Marcus Moziah Garvey (1887-1940) migrated to the USA from his native Jamaica at the age of 29, in 1916. Within a few short years he had become the idol of the black masses of the USA, the Caribbean and Latin America. Branches of his “Universal Negro Improvement Association’ (UNIA) were found in every major city in the USA, in the Caribbean Islands, in Central America, and even across the Atlantic in the British and French colonies of West Africa. A dynamic orator and fluent writer, Garvey was also a master of pageantry. But his charisma alone cannot explain the remarkable response he obtained from Black America. The attraction can be found in his policies; for Marcus Garvey was one of the first Black racial nationalists.
Like many of today’s nationalists, Garvey was first of all attracted to the Leftwing. He worked in close alliance with the Communists and Socialists in the Afro-American Liberty League. However, Garvey did not confine his activities to social and economic grievances. He also understood and gave expression to the spiritual needs of American Blacks in their striving for racial recognition. After centuries of being in America, blacks felt identity-less removed from their African homeland and culture. They had become totally removed from their ancestral roots. Gradually Garvey placed more and more emphasis on the struggle for racial self-respect.
At a magnificent UNIA conference in New York in 1920, the delegates unanimously appointed themselves representatives of Africa even though there was not one genuinely African name amongst the 122 signatories to the declaration. Before the delegates dispersed, Garvey permitted them to elect him Provisional President of Africa. Over the years, Garvey cheerfully appointed Knights and Ladies of Africa from amongst his most loyal followers. When the League of Nations was discussing the future of Germany’s African colonies after the First World War, Garvey proposed that instead of the colonies being granted self-government, the mandate to govern them should be granted to the UNIA.
However, after the 1920 convention, Garvey began to move further and further towards racialism. The Left-wing “African Blood Brotherhood was barred from the UNIA. Around this time, he began to formulate more nationalistic, rather than internationalistic ideas. The basic point difference between Garvey and the Black left was whether or not the UNIA should cooperate with multi-racial working class organizations. Garvey’s racialist, separatist ideas were finally developed when he wrote, in 1923, “Hitherto the other Negro movements in America (with the exception of the Tuskegee effort of Booker T. Washington) sought to teach the Negro to aspire to social equality with the whites, meaning thereby the right to inter-marry and fraternize in every social way. Still some Negro organizations continue to preach this race destroying doctrine added to a program of political agitation and aggression.”
“The time is opportune to regulate the relationship between both races. Let the Negro have a country of his own. Help him to return to his original home, Africa, and there give him the opportunity to climb from the lowest to the highest positions in a state of his own.”
“We of the UNIA cede to the white man the right to doing as he pleases in his own country, and that is why we believe in not making any trouble when he says that ‘America is a White man’s country.’”
In 1922 Garvey paid a visit to the Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan in Georgia. The white racialists were natural allies for Garvey. Their open White racialism helped to develop the race consciousness of American Blacks and to stimulate interest in the UNIA-sponsored movement for repatriation to Africa.
In a message dated October 28, 1925, Garvey introduced a speaker from the Anglo-Saxon Clubs of America (the northern KKK counterpart), whom he had invited to speak at Liberty Hall:
“Mr. Plowell and his organizations sympathize with us even as we sympathize with them. I feel and believe that we should work together for the purpose of bringing about the ideal sought-the purification of the races, their autonomous separation and the unbridled freedom of self-development and self-expression.”
Garvey not only rejected the idea of political alliance with White leftists, preferring an understanding with White racialists to achieve segregation; he also rejected the idea of an alliance between White and Black workers, preferring an understanding with White employers.
However, the big business establishment was not keen on allowing Garvey to propagate his racialist ideal. In 1925 he was arrested on a trumped-up charge and sentenced to five years imprisonment. Garvey’s reaction was to move even further to the extreme. He moved to a position of Black Nationalist socialism-“Capitalism is necessary to the progress of the world…but there should be a limit to the individual or corporate use or control of it. All control, use and investment of money should be the prerogative of the state with the concurrent authority of the people.” Although Garvey was subsequently branded as a bourgeois nationalist by his leftist enemies, in practice UNIA never drew support from more than a handful of wealthy Blacks, since they were in turn dependent on capital divided by Jewish bankers and investors.
After his prison term, Garvey was deported in 1927, to Jamaica, where he endeavored to resurrect the UNIA. In his absence the American branches of the UNIA were soon divided into rival factions, and he was soon deprived of it as a principle source of funds. He did manage to start a newspaper, The Blackman, and he also entered local municipal politics. The New Jamaican, which he started, superceded The Blackman, a daily paper, in 1932. As always, his literary out put was prolific, he edited and wrote both newspapers by himself.
By 1933 his career was entering its final eclipse. His presses were seized by creditors and Garvey himself had to immigrate to England. In London, he once again resurrects The Blackman, now on a monthly basis. He undertook several speaking tours in Canada and South America. It was a heroic but hopeless last stand. His fortunes continued to decline, his magazine folded yet again, and his health was ailing. His family had to return to Jamaica. When he died, neglected and deserted on June 10, 1940, there was only a small circle of admirers at Bethnal Green Cemetery to mourn his passing.
Symbolically, Garvey’s remains were neither interred nor cremated. Instead they were placed in a temporary vault to facilitate their eventual removal to Jamaica. Garvey’s remains are there to this day and deserve respect by his fellow black brothers and sisters for whom he fought so hard.