Negro with a Hat: The Rise and Fall of Marcus Garvey
By Colin Grant
(Oxford University Press, 530 pp., $27.95)
In the pantheon of the past century's African American leaders, Marcus Garvey holds an exceedingly ambiguous place. Widely regarded, then and now, as a spellbinding orator, a tireless organizer, and an immensely charismatic figure whose ideas seemed to resonate powerfully with many thousands (perhaps many millions) of people of African descent in the United States and abroad, Garvey has also been derided as a political charlatan, a scam artist, a religious revivalist, and a racial purist who traded on the desperation and the gullibility of his followers. Some influential black political leaders and intellectuals came to see him as an egomaniacal buffoon who imagined himself as president of an African-republic-to-be and dressed himself and his legions in resplendent military attire, aping the styles of the white authorities he set out to topple. Garvey, as W.E.B. Du Bois derisively put it, was the "negro with a hat."
Historians and other scholars have shared the discomfort and the ambivalence about Garvey and his organization, the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). Although they concede that the UNIA ranks as the largest movement of people of African descent in modern history, they have written remarkably little about it, choosing to focus instead--usually briefly and dismissively--on the man at the top. The last full-scale biography of Marcus Garvey, E. David Cronon's Black Moses, appeared over fifty years ago. Most of the serious scholarship has been produced by West Indians, many with roots in Jamaica, from which Garvey originally hailed.
Colin Grant is a native-born Jamaican now resident in London and a producer for the BBC. In Negro With a Hat, he has produced a searching, vivid, and (as the title suggests) complex account of Garvey's short but consequential life. Availing himself of much of the extant source material--especially the multi-volume Marcus Garvey and Universal Negro Improvement Association Papers, edited by Robert Hill, and Garvey's newspaper, the Negro World--together with interviews with leading scholars and present-day Garveyites, Grant takes us from Garvey's humble beginnings in Jamaica to his meteoric rise to prominence in the United States, and then to his equally rapid descent brought about by federal surveillance, incarceration, and deportation. Grant skillfully combines a sympathetic perspective on what Garvey managed to accomplish with a series of critical assessments of how Garvey contributed to his own demise.
What the book lacks, and woefully so, is a deeper sense of the historical context and the movement itself: of the UNIA's geography and bases of support, of the ways in which Garvey's ideas were disseminated and translated on the ground, of why so many people were electrified by Garvey's ideas and vision and would continue to be enlivened by Garvey even after he passed from the scene. Grant offers a persuasive account of the man he calls "one of the most radical and enigmatic figures in twentieth-century history"; but he is far less successful in explaining the dimensions and the legacies of Garvey's many endeavors.
Marcus Mosiah Garvey was born in rural Jamaica in 1887, the grandson of slaves. His father, Malchus, was a stone mason and something of a self-taught bibliophile (Grant calls him a "rum-shop scholar") who succeeded in purchasing land; his mother, Sara, the daughter of peasants, worked as a domestic servant when she was not cultivating crops on the family's parcel. By all accounts Malchus was a difficult and abusive husband and father, who drove Marcus close to his maternal uncle and abandoned Sara along with the rest of the family after suffering financial adversity. Although Marcus would later describe his father as "a man of brilliant intellect and dashing courage" who "took human chances in the course of life ... and failed at the close of his career" (a life course eerily like his own), he would always carry the burdens and the lessons of their problematic relationship.
Garvey suffered other personal wounds growing up. Over the course of his childhood he developed a close friendship with the daughter of a neighboring white minister. They played together, Grant tells us, "with no regard for the difference of their races." But as a young teenager, Garvey experienced the racial epiphany that became an autobiographical staple for (usually) males of African descent. (Du Bois tells a similar story.) The white girl was suddenly sent away and told "never to write or try to get in touch with me, for I was a 'nigger.'" Garvey never before understood that he could be any such thing.
What Garvey did develop in his youth were useful craft skills, an interest in the wider world, and a penchant for selfdiscipline and self-improvement. In 1901 he apprenticed with a local printer and moved first to the nearby town of Port Maria and then to Kingston, where he became a manager for a printing company as well as the foreman of the Kingston Typographical Union, beginning an important association with the struggles of the Caribbean's working people. Garvey, Grant suggests, had come to hate the deep inequities of Jamaican society and to crave respectability. He began to take elocution lessons and entered several public speaking contests, while joining the anti-colonial National Club and publishing Garvey's Watchman, in which he editorialized on behalf of the poor.
