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Marcus Garvey: a liberating legacy of challenging racism

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Black nationalist leader Marcus Garvey inspired millions of black people to challenge racism. But his politics were contradictory, writes Ken Olende
Issue 2109
Marcus Garvey (right) at a UNIA parade

Marcus Garvey (right) at a UNIA parade

Black nationalist leader Marcus Garvey inspired millions in the 1920s with slogans like, “Up, you mighty race, accomplish what you will” and “Liberate the minds of men and ultimately you will liberate the bodies of men.”

He is an influential figure in the struggle against racism. In the early 1920s Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), based in Harlem, New York, claimed two million members.

This was a time of explosive radicalisation and horrific racist violence. An excellent new biography, Negro With A Hat by Colin Grant, tells his story.

During the First World War a wave of black people who had lived in rural poverty in the Southern states of the US moved north to the cities where jobs were booming.

They faced subordination in the South from both the apartheid style Jim Crow laws and the enforcement of segregation through lynching. But the racists’ confidence ran up against the strikes and radicalisation that followed the war and the 1917 Russian Revolution.

The US government launched a red scare in response – which was in many ways more extreme than the McCarthyite anti-Communist witch-hunts after the Second World War.

Garvey arrived in this maelstrom from the British colony of Jamaica, where he was born in 1887, less than 50 years after the final abolition of slavery. The society had a rigid system of racial division where black people were ranked by the relative lightness of their skin.

Garvey’s first act of leadership was as a trade unionist in Kingston, Jamaica. He had got a job as a printers’ apprentice and worked his way up to foreman.

He not only supported a strike by print workers in 1908 but took a leading role. Unfortunately the strike lost and he was sacked.

He kept the stubborn streak that had led him to risk his job by siding with the workers, but did not remain a trade unionist or admirer of that kind of collective action.


At the age of 22 Garvey started his first newspaper, calling for black advancement through self-help and strictly within the bounds of empire.

Garvey moved to London in 1912, where he first came across pan-Africanist ideas. He met Duse Mohamed Ali, who wrote on African history and was a Fabian socialist.

It was this experience and that of attending lectures on history and law that led Garvey to found the UNIA on his return to Jamaica in 1914.

But how was this organisation to improve the position of black people? Garvey himself argued different things at different times.

Sometimes he railed at the “inferiority” or “laziness” of black people and demanded that the better elements pull themselves up to a level where they could fit in with the world of great empires. Sometimes he raged at the systematic racist oppression of Africa and black people in general.

Garvey originally came to the US in an attempt to meet Booker T Washington, a black leader who believed black people would gain equality through improving themselves through self-help and education.

Washington had set up the Tuskegee Institute, a college in Alabama for this purpose, which Garvey hoped to emulate in Jamaica.

However by the time Garvey managed to get to the US, Washington was dead. Garvey stayed in Harlem and it was here that his movement took off.

UNIA’s paper Negro World was launched in mid-1918. Uniquely among popular papers aimed at black people, it refused to carry adverts for skin lightening and hair straightening products. Garvey said, “Take the kinks out of your mind instead of your hair.”

The paper was widely distributed, and was read outside the US. It was banned in several British colonies.

The message Garvey’s supporters received was that being black was a mark of pride and nothing to be ashamed of.

The UNIA used many methods to get this message across. Garvey was both admired and ridiculed for his love of pomp and ceremony – the uniforms, parades and declarations that were part of life in the UNIA.

But the visible proof of black people organising independently had an effect in a country where the very idea that this was possible was scoffed at.

Initially Garvey built his movement as a street orator. As he became more successful he hired theatres, and later built his own vast meeting hall.

In the radicalised period after the war, the Bureau of Investigation (forerunner of the FBI) reported to director J Edgar Hoover that Garvey had said to a rally, “For every negro lynched by whites in the South, negroes should lynch a white in the North.”

Garvey argued that real emancipation would come through black economic independence. His business ventures included a clothing shop where black people could go in and try on the clothes – something that was not allowed in New York department stores, even in Harlem. They gave an obvious and immediate benefit to their clients.

They also gave jobs to black workers, who were refused employment in white-run stores.

