique of the logic of US imperialism, which “dispensed” not democracy but rather antiblack violence in the United States as well as abroad. Indeed, his speech, given in Harlem just three months after the founding of the first US branch of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), is a call to frame black resistance through a transnational lens. What would it mean to read 1917 in transnational context, in light of American expansion well underway in the Caribbean: from the Panama Canal, to the recent occupations of Haiti and Dominican Republic, to the activities of the United Fruit Company? How might it inform our readings of other Caribbean writers, such as St. Croix native Hubert Harrison, who, also in 1917, founded the Liberty League of Negro Americans?2 Is it possible to trace the heightened tensions around race and labor from the events of 1917 to the Red Summer of 1919, which inspired Jamaican poet Claude McKay’s iconic poem of black resistance, “If We Must Die?”

This discussion essay reads these events as a catalyst for the transnational labor of black resistance, a term that encompasses the labor organization, literary production, and diasporic connection that constitute the difficult work of black liberation. The writings and speeches of Garvey and Harrison constitute an important archive of the burgeoning New Negro movement. Both African American and Caribbean intellectuals invoked labor first to acknowledge that the East St. Louis riots were part of a strategic effort to suppress black workers. As Ida B. Wells-Barnett observed in her report on the massacre, “The riot was no sudden outburst of passion. It was a combination of a publicly declared determination on the part of white laborers to drive colored laborers from work or kill them. There was no provocation by acts of lawless blacks, no drunkenness on the part of the whites—nothing but the deadly vindictiveness of labor trouble accentuated by hatred toward the Negro.”3 Addressing such “labor trouble” would be a centerpiece of black radical politics. For socialist activist Harrison, defending black labor involved denouncing antiblack violence and critiquing white labor unionism, particularly that of the conservative American Federation of Labor under Samuel Gompers. Harrison acknowledged of the black worker: “[He] understands the labor conditions of the country and desires to see the working man win out. But his first duty, here as everywhere, is to the Negro race. And he refuses to put ahead of his race’s rights a collection of diddering jackasses which can publicly palliate such atrocities as that of East St. Louis and publicly assume, as Gompers did, responsibility for it.”4 

In Harrison’s view, the labor of resistance also involved placing local activism in an internationalist context. Harrison invoked the global upheaval of WWI in his appeal for black rights in the United States: “The nation is now at war to make the world ‘safe for democracy,’ but the Negro’s contention in the court of public opinion is that until this nation itself is made safe for twelve million of its subjects the Negro, at least, will refuse to believe in the democratic assertion of the country. The East St. Louis pogrom gives point to this contention.”5 Harrison invokes and subsequently critiques the words of President Woodrow Wilson, who marked the entrance of the United States into WWI with the famous slogan, “The world must be made safe for democracy.” In the months following the East St. Louis riots, black activists exposed the hypocrisy of that phrase, denouncing Wilson’s failure to implement antilynching legislation, as well as his role in authorizing the US invasion of Haiti in 1915.

Given this context, the atmosphere leading up to the march was already charged with energy. In June 1917 Harrison held the first meeting of the Liberty League of Negro Americans in Bethel AME Church in Harlem. The Liberty League, Harrison declared, would have an “international duty as well as a national duty to the seventeen hundred millions who are colored—black and brown and yellow.”6 At this meeting Harrison took up a collection for the founding of the Voice, a newspaper that would “serve as the medium of expression for the new demands and aspirations of the New Negro.” He then “made clear that this ‘New Negro Movement’ represented a breaking away of the Negro masses from the grip of old-time leaders.”7 In Harrison’s view, one of the “old-time leaders” was Du Bois, who in 1918 would controversially call for blacks to “forget [their] special grievances” in order to “close ranks” with white Americans and allied nations during WWI.8 Harrison critiqued Du Bois and the NAACP for what he saw as a conciliatory stance on race relations. While the NAACP initially hesitated in its push for antilynching legislation, in 1917 the Liberty League petitioned the House of Representatives to make lynching a federal crime: “[To] thus take the Negroes of America under national protection. . . . This can be done if the nation has the will to do it.”9