Before long, Garvey left Jamaica for Costa Rica, where he found work as a timekeeper on one of the large plantations near Limon. He quickly became involved in an ongoing labor dispute, aligning with the contract laborers, many of whom were Jamaican migrants, and establishing a bilingual newspaper called La Nacion. A thorn in the side of the local authorities, not to mention the United Fruit Company, Garvey invited retaliation. When it came, he had to close up shop and look for new fields of activity. He traveled to Honduras, Ecuador, Colombia, and Venezuela, and, when he arrived in Panama, started up yet another newspaper, La Prensa. This time bacterial aggravations of his asthma forced another retreat, back to Kingston; and then, like many intellectually ambitious West Indians of the era, to the epicenter of civilization as they knew it: London.
It was 1912. Garvey had already learned a great deal about race, class, power, and inequality through his experiences in Jamaica and the European colonies of Central and South America. Yet, as Grant shows, it was in London that his experiences and understandings began to cohere into a developing vision. Shortly after arriving that spring, Garvey went out to Hyde Park and made his first forays at extemporaneous public speaking. Even more important, he landed a job on the African Times and Orient Review, edited by the Egyptian-born Duse Mohamed Ali and a magnet for intellectuals of African descent, especially emergent pan-Africanists.
By the fall of 1913, Garvey had written an essay titled "The British West Indies in the Mirror of Civilisation," in which he averred that West Indians like him would unite a scattered race and establish an empire of their own. Along the way, he attended classes in law at Birkbeck College, learned of Ali's ambitious business plans for British West Africa, toured the capitals of Europe, and, perhaps most significantly, read Booker T. Washington's Up From Slavery. When he sailed back to Jamaica in 1914 (there was no more work for him on Ali's paper) and met some missionaries returning from Basutoland who shocked him with their descriptions of life there, the historical and political ideas that he had been accumulating seemed to fall into place. "Where is the black man's government?" he asked himself. "Where is his President, his country, his ambassador, and his army?" His brain, he later recalled, was aflame with a vision: "a new world of black men, not peons, serfs, dogs, and slaves, but a nation of sturdy men making their impress upon civilization and causing a new light to dawn upon the human race."
Once in Kingston, Garvey formed the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League, thereafter known as the UNIA. Although he claimed that pan-Africanists such as J.E. Casely Hayford and Edward Blyden had effectively scripted his path, the goals of the UNIA were at first fairly modest. It was to be mainly a benevolent and self-improvement society rather than a political club, built around a set of cultural activities (music appreciation, literature, debating). Reflecting Booker T. Washington's achievements, Garvey also planned to construct an "industrial farm" modeled on the Tuskegee Institute.
Garvey and the UNIA failed to attract much of a following in Jamaica, though one of the new adherents was a precocious seventeen-year-old named Amy Ashwood. She was taken with Garvey's ideas and words, and shared his passion for racial redemption. She immediately became involved in trying to advance the fortunes of the UNIA and formed a partnership of love and labor with Garvey. Despite her parents' objections, Amy Ashwood and Marcus Garvey were secretly engaged in 1915.
By that time Garvey had been in touch with Booker T. Washington, and had curried an invitation to visit Tuskegee to "see for yourself what we are striving to do for the coloured young men and women of the South." He was ecstatic. But before the arrangements could be worked out, Washington died, and Garvey was left to contemplate his next move. He decided to take a chance and head to the United States anyway, perhaps finding a welcome from Washington's successors. In March 1916, leaving Ashwood behind, he sailed for New York.