Garvey’s most famous project was the Black Star shipping line. This was initially intended to promote black-owned trade around the Caribbean and make travel cheaper.

Unfortunately, no one at the UNIA knew much about shipping and they were ripped off and trapped in red tape. The scheme was ridiculed as unworkable by the business world.


However, when Garvey managed to get one battered old liner running it seemed to prove the power of black self-help against the weight of white US society.

Writer Claude McKay reported the excitement when the Yarmouth – renamed the Frederick Douglass after the great 19th century black leader – first appeared.

He wrote, “The boat was moored at the pier with its all negro crew. Loudly talking and gesturing [black shareholders] inspected the ship, singing the praises of Marcus Garvey.

“Summer after summer most of them had taken excursion trips organised by churches and clubs, But it was always on a ‘white’ boat… Now in the first boat of the Black Star Line… they saw themselves sailing without making apology for being passengers.”

Marcus Garvey (centre) is led away in handcuffs in 1922. The US authorities, who wanted to close down his movement of black self-empowerment, convicted Garvey for mail fraud

Marcus Garvey (centre) is led away in handcuffs in 1922. The US authorities, who wanted to close down his movement of black self-empowerment, convicted Garvey for ‘mail fraud’

With this apparent success Garvey became more ambitious, hoping eventually to build an independent state of Africa that could trade on equal terms with Europe or the Americas.

Despite negotiations with the government of Liberia, a black-run US client state in West Africa, this project was stillborn.

In part this was due to sabotage from various imperial governments that didn’t want radicalised blacks arriving in Africa demanding self government.

The British representative in Liberia complained that such a plan might lead “native Africans to insurrection against the rule of the white man”.


When the shipping line went bankrupt the media laughed at it. But Garvey said, “We succeeded in the sense of our desire for success.” He meant that he had proved that black people could organise themselves and thus prepared them for future successes.

In the fallout from the Black Star Line’s failure Garvey was charged with “mail fraud”. He spent four years in prison, after which he was deported from the US at the end of 1927.

Technically he may have been guilty, but the reason the US establishment pursued him was because they saw him as an uppity black – and worse, one with a mass following.

After his deportation, Garvey ran the UNIA from Jamaica and later London. Though he remained a respected figure, the organisation went into sharp decline.

The reasons for this relate to issues where socialists disagree with Garvey.

As the post-war upsurge receded a less radical side of his politics became dominant. He came to dismiss anyone who said black and white can unite together against racism.

Further, he said, “I regard the Ku Klux Klan… as better friends of the race than all other groups of hypocritical whites put together.”

Garvey had already entered into negotiations with the Klan as early as 1922. His supporters had seen pride in being black as getting the strength to oppose the Klan and this lost him a lot of support.

His UNIA was not central to US struggles in the 1930s, where it refused to work with Communists in defence of the Scottsboro Boys – nine black men who were convicted in Alabama of a rape that had never happened.

For many years Garvey had enthusiastically supported Haile Selassie, emperor of Ethiopia.

Once Ethiopia was invaded by an army from fascist Italy, Garvey condemned Selassie for his failure to resist Mussolini’s forces.

But he did so in a way that condemned black people who did not match the “standards” of empire. At a time when anti-imperialists around the world were rallying to support Ethiopia, Garvey further distanced himself from the movement.

The Depression-era struggles were problematic for the UNIA, because they tended to indict capitalism, a system Garvey enthusiastically defended.

Garvey became increasingly isolated and was a peripheral figure when he died in London in 1940.

However in 1957, when Ghana became the first of Britain’s African colonies to win independence, its national flag was in UNIA’s colours with Garvey’s black star in the centre. In 1964, his body was returned to Jamaica where he was declared the country’s first national hero.

After a period when he was almost forgotten, Garvey became a popular figure in the 1960s with the rise of the Black Power movement, but his tactics would never regain mass appeal.

In the end he is remembered for giving a sense of pride to black people in the face of the hideous racism of the 1920s. That is worth recalling and his faults should be seen in that context.

Negro With A Hat by Colin Grant, is available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop, priced £20. »

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