Among the two thousand attendees at the Liberty League’s June meeting was Marcus Garvey. Garvey arrived in New York in 1916 and founded the New York Division of the UNIA in March of 1917, but he was still relatively unknown in Harlem. As James Weldon Johnson recalls in Black Manhattan, “This was Harlem’s first real sight of Garvey, and his first real chance at Harlem. The man spoke, and his magnetic personality, torrential eloquence, and intuitive knowledge of crowd psychology were all brought into play. He swept the audience along with him.”10 Garvey seized this “first real chance” at Harlem, speaking out again on 8 July in the wake of the riots. Calling the riots a “conspiracy,” Garvey denounced the “the brutal murder of men, women and children for no other reason than that they are black people seeking an industrial chance in a country that they have laboured for three hundred years to make great.”11 Garvey’s invocation of labor highlights the uncanny continuities between the past and the present, puncturing the myth of progress that underpinned the wartime rhetoric of the US government. Shortly thereafter the Garvey movement would take off, stimulated by the ferment of 1917.

Johnson’s description of the Silent Parade as a “demonstration to the sight,” anticipates Garvey’s strategic use of spectacle in the UNIA marches of subsequent years.12 Conversely, despite Garvey and Harrison’s ideological divergence from the strategies of the NAACP, their activism in 1917 stirred the energies of the black masses in New York. A manifestation of this energy, the Silent Parade exemplified diasporic collaboration in public protest. Marchers waved flags from the United States, Haiti, and Ethiopia. Charles Douglass Martin, a Harlem minister from St. Kitts, was among the Caribbean leaders who helped to organize the march with Du Bois.13 The New York Age declared, “For once the American Negro, Haitian Negro and West Indian worked in unison as black men.”14 While the Age frames this work in masculinist terms, Caribbean women joined in the labor of the march through their involvement in groups such as the American West Indian Ladies Aid Society, the Bermuda Benevolent Association, the Caribbean American Publishing Society, and the Danish West Indian Benevolent Society.15 The likely overlap between many of these marchers and future Garveyites helps to trouble the false binary between silence and the more vocal displays of resistance commonly associated with black radicalism.

In the wake of the riots, controversial calls for armed self-defense became amplified. At a rally at the Metropolitan Baptist Church on 4 July, Harrison launched the Voice: A Newspaper for the New Negro. In its inaugural issue Harrison warned, “If white men are to kill unoffending Negroes, Negroes must kill white men in defense of their lives and property. This is the lesson of the East St. Louis massacre.”16 This call for self- defense anticipates responses to the Red Summer of 1919, which sparked the growth of “not just militancy but also political leftism” among blacks in the United States and abroad.17 The bloody riots of the Red Summer inspired Claude McKay’s seminal poem of black resistance, “If We Must Die.” In its famous final lines, a speculative call to arms turns inevitable: “Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack, / Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!”18 McKay’s poem in turn inspired W. A. Domingo’s essay of the same name, and the two works were printed alongside each other in the September 1920 issue of the socialist Messenger. “If death is to be their portion,” Domingo wrote, “New Negroes are determined to make their dying a costly investment for all concerned. If they must die they are determined that they shall not travel through the valley of the shadow of death alone, but that some of their oppressors shall be their companions.”19 Domingo, a Jamaican activist and journalist, observed that the outbreaks of violence were not confined to the United States but rather “symptoms of a great pandemic.”20 For his part, Harrison would more explicitly link this pandemic to the specter of US expansion. In “Imperialist America,” Harrison argues that the “most dangerous phase of developed capitalism is that of imperialism—when, having subjugated its workers and exploited its natural resources at home, it turns with grim determination toward ‘undeveloped’ races and areas to renew the same processes there.”21 Returning to the prescient work of Harrison, Garvey, and others, we are compelled to connect the disenfranchisement of black and brown people in the United States to struggles for citizenship and self-determination in the Caribbean and beyond. To be sure, 1917 and its aftermath marked a resurgence of antiblack violence and the accelerated rise of US empire. Yet this moment also produced articulations of black radical politics, citizenship, and resistance that have striking relevance for our current moment.


