Whither the vision of Marcus Garvey?
Whither the vision of Marcus Garvey one hundred years after the formation of the United Negro Improvement Association-African Communities League and two years after the Global African Diaspora Summit?
By Dr Matlotleng Matlou
Between 640-1910 Thomas (1997) estimates 89 million Africans were enslaved; a period when its marginalisation and exploitation entrenching it at the bottom of the globalisation ladder commenced and continues. The Arab slave trade starting in the 7th century occurring across central, east, north and west Africa deported 34 million Africans (17 million died in the process) mainly to the Middle East and South East Asia. This episode is renowned by the sheer scale of brutality and tragic impact that is still being felt today; slavery continues in Mauritania and Sudan! Numerous African males were converted into eunuchs through castration, many bleeding to death and disabled for life. Females, even very young ones, were repeatedly raped, sometimes by gangs, converted into concubines. Unfortunately most of their descendants have lost their African identity, language and culture, today considered Arabs, so also others like the Dalits and Sidis in India and Sheedis or Makrani in Pakistan. The Atlantic slave trade excised 55 million Africans (of which 40 million died) whose blood, sweat and tears laid the foundations for the development of capitalism in the America, Caribbean and Europe. This trade was no less brutal than the Arab one. Africa was denuded of its most capable people, their knowledge and its development stunted. To add insult to injury the demand for commodities led to abolishing of slavery and replaced with the direct colonisation of Africa institutionalised at the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885, leaving only Ethiopia and Liberia independent. Further exploitation and underdevelopment of Africa was effected and other lands continued benefitting from its human and material resources. African people resisted enslavement and colonialism but were eventually defeated by stronger military and economic power, betrayal and disunity and largely their welcoming nature which allowed foreigners in their lands naively believing them to be friends. But they always yearned for their freedom and this gave birth to Pan Africanism in the Diaspora, starting with the birth of Haiti first black republic in the western hemisphere, back to African movements initiated originally by white enslavers who did not want to integrate Africans after exploiting them, formation of Liberia and the fight of emancipation. Pan-Africanism aggregated the cultural legacies of Africans from past times of yore and promoted values upholding the worth of African civilisation and struggle against racism, slavery and colonialism binding African people globally in their common victimhood, whilst seeking their liberation and unity.
The United Negro Improvement Association – African Communities League
It is into this environment that Marcus Garvey was born on 17 August 1887 in Jamaica to a stone mason father and domestic worker and farmer mother, the last of 11 children. He learnt to read in his father’s expansive library, becoming a printer’s assistant at age 14 and later a foreman. He gravitated into politics and oratory from attending rallies and events organised politicians and preachers in Kingston. In 1907 he supported a workers strike in the printing factory and this led to a curtailment of his career.
Returning home after a four year odyssey through Central America and Europe in 1914 where he met various African intellectuals and discussed ideas of de-colonisation and African unity. Between 1912-13 he worked at the African Times & Orient newspaper which was edited by Duse Mohammed Ali of Egyptian and Sudanese origins and financed by west African entrepreneurs and professionals like John Eldred Taylor (Sierra Leone); J Casely-Hayford (Ghana) and with writers like Josiah Gumede (future ANC president, South Africa); Kobina Sekyi (Ghana); Muhammed Farid (Egypt); Sandara Ray (India) and; Booker T Washington, William Ferris and John E Bruce (African Americans). The newspaper sought to enhance pan-Africanism based on Africans economically liberating themselves from colonialism; whilst also engendering amicable relations between Africans and Orientals.
Marcus Garvey embarked on studying Up from Slavery the autobiography of Booker Washington (founder, Tuskegee Institute and believer in African-Americans being self-reliance and responsible for their own development), which provided the genesis for the development of his far reaching pan-African philosophy. He inquired “where is the black man's government; where is his King and his kingdom; where is his President, his ambassador, his country, his men of big affairs? I could not find them," he said, then declared, 'I will help to make them” leading to the formation of the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League (UNIA-ACL) on 20 July 1914, when he was a youthful 28 years. It is interesting that the co-founder of UNIA-ACL was a female Amy Ashwood, later his wife (for a rather brief period), yet Garvey is so gender insensitive. One could argue that he reflects the time of yore, but this does not make it right. Modelled on the Tuskegee Institute its initial vision was enhancing racial upliftment and harnessing education and industry opportunities for blacks; nurturing racial pride, economic self-sufficiency and the formation of a single united nation of Africa where its Diaspora would return. He spent two years building the organisation but made minimal progress in the political and socioeconomic space in Jamaica dominated by a White minority and mulattoes, coupled with fierce resistance from Mr Ashwood to his daughter’s association with Mr Garvey, led to his relocation to the USA in 1916, initially to meet Booker T Washington (who had unfortunately passed away the year before). In traversing the US Garvey met numerous Africa- Americans struggling to understand a country they had just fought for come abroad now baring its racist fangs - being denied equality, jobs, residence in so called white neighbourhoods etc. Many confrontations occurred often transforming into race riots. Believing that integration was impossible and that only socioeconomic, politico-cultural achievements by African-Americans would result in equality and respect, propelled Garvey to re-establish UNIA-ACL as a global organisation in 1917. Commencing with 17 members and eventually having numerous branches across the country and over 6 million members globally by 1920 spreading to Africa, Caribbean, Central America and Canada; the largest such African organisation ever.
