blackbirdonline journalFall 2017  Vol. 16 No. 2

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1917 SUITE

A Month, a Year, a Term of Liberty
Introduction & Table of Contents

The 1917 Suite spans two issues of Blackbird.

The Silent Sentinels and the Night of Terror  
Suffragists imprisoned in Occaquan, Virginia workshouse for White House protests. (v17n1)

The NAACP’s Silent Parade  
Violence against African Americans leading to 1917’s Negro Silent Parade in New York City. (v16n2)


In the opening editorial of the September 1917 issue of The Masses, activist and journalist John Reed argues that August of that same year was “the blackest month for freeman our generation has known,” a phrase that opens and closes his commentary.

Reed continues: “With a sort of hideous apathy the country has acquiesced in a regime of judicial tyranny, bureaucratic suppression and industrial barbarism, which followed inevitably the first fine careless rapture of militarism.”

Suffragists protesting in front of the White House, 1917.

Suffragists protesting in front of the White House, 1917.

These complaints ring familiar to contemporary ears as Reed cites a number of incidents from the year, including the harsh treatment of imprisoned suffragists, documented here under “Silent Sentinels and the Night of Terror,” and the violence against African Americans in East St. Louis, Illinois, which is included in Blackbird v16n2 as part of “The NAACP's Silent Parade.”

Editorial Cartoon picturing an African-American woman and her two children kneeling before Woodrow Wilson. East St. Louis burns behind her.

“Mr. President, why not make America Safe for Democracy?”
William Charles Morris, The Kansas City Sun (July 14, 1917)
(Woodrow Wilson used the phrase “The world must be made safe for democracy” in a speech made before Congress on April 2, 2017, seeking a Declaration of War against Germany.)

Woodrow Wilson, in his April 1917 speech to Congress calling for US entry into World War I, famously argued that “the world must be made safe for democracy.” Previously, at the 1916 dedication of Lincoln’s birthplace in Hodgenville, Kentucky, Wilson said the following:

Hopes must constantly be rekindled, and only those who live can rekindle them. The only stuff that can retain the life-giving heat is the stuff of living hearts. And the hopes of mankind cannot be kept alive by words merely, by constitutions and doctrines of right and codes of liberty. The object of democracy is to transmute these into the life and action of society, the self-denial and self-sacrifice of heroic men and women willing to make their lives an embodiment of right and service and enlightened purpose. The commands of democracy are as imperative as its privileges and opportunities are wide and generous. Its compulsion is upon us. 

Ironically, Wilson’s language describes the role of those men and women who will come to stand in protest of his own administration, the injustices and outrageous behavior of their local and federal governments. History clearly documents the violence, often ignored or endorsed by leadership, freely carried out against American citizens.  end

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