The moment could not have been more propitious. Since the 1890s, African Americans had been finding their way from the rural and urban South into the teeming cities of the North and Midwest. But with the manpower mobilizations of World War I leaving northern industries desperate for workers, what had been a trickle turned into the flood that is now known as the Great Migration. Thousands of black southerners found their way to Chicago, Milwaukee, Detroit, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and Philadelphia, dramatically expanding the small black populations that harked back to the first half of the nineteenth century. And they were joined, especially in the northeast and south Florida, by a rising tide of West Indians (mostly from the British possessions) who looked to escape the bleak economic circumstances of their home islands. Yet nowhere did these streams of migration meld more powerfully than in New York, and more specifically in Harlem, soon to be called the "Negro capital of the world."
Garvey started from scratch. He had no political contacts in New York and little money. What he did have was enormous energy and what Grant accurately calls "startling chutzpah." Garvey cobbled together enough cash to rent a meeting hall, print handbills, and distribute tickets for a speech that he planned to deliver on Jamaica. Then he barged into the offices of the NAACP and left an invitation for W.E.B. Du Bois, a board member and editor of The Crisis, to chair the proceedings. Du Bois was out of the office at the time and subsequently declined the invitation. It probably was better that way. On the evening of the event, only thirty-six Harlemites bothered to show up and Garvey, moments into his address, had a dizzy spell and fell off the stage.
Not the most auspicious of New York debuts. But Garvey remained upbeat and eager to regain his bearings. He began by traveling forty blocks north of Harlem to take in a sermon by the famed white evangelist Billy Sunday, whose voice and histrionics riveted the throngs in his Tabernacle Church. More important, he set out on what became a thirty-eight-state American tour, during which he visited black elders and church leaders, spoke to black audiences, and took the measure of race in America. Although we have few records of Garvey's doings on the trip (and Grant does an excellent job of reconstructing what there is to know), he appears to have spent a good bit of time in the South, doubtless with an eye toward Tuskegee, where he was lukewarmly received. What he did gain was a personal experience of Jim Crow and his own view of black struggles in the rural and urban areas. And when Garvey headed back north and stopped in Chicago, he met with Ida B. Wells, who told him about the barbarities of lynchings, unknown in Jamaica.
Returning to Harlem after what proved to be a journey of six months, Garvey abandoned his interest in a Jamaican Tuskegee and turned his energies and organization in a more ambitious and decidedly political direction. With the aid of the Caribbean radical Hubert Harrison and the venerable journalist and activist John E. Bruce, Garvey won a new hearing--and heard he surely was. There were no more dizzy spells or tumbles. His voice, "part evangelical, part formal King's English, and part lilting Caribbean speechifying," boomed with such "torrential eloquence" that he "swept the audience along with him." Even the skeptics were impressed. As A. Philip Randolph put it, Garvey could be heard "from 135th to 125th Street." More than sheer volume, though, Garvey's speeches seemed to touch a powerful chord among his listeners, whether they were new to the country or new to the North. "His words were compassionate," one of them recalled, "he spoke from his soul, and you had this feeling that you were there, that you [were] he, too, that you felt the same thing he was speaking of." For John E. Bruce, "it was as if the whole of Harlem was speaking with one voice."
Influenced perhaps by Harrison, Garvey (unlike Du Bois) opposed African American participation in the "white man's war" raging in Europe when there was fighting to be done for a "just cause" closer to home. The ferocious race riot in East St. Louis during the summer of 1917, which left scores of blacks dead, marked, according to Grant, "a turning point" in Garvey's life. From then on, "the improvement of Negro life in America would be his focus." But Garvey's horizon was far more international than this would suggest. Indeed, over the next few years he advanced an argument and a set of organizational projects that not only took sobering account of black prospects in the nadir of the Jim Crow era, but also presented a breathtaking vision of political struggle and redemption that was pan-African in its scope.
Grant is not at his best in explaining Garvey's ideas. This is unfortunate, because over the years there has been much misrepresentation. But he is a careful scholar and he provides us with much of the material necessary to construct a clearer and more satisfying picture. Garvey's name has been most closely associated with what is called the "back-to-Africa" movement, in which people of African descent are urged to return to their "homeland." Yet it is far more accurate to describe Garvey's as a black empowerment movement. The world, as he had come to see it in the tumultuous years surrounding World War I, was organized around races, nations, and empires. African peoples throughout the diaspora had fallen subject to the rule and the exploitation of whites, and they could not expect to be free until they had a nation of their own to offer them protection. They would continue to be lynched, mobbed, and ground down until their oppressors had to answer to power--to a black nation with the muscle to defend itself and to command the world's respect.
