Remembering Black Nationalist Marcus Garvey

VO-1541-p29-Marcus-GarveyHappy Juneteenth! The joy of Emancipation quickly yielded to grief after the Compromise of 1877 triggered a new round of repression of Black Americans. Since that time, Black Americans have debated and employed a range of strategies to fight racial oppression. One of those is nationalism, so this seems an appropriate day for me to update an extended review (originally published in an academic newsletter) of four books on one well-known exponent of that view: Marcus Garvey.

Books discussed in this essay:

Cronon, E. David (1955/1969). Black Moses: The story of Marcus Garvey and the Universal Negro Improvement Association. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin.

Fax, Elton C. (1972). Garvey: The story of a pioneer Black nationalist. New York: Dodd, Mead & Company.

Hill, Robert A., & Bair, Barbara (Eds.). (1987). Marcus Garvey: Life and lessons: A centennial companion to the Marcus Garvey and Universal Negro Improvement Association Papers. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Martin, Tony. (1983). Marcus Garvey, hero. Dover, Mass: The Majority Press.

On March 23, 1916, a flamboyant and eloquent activist named Marcus Garvey arrived in Harlem with plans to bring African-Americans a program of economic and spiritual renewal, autonomy, and self-reliance that he had developed in his native Jamaica. His original hope of securing the support of Booker T. Washington was dashed when The Sage of Tuskegee died just prior to Garvey’s journey. As Garvey explains in his essay “Aims and Objects of the United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA)” (Reprinted in Hill and Bair’s collection of Garvey’s papers), he decided that even without Washington’s assistance, he could personally inspire and lead a worldwide movement that would create a sense of unity and racial pride among all people of African descent, promote mutual help among Blacks, oppose European colonialism in Africa, and develop a self-supporting network of Black-controlled businesses and educational institutions. In the words of Elton Fax, these goals clearly did not “suffer from the encumbrances of modesty” (p.58)”, but Garvey’s indefatigable spirit and organizational ability enabled him to come impressively far towards meeting them before internal and external enemies brought the man and his movement to a crashing halt by the close of the 1920s.

Of the four books discussed here, E. David Cronon’s Black Moses is the most comprehensive and best documented, and thus serves as the best introduction to Garvey’s life and works. Through painstaking research, Cronon tracked down Garvey’s surviving family and friends and unearthed valuable published and unpublished sources. Cronon begins his story in St. Ann’s Bay, Jamaica, where Garvey was born in 1887 and named after his father Marcus Garvey Sr.. Although the Garvey family was initially financially stable, they suffered a steady decline in their fortunes as Marcus Garvey Sr. became increasingly prone to paranoia, irrational outbursts, and disastrous business decisions (problems with which Marcus Jr. himself would later struggle). A particularly sad index of the family’s difficulties is that of the 11 Garvey children, only Marcus Jr. and his sister Indiana lived to maturity. Marcus was a bright and inquisitive child, but received little formal education because his family’s economic situation required him to work. Garvey’s shame about his lack of education never abated, and later fueled his envy and vituperation of his Harvard-educated arch-rival, Dr. W.E.B. DuBois of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

As a young man, Garvey supported himself and his family by working as a printer. He was highly skilled at his trade and became a master printer and foreman at The P.A. Benjamin Company by the age of 20. In 1907, unionized workers at the company went on strike for higher wages, and elected Garvey to be their leader. Unfortunately, the strike was broken when the union treasurer embezzled the strike fund and the company imported linotype machines and scabs to replace the striking workers. Although the strikers were re-hired, Garvey was blacklisted by the printing industry in Jamaica for his role as organizer. This bitter experience made Garvey permanently skeptical of the value of labor unions, and lead him to look for alternative means to improve the lot of Blacks.

Influenced in part by Booker T. Washington’s writings, Garvey founded the UNIA in Jamaica as a “friendly society” which fed the poor and sick, operated an employment bureau, and sponsored cultural events such as literary and debating groups. At the time, the UNIA was so politically moderate that it attracted the support of many politically influential Whites, just as did many of Washington’s endeavors in the United States. Garvey did not strongly develop UNIA’s Black Nationalist themes and demands for an end to exploitation of African peoples until he came to Harlem in 1916.

During his first months in the U.S., Garvey seemed no different than the dozens of other colorful street-corner orators who served as a sideshow to the Harlem Renaissance. However, Garvey’s eloquence and popular appeal grew in tandem. By 1917, he was lecturing to packed auditoriums about promoting racial pride and self-reliance among Africa-descended peoples. Garvey’s speeches and essays, republished in the excellent collection edited by Hill and Bair, give as much sense as the written word can of Garvey’s electrifying power as a speaker. He was a master of sloganeering (“Up you mighty race”, “One aim! One God! One destiny!”, “Black is beautiful”) and inspirational words (“Be as proud of your race today as our fathers were in the days of yore. We have a beautiful history, and we shall create another in the future that will astonish the world”) with some occasional bombast thrown in to maintain listeners’ attention. Viewing the wonderful photos in Cronon’s book of the stocky, intense Jamaican speaking to massive, attentive crowds around the world, one can almost hear Garvey’s voice booming out from the pages.