The UNIA-ACL’s aims emphasised ‘a universal confederacy among the race, to strengthen the bonds of brotherhood and unity among the races’; to ‘promote racial pride and reclaim the fallen’; ‘to promote conscientious Christian worship among the native tribes of Africa and assist in the civilising of backward tribes of Africa’; and to establish educational facilities and ‘worldwide commercial and industrial intercourse’. It was, and one hundred years later, the only worldwide anti-imperialist movement embracing equality and self-determination for all Africans and those of African descent. (Having been away from Africa for centuries and being socialised into western values it is unsurprising that Garvey and his follower believed they should evangelise Africans into Christianity. Furthermore, it is appalling that they saw themselves like the European colonialists “civilising … backward tribes of Africa”).
In 1919 Garvey purchased an auditorium in Harlem, naming it Liberty Hall which became the UNIA-ACL headquarters. Branches operated independently in fulfilling its aims, collecting membership fees (transfering a part to headquarters), paying sickness and death benefits and embarking on commercial projects; coupled with activities centred around debates, lectures, educational classes, concerts and dances. Parades through towns featured uniformed members of UNIA-ACL women’s organisations such as the Motor Corps and Black Cross nurses, children the Juvenile Division similar to scouts and the men’s African Legion, a paramilitary force which often served to protect UNIA-ACL and local populations from the aggression of the Ku Klux Klan and similar racist forces.
A flag highlighting red for blood uniting all people of African ancestry, black the skin colour and green rich land of Africa, was created, plus poetry, prayer, slogans and songs engendering the foundation for the state of liberation – that of the mind. The working class roots of UNIA-ACL were imprinted through a washtub, frying pan, bailhook and mop seal. Meetings commenced with religious revivals, followed by day long debates, fashion shows, classical, music, plays and vaudeville act, creating a sense of belonging for people marginalised by society in general and the black elite in particular. The religious angle of the meetings emanated from Garvey recognising that African Americans were enamoured with religion and saw it as a vehicle of salvation from their trials and tribulations and the barriers of access were fewer since congregants were already operating within organised settings. Once the leadership was won over it convinced its members to join UNIA-ACL.
UNIA-ACL had numerous branches especially in South Africa, Namibia and west Africa. Many UNIA-ACL delegates visited Africa whilst the annual UNIA-ACL conventions in New York continued. The Negro World newspaper founded in 1918 served as the medium for spreading the ideas of the UNI-ACL far and wide, with a circulation of somewhere between 50,000 and 200,000 by 1920. In order to enhance economic self-help, the UNIA-ACL fostered a number of commercial ventures. In 1919, the Black Star Line, a shipping company to further trade and commerce between Africans in America, the Caribbean, South and Central America, Canada and Africa and undertake the ill-fated back to Africa repatriations was formed. Furthermore, the Negros Factories Association, a series of companies producing commodities in every substantial industrial centre in the Western hemisphere and Africa were established. Many of these ventures were poorly managed due to entrepreneurial inexperience; sabotage; poor management etc. Garvey was a great organiser and very enterprising but not a good businessman.
In August 1920, UNIA-ACL held its first international convention at Madison Square Garden in New York City attended by over 25, 000 Africans from around the world where various ideas on African culture and history were explored. Marcus Garvey spoke of having pride in African history and culture. A 54 point declaration outlining the Rights of Negro Peoples of the World was produced covering political and socioeconomic issues; encouraging upliftment of the Black race; self-reliance and global nationhood. It is the most comprehensive and universal document on the rights of African people ever produced and still very relevant 84 years later.
WEB Du Bois and other black leaders of organisations like the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, resented the strong pull of race nationalism amongst the masses and described him as the most dangerous enemy of the Negro race in America, whilst Garvey saw them as agents of the white society. In addition the US government perceived all Black radicals as subversive; European governments feared the conscientising influence UNIA-ACL would have on fermenting nationalism against their cruel, degrading and racist policies in their colonies; and communists and socialists resented the organising powers and draw on Black workers that UNIA-ACL had. Many were those who plotted the downfall of Garvey and UNIA-ACL. They worked hard in cahoots with the white security agencies to harass, persecute and prosecute Garvey. he was vindicated when American government agents destroyed the UNIA-ACL. From 1919 J Edgar Hoover of the Bureau of Investigation (now the Federal Bureau of Investigation) and six federal institutions, led a vicious campaign against Garvey for mail fraud and mismanagement of the Black Star, leading to his incarceration in 1924. Their nefarious agenda was aided by Garvey’s authoritarian nature and demand for supreme loyalty causing huge rancour, defections, dissention, plus high leadership turnover in UNIA-ACL. However, in the face of constant sabotage, infiltration and unsavoury methods to cripple the organisation his behaviour was unsurprising. He was pardoned in 1927 and deported as an undesirable alien; indeed!