Like the Irish struggle of the time, with which he felt a strong affinity, Garvey's vision was chiefly nationalist and anti-colonial. He called not for African repatriation but for a movement to oust the European colonizers and establish a foundation for self-governance. Recognizing that such an undertaking would require time, maybe even a century, he encouraged worldwide organization and preparedness. Thus, he imagined the UNIA as an embryonic form of the new African nation itself, as a government in exile. To that end--and embracing the traditions of fraternalism most nearly connected with the Masons--Garvey had the UNIA draw up a constitution and a "declaration of rights," create a uniformed African Legion and a Black Cross Nursing Corps, recognize organizational units by the military term "divisions," invest in factories, laundries, and restaurants, discuss the wisdom of a "civil service" to train a political class, look to ally with the government of Liberia, parade in large processions, sing an anthem and wave a national flag (red, black, and green), and name him provisional president.
The popular response, as Grant acknowledges, was extraordinary. Within a few years of Garvey's arrival in Harlem, the UNIA published its own newspaper, the Negro World, and boasted more than one thousand divisions and, at the very least, thousands of members and supporters throughout the Atlantic world. Over two hundred of the divisions (Grant has little to say about this) were outside of the United States: in southern and western Africa, South America, Canada, and especially in the Caribbean basin, where much activity was to be found in Garvey's former stamping grounds of Jamaica, Trinidad, Honduras, Costa Rica, and Panama, as well as in Cuba.
Still, about three-quarters of the UNIA divisions (more than nine hundred of them) operated within the territorial limits of the United States; and although the very largest of them took hold in the urban centers of the Northeast and Midwest (New York, Chicago, Philadelphia), the majority of the divisions were in the former slave states of the South, and the great majority of these were in small towns, villages, and rural areas. Closer examination (mine, not Grant's) reveals that although West Indian immigrants figured prominently among UNIA supporters in New York City, Boston, and south Florida, everywhere else the UNIA attracted African Americans who were born and raised in the South and had either chosen to remain there for the time being or set out on the journey to the urban North. Everywhere (Grant does not have much to say about this) the rank-and-file of the UNIA appeared to be composed of black workers and their families who sought, or had attained, some measure of respectability: factory and railroad workers, longshoremen, shipyard workers, coal miners, porters, janitors, tradesmen, domestics, waiters, farm tenants, farm laborers, and a scattering of farm owners.
By the early 1920s, Garvey claimed, doubtless with exaggeration, between two and four million followers; but even Du Bois, who looked to more of a middle-class base for the NAACP, conceded that the UNIA's membership was likely in the hundreds of thousands. Why did so many African Americans flock to Marcus Garvey and the UNIA? Grant offers a confusing and rather superficial set of propositions. He seems to accept the idea, advanced for the most part by Garvey's critics, that "a large number, if not the majority, of UNIA adherents were said to be West Indian immigrants," but he offers no explanation for their adherence other than their common places of origin. At the same time he maintains, with implicit puzzlement, that the typical black American who came to hear Garvey (or follow him) would have known nothing of Africa and little more than "the dimensions of his farm, the perimeter of his town or the outer limits of the district, from which no generation before him had ever moved."
The truth is that Garvey and the UNIA attracted a mass following--and with astonishing speed--because they cultivated fertile terrain. As slaves and freedpeople, African Americans were an extremely mobile lot. They moved, involuntarily, in massive numbers during the first decades of the nineteenth century from the Upper South and southeastern seaboard to the Deep South states of Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas. They also moved from owner to owner, by means of sale, in limited geographical areas and over great distances, sometimes in chains, on flat boats, floating down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. When the Civil War erupted, they headed from their plantations and farms to Union lines, and then as soldiers in the Union army marched hundreds of miles in the Confederate and occupied South.