Garvey was both too shrewd and too immodest to be satisfied with reaching auditorium size crowds. Drawing on his experience in publishing and printing, Garvey founded the Negro World newspaper in January of 1918 and successfully used it to trumpet his ideas around the world. The circulation of the paper varied from 50,000-200,000 and even Garvey’s opponents — who included many members of the more traditional Black press — were forced to admit that it was consistently engaging, thought-provoking and technically impressive. The paper promoted racial pride in both word and deed: Unlike virtually all other Black publications, it refused ads for skin whiteners and hair straighteners. Perhaps the finest tribute the paper received was its suppression by a number of colonial governments in Africa and the Carribean.

As he became a household name, Garvey began to draw more followers and launch new initiatives. In 1919, he founded the Negro Factories Corporation (NFC), a network of Black-owned businesses such as co-op groceries, steam laundries, millinery and clothing stores, a publishing company, a restaurant, and a hotel. The NFC was financed entirely by Black small investors, the logic being that as the businesses succeeded, investors would profit and new funds would become available to help new Black-owned business get started. In his speeches and publications, Garvey promulgated the idea that racial self-interest should be the paramount concern of every Black American, and should include patronizing Black-owned businesses. Garvey believed that Whites would never give Blacks full equality; rather it was up to Blacks to accumulate the material wealth and self-respect to allow them to seize equality for themselves.

Garvey’s most famous and most misunderstood venture was the Black Star Line (BSL). The purpose of the BSL was to purchase ships that would carry cargo and passengers between the United States, the Carribean, and Africa, using $5 stock shares sold through the mails for financing. Today, many otherwise well-informed people believe that Marcus Garvey’s “Back to Africa” campaign was an effort to build ships to transplant all Black Americans to Africa. All the books discussed here make clear that this is a gross misinterpretation. The purpose of the BSL was primarily to make money for Black investors and further promote Black economic self-reliance. Taking a cue from Zionists, Garvey hoped that one day there would be an independent Black nation in West Africa that many Blacks would visit and more would be inspired by, but he no more expected all Blacks to move there than Theodor Herzl expected all Jews to resettle permanently in Israel. In fact, Garvey believed that America offered Blacks tremendous opportunities because its extreme segregation created the perfect context for economic self-reliance and cultural autonomy. Hence, Garvey’s well-known “Back to Africa” slogan was metaphorical, referring to racial self-respect, pride, and knowledge of African culture and history.

Black Americans bought enormous quantities of stock in Garvey’s enterprises, and also flocked to joined the UNIA. Although reliable membership data are not available (and Garvey’s assertion of 2-4 million members is surely an example of his tendency to exaggerate), even the more conservative estimates point to hundreds of thousands of UNIA members around the world by 1920. UNIA held mammoth international conventions in Harlem in the early 1920s. Garvey was enamored of extravagant uniforms, royal sounding titles, and elaborate parade dress (Many existing photos of him feature him in lavish regalia of his own design). The photos of the convention parades and other UNIA gatherings reproduced in Cronon’s, Martin’s, and Fax’s books are thus visually arresting. Middle-class Black organizations, like the NAACP, criticized the “silly” rituals and dress of UNIA, but Garvey believed that less educated, less privileged Blacks (like himself) might enjoy the opportunity to have an exalted title and march in uniform at the head of a parade, just as a White gas station attendant might take pride in becoming an officer of the local Water Buffalo Lodge. And to the chagrin of the NAACP, Garvey was correct: UNIA had more success at recruiting poor and less educated Blacks than any other civil rights organization of the period.

Part of the meteoric rise of the UNIA can be attributed to Garvey’s organizational skills and forceful personality, but broader cultural and historical factors explain why the movement struck such fertile ground with American Blacks. The years 1915-1925 were among the most dismal in terms of Black-White relations in the U.S. The Ku Klux Klan achieved its greatest popularity and public acceptance in these years. Other White mass movements, such as the Suffragettes and the Anti-Saloon League, also inflamed and played upon racist sentiments in order to advance their own political agendas. Black Americans, meanwhile, were discovering that even though many of them had just fought bravely in a war for freedom and democracy in Europe, these same values were still not honored at home. The many Southern Blacks who came north to work in war-related industries were also seeing initial hopes for betterment dashed, as they found that the prejudice in the South differed from that in the North in bluntness rather than intensity. Black Americans’ cynicism and despair was further fueled as the summer of 1919 (“Red Summer” in the words of James Weldon Johnson) saw White mobs in many U.S. cities terrorizing and murdering Blacks. With this as context, it is unsurprising that a movement emphasizing Black self-reliance and racial pride exploded in the span of only a few years under the direction of a charismatic leader.