The UNIA-ACL descended into a morass losing members, rising factionalism (some not supporting Garvey) and a lack of focus. Garvey’s popularity was increased by the presentation of two UNIA-ACL petitions to the League of Nations in 1922 and 1928 and again in 1929 and 1931; demanding the return of African territories confiscated from Germany at the end of the First World War to their native inhabitants. These petitions, plus 63 letters of international support for UNIA, were ignored by the League. In 1929 Garvey re-created the UNIA-ACL in Kingston, Jamaica and in 1935 moved it to London, England, where his influence waned. He was denied a passport and permission to travel to Africa by US and British authorities fearing the force of his ideas and the stirring of uprisings his presence would cause amongst oppressed peoples.
Garvey some argue out of desperation collaborated with white segregationist and supremacist Senator Theodore Bilbo, Mississippi, promoting a reparations scheme through the Greater Liberia Act of 1939 seeking to deport 12 million African-Americans to Liberia at federal expense to relieve unemployment. Much as he supported insulation of the Black race and self-reliance in developing itself, whole scale repatriation to Africa after contributing their blood, sweat and tears to developing the USA into a global giant was illogical, especially if not linked to reparations. The ridiculous law failed in Congress, losing Garvey lost huge support among blacks. Furthermore, Garvey’s support of the British empire was rightly so condemned by CLR James and George Padmore. He died in 1940 in England and had to be buried there because of travel restrictions during World War II and in 1964, two years after independence Jamaica repatriated his remains to a shrine in the National Peace Park, Kingston and proclaimed its first national hero. His two wives did travel to Africa after his death and were well received. Some Africans studying in Europe those days were influenced by his ideas and upon their return home led various independence movements. To honour Garvey, Ghana named its shipping line the Black Star Line and its national soccer team the Black Stars, whilst his bust features in the Organization of American States' Hall of Heroes in Washington, D.C.
Are Garvey’s ideas still relevant for the global African family?
The answer to the question above is an emphatic yes. Jacques-Garvey (1970), his second wife quotes Peter Abrahams, South African writer in Jamaica since 1955 writing in Public Opinion in 1956, that “Marcus Garvey can justly be regarded as a primary source of the great source freedom movements in the colonial world today” giving “to the Negroes of the twentieth century a sense of self awareness, a sense of pride and dignity that largely overcame the inferiority complex bred by centuries of racial and colour oppression.” In support of these sentiment Martin Luther King laying a wreath at Garvey’s shrine in Kingston in 1965 stating that “Garvey was the first man of color in the history of the United States to lead and develop a mass movement. …. first man, on a mass scale, and level, to give millions of Negroes a sense of dignity and destiny, and make the Negro feel that he was somebody. You gave Marcus Garvey to the United States of America, and he gave to the millions of Negroes in the United States a sense of personhood, a sense of manhood, and a sense of somebodiness.”
However, it is disappointing that over ten years since being introduced there is insufficient ratification of the protocol on the constitutive act of the AU which provides for the Diaspora as the sixth region in article 3q. Little progress has resulted in spite of the Global African Diaspora Summit of 2012 on this matter nor do the AU and South African department of International Relations and Cooperation websites indicate implementation of the summit declaration, especially its legacy projects. Civil society across Africa and the Diaspora together with other partners need to campaign vigorously for their governments not to let an more time pass without implementing the very commitments they pledged to; we cannot afford the luxury of continued talkshops and little action, whilst the goals of sustainable development and unity pass us by.
Unfortunately, because of the poor record keeping or deliberate destruction of documents many of the facts and figures about the UNIA-ACL are contested. These include dates, membership, number and location of branches, resources collected and allocated etc. Important as these issues are, more vital is that UNIA-ACL did exist and its impact was substantial during its zenith and continues to have contemporary relevance for Africa and its Diaspora. His vision, organisational and leadership skills, strong sense of identity and race pride, belief in self-reliance are all attributes that Africans globally can learn from Garvey, especially leaders struggling to give direction to their countries and the uniting of Africans across the world. As African leaders prepare to summit with president Obama in August the birth month of Garvey his vision for a united and strong global African nation must guide them in ensuring the interests of all Africans. The Phoenix must arise; the African renaissance must occur and now.
Jacques-Garvey A. (1970), Garvey and Garveyism, Collier Books, New York.
Thomas H,. (1997) The Slave Trade: the story of the Atlantic slave trade 1440-1870. Simon and Shuster, New York