After Emancipation, African American freedpeople gathered up family members who had been widely dispersed owing to enslavement, and some of them scoured the face of the South for lost parents, spouses, and children. Desperate for land and independence, and worn down by the ferocious efforts of white southerners to enforce their submission (many of their political leaders were assassinated or driven off), some looked to relocate in other parts of the United States or even in West Africa. By the end of Reconstruction, a great many of them in the Deep South had come to learn of Liberia and of the American Colonization Society as a possible vehicle of resettlement. When they found this avenue blocked, they might instead collect themselves in what were known as "black towns," or unincorporated settlements at arm's length from whites. Many had heard of Africa as a potential homeland, even if they did not regard it as their motherland, and most sought local empowerment and selfgovernance as the best protection for their communities and as the basis for their future development.
Which is to say, Garvey and the UNIA attracted a mass following because they provided a critique of American society that made popular sense; because they spoke a language that had familiar ideas and cadences; because they tapped into long-standing institutional forums and rituals (especially those associated with churches and fraternal societies); and because they offered means and ends that comported with the grassroots struggles--and more generally the social and political experiences--of most African Americans. Garvey also constructed a global context that enabled his followers to envision a new and expansive arena of numbers and powers, and new and expansive identities based on categories that had come to organize their lives, "race" chief among them. It was a historical moment of profound political and intellectual confluence.
Even as the edifice of Garvey's movement was expanding by leaps and bounds in the early 1920s, cracks began to appear in its structure and its foundation. Some were the products of escalating conflicts between Garvey and a number of other black leaders, who had once been affiliated with the UNIA (such as Hubert Harrison) or had always looked at the man and his organization with suspicious, and perhaps jealous, eyes. (Du Bois was one of the latter.) Many were the products of increasing government harassment, principally by the Bureau of Investigation (later the FBI), which first took notice of Garvey when he spoke out against black participation in World War I and became more concerned as the UNIA grew in popularity. Still, as Grant shows with care and evenhandedness, Garvey's own limitations--his blunders, his inexperience, his arrogance--deepened the cracks and hastened his downfall.
The story of the Black Star Line encapsulates many of the contradictory impulses that enabled Garvey to tap popular fervor and then spiraled wildly out of control. Garvey's interest in creating a steamship company meshed well with his vision for a black nation in exile--or, as Grant puts it, for "a parallel world equal to that of the white man." "If we are to rise as a great people, to become a great nation," he declared, "we must start business enterprises of our own; we must build ships and start trading with ourselves between America, the West Indies, and Africa." Possibly, as Grant suggests, Garvey also believed that a Black Star Line would offer people of African descent the comfort and the luxury that the White Star Line had provided white passengers and investors. But we ought not to overlook the ways in which black-owned and blackoperated steam ships could serve as symbols of power, pride, and destiny in a world of commerce and migration. After all, when the first of the Black Star vessels left New York and steamed into Norfolk, Havana, or Colon, thousands of blacks turned out to greet it.
Garvey planned to raise the money for the Black Star Line by soliciting small donations from his many followers and by selling them shares of stock. And UNIA supporters responded with enormous enthusiasm despite their very limited means, many proudly displaying their stock certificates. The problem was that Garvey proved to be a dreadful businessman (but not a thief, as some made him out to be). He was certain of his own wisdom; he hired those whose loyalty appeared most assured; and he was overbearing in his style of leadership. "He was like a novice driver," Grant remarks, "who had a destination in mind but had forgotten the road map, and rather than lose time by turning and going back for it, decided to drive on, through diversions, down blind alleys and even off the beaten track until arriving at the place he'd been heading for."
Within days of the Black Star Line's incorporation, its board splintered into hostile camps, and although there is no evidence that Garvey benefited financially from the project, talk of improprieties brought criticism from other black leaders and black newspapers, and also intensified scrutiny by the federal government. In 1922, despite very few complaints from his investors, Garvey was indicted for mail fraud in connection with stock sales for the Black Star Line.
Garvey's indictment seemed a sad reflection of the growing disarray in his life and the movement. His brief marriage to Amy Ashwood, who finally joined him in New York and tended him after a failed assassination attempt, ended in divorce in part owing to the attentions he paid to UNIA secretary Amy Jacques (whom he later married). More than ever, Garvey spoke the language of racial purity, of "race first," and worsened his antagonisms with those black leaders interested either in labor mobilizations or racial equality. His feud with Du Bois and the NAACP reached the boiling point, and Du Bois, depicting Garvey as an alien and a demagogue who exploited the colorline, cooperated in the federal prosecution of him.