Unfortunately, the decline of Garvey and the UNIA were almost as sudden as their ascent. Unscrupulous White businessmen fleeced the BSL board by selling them dilapidated ships that spent more time in drydocks than delivering goods. Other Black leaders, especially W.E.B. DuBois and members of the Black press, harshly criticized Garvey for emphasizing self-reliance over more traditional civil rights approaches to promoting racial equality. Further, rumors began to circulate that there was graft within Garvey’s enterprises. All the books reviewed here maintain convincingly that Garvey himself was an honest man, but some of his underlings apparently absconded with UNIA funds. Garvey must be held partially responsible for the problems within the UNIA, for he stood behind ineffectual, dishonest toadies but dismissed honest subordinates who pointed out problems or disagreed on matters of policy.

With the support of organizations like the NAACP, the U.S. government also began turning the screws on Garvey, charging him with mail fraud in connection with the sale of Black Star Line stock shares. Garvey and three other BSL executives were tried in 1923, but only Garvey, the one of the four who was probably innocent, was convicted. Garvey undermined himself at the trial by dismissing his brilliant lawyer Cornelius W. McDougald and choosing to defend himself, despite having no training in law (This was not a race-based decision, McDougald was Black). However, it is unlikely that even McDougald could have prevented a conviction because powerful elements of both White and Black society wanted to extinguish Garveyism. Further, the Judge, Julian Mack, was an NAACP board member. He sentenced Garvey to the maximum term of five years in prison. A bitter consequence of Mack’s sentence (and refusal to be replaced by a judge without ties to the NAACP) was that Garvey, who up to the time of the trial had admired Jews and held their work ethic and self-determination up as an example to Blacks, began developing anti-Semitic attitudes (prefiguring some Black leaders to come) because of his anger at Mack, an ardent Zionist.

With Garvey in prison, the movement struggled on, but never at its former strength. A deal with the Liberian government to start a UNIA colony fell through, a large bequest by a wealthy UNIA member was stolen during an internal squabble, and UNIA chapter membership dropped nationwide. Garvey was released from prison early, but as a foreigner convicted of a felon, he was immediately deported. He continued fighting for his causes in the Carribean and in England, but was so minimized as a political figure that his death in 1940 went largely unnoticed. It was not until the revival of Black nationalism in the U.S. and abroad that his memory was rehabilitated and his writings came back into print.

All of these basic facts about Garvey’s life can be gathered from Cronon’s detailed and well-documented text, which has a scholarly and dispassionate tone. Reading his book is like listening to a lecture by a learned professor. In contrast, reading Fax’s is like sitting down for coffee with one. Although his book is less detailed than Cronon’s and sometimes even sounds chatty, Fax has a much more engaged and engaging style of presenting Garvey’s life and works. He better conveys Garvey’s magnetism, and also seems to have a greater appreciation of the intra-Black politics of the 1920s. Because their styles and scope differ yet complement each other, Cronon and Fax are worth reading together.

Martin’s book does the best job of describing the UNIA outside of the U.S., particularly its strength and activities in Carribean countries and its influence on African nationalists such as Kwame Nkrumah and Nnamdi Azikiwe. At the same time, Martin’s book is often poorly reasoned and documented. As can be inferred from the title, his book leans toward hagiography. For example, Martin largely dismisses the internal problems and mistakes of the UNIA in a fashion that is not convincing even if one analyzes only the selected facts he presents. The main value of Martin’s panegyric may be that it illustrates how Garvey is idolized by some modern Black Nationalists.

This aspect of Martin’s book is but one example of how appraisals of Marcus Garvey and Black self-help movements tend to reflect the politics of the perceiver. Modern Black nationalists like Martin deify Garvey whereas the more traditionally liberal historian John Hope Franklin (author of the foreword of the 1955 edition of Cronon’s book) dismissively appraises Garvey as an “unforgettable character” who was “rather throughly discredited at the time of his death”. Statist liberals (Black or otherwise) often worry that “minority mutual aid organizations” and “self-reliance” are code words for cuts in social welfare and other forms of outside assistance, whereas liberaltarians (again, Black or otherwise) are more likely to see mutual-help as an important avenue for empowerment of minorities and curtailment of the imperialism of White helping professionals.

Regardless of whether one sees a more racially just society emerging from within or without Black America (or from both), Garveyism is an important movement to understand and to grapple with. All four of these books on Marcus Garvey are valuable companions on that intellectual journey.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College Lonon. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over ten thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.