Imani D. Owens is an assistant professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh. Her work on black literature and performance appears in the Journal of Haitian Studies, MELUS, and the Cambridge Journal of Postcolonial Literary Inquiry. She is currently working on a book manuscript titled “Writing the Crossroads: Folk Culture, Imperialism, and US-Caribbean Literature,” which charts the connection between black aesthetics and anti-imperialist politics in Caribbean and African American texts.


1 Marcus Garvey, “The Conspiracy of the East St. Louis Riots,” speech, 8 July 1917; reprinted in Robert A. Hill, ed., The Marcus Garvey and Universal Negro Improvement Association Papers, vol. 1 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006), 213.

2 For comprehensive treatment of Harrison’s life and activism, see Jeffrey B. Perry, Hubert Harrison: The Voice of Harlem Radicalism, 1883–1918 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008).

3 Ida B. Wells-Barnett, The East St. Louis Massacre: The Greatest Outrage of the Century (Chicago: Negro Fellowship Herald, 1917), 19.

4 Hubert Harrison, “The Negro and Labor Unions,” Voice, c. August 1917; reprinted in Jeffrey B. Perry, ed., A Hubert Harrison Reader (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2001), 81.

5 Hubert Harrison, “The East St. Louis Horror,” Voice, 4 July 1917; reprinted in Perry, Hubert Harrison Reader, 94. Harrison’s use of pogrom likens antiblack violence to the ongoing and systematic persecution of Jews.

6 Hubert Harrison, “Declaration of Principles” Clarion, 1 September 1917; reprinted in Perry, Hubert Harrison Reader, 92.

7 Hubert Harrison, “Launching the Liberty League,” Voice, 4 July 1917; reprinted in Louis J. Parascandola, ed., Look for Me All Around You: Anglophone Caribbean Immigrants in the Harlem Renaissance (Detroit: Wayne State University Press), 142.

8 W. E. B. Du Bois, “Close Ranks,” Crisis, July 1918, 111.

9 Harrison, “Declaration of Principles,” 91.

10 James Weldon Johnson, Black Manhattan (1930; repr., Boston: Da Capo, 1991), 253.

11 Garvey, “Conspiracy of the East St. Louis Riots,” 213.

12 James Weldon Johnson, “An Army with Banners,” New York Age, 3 August 1917; reprinted in Sondra Kathryn Wilson, ed., The Selected Writings of James Weldon Johnson, vol. 1, The “New York Age” Editorials (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 65.

13 See Irma Watkins-Owens, Blood Relations: Caribbean Immigrants and the Harlem Community, 1900–1930 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996), 60.

14 Lester Walton, “Nearly Ten Thousand Take Part in Big Silent Protest Parade Down Fifth Avenue,” New York Age, 2 August 1917, 1.

15 Craig Steven Wilder, In the Company of Black Men: The African Influence on African American Culture in New York City (New York: New York University Press, 2001), 194.

16 Harrison, “East St. Louis Horror,” 95.

17 Barbara Foley, Spectres of 1919: Class and Nation in the Making of the New Negro (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2003), 69.

18 Claude McKay, “If We Must Die,” Liberator, July 1919. McKay and others also responded to an international political climate shaped by the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917.

19 W. A. Domingo, “If We Must Die,” Messenger, September 1919; reprinted in Parascandola, Look for Me All Around You, 169.

20 Ibid., 170.

21 “Imperialist America,” review of American Empire by Scott Nearing, Negro World, 1921; reprinted in Perry, Hubert Harrison Reader, 221.


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