Garvey also appeared increasingly intent on reaching some accommodation with the powers-that-be in the United States. In June 1922, most controversially, Garvey met in Atlanta with the acting imperial wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. The invitation had been extended by the KKK, which sympathized with the UNIA's new emphasis on race purity and its long-standing goal of establishing a black nation in Africa. For his part, Garvey believed that the Klan represented "the invisible government of America," which was set on maintaining white supremacy. In a sense, the meeting brought together leaders of two shadow governments who could discuss their common interests--a realpolitik of American racial politics--and Garvey claimed to have been pleased by what he heard. (Rumors circulated that the imperial wizard would buy stock in the Black Star Line.)
Garvey's view of the Klan as white America's "invisible government" was not as crazy as it might seem. Grant would have us believe that the Klan was a predominately southern organization at this point, but in fact it was an immense national institution with an enormous popular following (the Klan marched down the Main Streets of northern cities) and with members and fellow travelers in the highest reaches of state and national governments. Rather than vilified, the Klan was widely celebrated--witness the tremendous popularity of Birth of a Nation, even in the viewing room of the White House under Woodrow Wilson--as the savior of Anglo-Saxon America, as a pillar of a nation reborn on a foundation of white supremacy. Few black leaders outside the UNIA shared Garvey's optimism. His meeting with the Klan unleashed a torrent of criticism, if not outrage, that blasted through public forums and the black press. Some of the attacks reeked of personal vengeance, but many critics were aghast that he would consort with "Negro lynchers" or so publicly surrender black rights in the United States. A. Philip Randolph, who introduced Garvey to the street audiences of Harlem in 1917, now launched a "Marcus Garvey Must Go" campaign.
He would not have long to wait. Garvey went on trial for mail fraud in the spring of 1923 and, after a dispute with his lawyer, foolishly chose to represent himself in court. Although the evidence against him was thin and his co-defendants were acquitted, the jury found him guilty, and the judge, undoubtedly offended by an anti-Semitic comment that Garvey tossed at him when the verdict came in, sentenced him to five years in prison and a fine of $1,000. (The Jew-baiting crack was out of character: Garvey admired Jews and supported Zionism.) In early 1925, after losing his appeal, Garvey entered the Atlanta penitentiary that had once held the socialist Eugene V. Debs. Over the next two years, as Garvey sat in his cell and the UNIA sputtered under the direction of a weak new leader, more and more voices--even those of his erstwhile enemies--called for his release. In late 1927, President Coolidge granted Garvey a pardon on condition that he be deported. In December, after traveling to New Orleans, Garvey boarded the SS Saramacca and sailed for Jamaica.
Grant devotes relatively few pages to Garvey's life or UNIA activities after his deportation, and in most respects the story seems to be a dispiriting one. Garvey received a rousing popular reception on his return to Jamaica, but he did not plan to set up UNIA headquarters there. Central America or elsewhere in the Caribbean was preferable, but he was blocked by British and American authorities, and so he headed to London--only to return again to Jamaica in late 1928, where he entered politics, forming the People's Political Party, and established UNIA headquarters in Kingston. Although his future initially looked promising, his enemies in Jamaica were determined to limit his influence, and he soon lost access to the U.S. mail and thus to much of the UNIA's American base. In the early 1930s, he and Amy Jacques had two children, but they were running out of money. In 1935, Garvey left Jamaica for London, "a broken man, broken in spirit, broken in health, and broken in pocket," vowing that he would "never, never go back."
Jacques and the children joined Garvey two years later, though they found him distracted and often away on lecture and fundraising tours of Canada and the Caribbean. When one of the children became ill, Jacques took the opportunity to return with them to Jamaica, leaving Garvey behind in London, lonely and isolated. In June 1940, he died from the effects of a stroke and was buried there. Twenty-four years later his body was returned to Kingston and re-interred, after thousands paid their respects, in King George VI Memorial Park.
