Giving life to the spirit of Marcus Garvey

By News | Last updated: Jun 14, 2013 - 10:28:09 AM

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The Honorable Marcus Mosiah Garvey. Photo: Library of Congress
“The ends you serve that are selfish will take you no further than yourself but the ends you serve that are for all, in common, will take you into eternity.”
—Marcus Mosiah Garvey

In the 20th century, the struggle for Black liberation produced many giants and many who suffered for daring to assert our humanity and our divine right to self-determination. One of the men of that era never to be forgotten is the Honorable Marcus Mosiah Garvey, a great son of Jamaica and a father of modern Pan-Africanist thought.

The Garvey-led Back to Africa movement is one of the most important movements of that time and all time. It was rooted in Mr. Garvey’s wise understanding that the Black man had to have his own place among the nations of the earth and that continued attempts to join on to the White Western World and America were pure folly.

While others craved to be close to the former slave master, Mr. Garvey called for an end to hypocrisy and for the Negro to reject the status of an inferior being. He was inspired by the work of Booker T. Washington and Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, but never met the great educator. He was also nurtured by earlier Pan Africanist and Black Nationalist efforts.

Mr. Garvey, whose Universal Negro Improvement Association was founded in 1914 in Jamaica, put forward a program for self-development and economic strength.

With some 2-3 million followers at its height, the UNIA included uniformed Black men, the Black Cross nurses, businesses and factories, a newspaper and a steamship line.

“Like the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) Garvey campaigned against lynching, Jim Crow laws, denial of black voting rights and racial discrimination. Where UNIA differed from other civil rights organizations was on how the problem could be solved. Garvey doubted whether whites in the United States would ever agree to African Americans being treated as equals and argued for segregation rather than integration. Garvey suggested that African Americans should go and live in Africa. He wrote that he believed ‘in the principle of Europe for the Europeans, and Asia for the Asiatics’ and ‘Africa for the Africans at home and abroad,’ ” notes

“Garvey began to sign up recruits who were willing to travel to Africa and ‘clear out the white invaders.’ He formed an army, equipping them with uniforms and weapons. Garvey appealed to the new militant feelings of blacks that followed the end of the First World War and asked those African Americans who had been willing to fight for democracy in Europe to now join his army to fight for equal rights.”

“His Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), founded in Jamaica in 1914, had a membership at its peak in the 1920s of many millions of people spread over more than forty countries, from Australia to Zimbabwe,” according to the late Garvey scholar Tony Martin, whose Garvey-study Race First is a must read. “The headquarters division in Harlem, New York had about 40,000 members. Garvey built his organization on the principles of Black Nationalism, which inevitably meant having to do battle with integrationists, Communists, and powerful white governments in the Americas and Europe.”

“With approximately 1,200 branches in over forty countries by the mid-1920s, Garvey had built a Pan-African organization like none other. … He had worked, agitated and organized in Jamaica, Costa Rica, Panama and elsewhere. He had traveled through much of Europe. He had worked in London on the foremost Pan-African and Pan-Oriental journal of the day, the African Times and Orient Review. He had been moved to found his great organization after reflecting on his four years of work and travel in many lands,” noted professor Martin in another paper.

“ ‘Where is the Black man’s government?  Where is his king and his kingdom? Where is his president, his country, and his ambassador, his army, his navy, his men of big affairs?’ ‘I could not find them,’ Garvey lamented, ‘and then I declared, ‘I will help to make them,’ ” noted professor Martin.

“Within a few short years he built a Pan-African organization with branches in the Americas, Africa, Europe and Australia. His Negro World newspaper was the most widely circulated African publication in the world. His Negro Factories Corporation employed over a thousand persons in New York. His Black Star Line Steamship Corporation sailed the seas. It hoped to facilitate trade and travel within the African diaspora.”

“The UNIA attracted African nationalists from around the world,” Prof. Martin observed, ranging from the writers from Nigeria and Ghana to the parents of Malcolm X serving as leaders in local UNIA branches. The father of the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan was a Garveyite and his mother was influenced by the UNIA. In African politics, Kenyan freedom fighter and president Jomo Kenyatta, Ghana’s first president Kwame Nkrumah, South Africa’s African National Congress and movements throughout the Caribbean were influenced by Garvey and his followers—if not outright followers, according to Prof. Martin’s writings.

While Negro intellectuals and their White patrons were appalled Mr. Garvey didn’t shrink for dealing with harsh truths. “I regard the Klan, the Anglo-Saxon clubs and White American societies, as far as the Negro is concerned, as better friends of the race than all other groups of hypocritical Whites put together,” he said.

His words were a warning against the double dealing and the treachery of the enemy and were forged out of lessons gleaned from centuries of outright oppression and murder.

Still this bold and beautiful Black man was set upon by the U.S. government, which placed spies and stool pigeons inside of his organization and worked to derail and destroy his work.

By 1925, Mr. Garvey was jailed on trumped up fraud charges by the U.S. government and later deported back to Jamaica. From his home country, he moved on to London where he lived and died. Still Mr. Garvey’s work has made him an immortal as his ideas and his example are a guide for us today. Yet on the 73rd anniversary of his death June 10, 1940, we find a trial opening in Sanford, Fla., where once again Blacks are crying out for justice over the fatal shooting of 17-year- old Trayvon Martin.

We have to learn the lessons of history and act properly to get the right results. We still suffer from the hypocrisy and double dealing of enemies, we still need men and women of big affairs instead of trifling pursuits and we cannot beg others to do what we can and must do for ourselves. The best way to remember and honor Mr. Garvey is act in ways that show respect for his wisdom and his sacrifice. We can never do that if constrained by the training of our oppressors and bound by fear that keeps us from striking out on our own.