What of Marcus Garvey's movement? The brief picture that Grant gives is one of rapidly declining membership in the UNIA, internecine struggles in many of the divisions, and the emergence of self-proclaimed prophets and visionaries eager to assume Garvey's mantle, most of whom had little impact. For all intents and purposes, it seems, Garvey and his project evaporated until the mid-1960s, when the Black Power movement in the United States and new political leaders in Africa and the Caribbean rediscovered them.
There can be little doubt that Garvey's legal troubles and eventual deportation struck the UNIA a blow from which it never recovered. Yet although our knowledge of the world of Garveyism without Garvey remains limited, there is much more of a story than Grant lets on, and one that hints at a far more significant legacy than is generally recognized. The African continent itself felt the powerful effects of Garveyism--beginning in the 1920s, when the UNIA and the Negro World found a beachhead in South Africa, particularly among the Industrial and Commercial Workers Union but also among many in the fledgling African National Congress. Their influence then spread north, east, and west, first to Namibia, southern Rhodesia, and Mozambique, and then to Ghana, Nigeria, and Kenya, where Garvey's ideas fired two generations of activists, most notably Kwame Nkrumah and Jomo Kenyatta, who helped to defeat European colonialism and presided over the creation of new independent nations. Garvey's vision of "Africa for the Africans" became a rallying cry for anti-colonial movements throughout the continent and, ultimately, a version of postcolonial reality.
Garvey's legacy in the United States was less dramatic and politically consequential than it was in Africa, but still it was significant. UNIA divisions, especially outside New York City, always had a good deal of autonomy, and while there were substantial membership declines and serious organizational ruptures after Garvey's departure, the UNIA survived in a variety of forms. In some cases, powerful leaders kept large divisions afloat; in other cases, smaller divisions were consolidated. Either way, community ties were maintained or reinvigorated as the UNIA, during the difficult years of the Great Depression, set up youth groups, operated businesses, provided food and clothing to the needy, paid for burials, and helped fight battles over housing and employment. Where the UNIA disbanded entirely, former supporters often continued their community-based activities or gravitated to the NAACP, the Communist and Socialist parties, the Future Outlook League, the "Don't Buy Where You Can't Work" campaigns, the CIO, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, or (especially in the urban Midwest) the Nation of Islam.
The many avenues that took African Americans from a powerful encounter with Marcus Garvey and the UNIA into later worlds of political activism suggest that strands of black thought and politics long regarded as distinct and antagonistic were far more interconnected and mutually reinforcing: integration and separatism, assimilationism and nationalism, NAACP and UNIA, civil rights and black power. The interconnections are to be seen in leaders such as E.D. Nixon, a Garveyite who later affiliated with the NAACP and helped to organize the Montgomery Bus boycott; Charlotta Bass, who published the widely read California Eagle, joined both the UNIA and NAACP, ran for Los Angeles City Council and then the United States Congress, and remained involved with struggles for fair housing, economic empowerment, voter registration, prisoners' rights, and South African apartheid through the 1960s; Bob Moses, the revered grassroots organizer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in the early 1960s, whose grandfather was a fiery Garveyite Baptist preacher; and, most prominently, Malcolm X, who was the son of a Garveyite, embraced the Nation of Islam, and later insisted that "every time you see another nation on the African continent become independent you know that Marcus Garvey is alive."
Even today there are active UNIA divisions--in Philadelphia, Washington, Richmond, Atlanta, Chicago, Cleveland, Los Angeles, Detroit, Durham, and Baltimore, as well as in Montreal, Dakar, Port Harcourt (Nigeria), Bergvlie (South Africa), Montego Bay, and Kingston--and Marcus Garvey is commemorated in many black communities, especially among the generation of African Americans born in the waning years of Jim Crow. His ideas, translated for decades by black activists in a variety of nationalist discourses, remain relevant for thousands of blacks, young and old, particularly among the working poor. As we struggle to contemplate what a post-racial world might be like, what its points of cohesion and fissure may be, what its prospects and limitations are, we would do well to take seriously the power and the influence of Marcus Garvey's extravagant messages and visions. History has shown that they made a great difference.
Steven Hahn teaches history at the University of Pennsylvania. His new book, The Political Worlds of Slavery and Freedom, will be published by Harvard University Press next year.
This article originally ran in the November 19, 2008 issue of the magazine.