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Du Bois Institute

Marcus Garvey: The Harlem Years

Author(s): John Henrik Clarke
Source: Transition, No. 46 (1974), pp. 14-15+17-19
Published by: Indiana University Press on behalf of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2934951 .
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--IM- I- I' f II


John Henrik Clarke

There is now a renaissance of interest in the life of that the promise was not made to them. Marcus Garvey
Marcus Garvey. The African Independence Explosion, gave them the vision of a new dream, a new promise, and
that started in 1957 when the former West African colony a new land. He restored hope where hope had been lost.
called the Gold Coast, became an independent country, This is the real relevance of Marcus Garvey for today.
now called Ghana, helped to set this renaissance in mo-
tion. Some of Marcus Garvey's dreams about African In the years following the end of the First World War,
when America's promise to us had been betrayed, again
redemption were being realized. In his lifetime, he was a we looked once more toward Africa and dreamed of a
man who had a stubborn belief in the impossible, and
came close to achieving it. During the uncertain years that time and place where our essential manhood was not
followed the First World War, he built the largest Black questioned.
mass movement that this country has ever seen. There A leader emerged and tried to make this dream into a
was never a leader like him, before or since. His popu- reality. His name was Marcus Garvey. The personality
larity was universal, his program for the redemption of and the movement founded by Marcus Garvey, together
Africa and the return of African people to their mother- with the writers and artists of the Renaissance period,
land, shook the foundations of three empires. helped to put the community of Harlem on the map.
In nearly all matters relating to the resurgence of While the literary aspect of the Renaissance was unfold-
African people, in this country and abroad, there is re- ing, Marcus Garvey and his Universal Negro Improve-
consideration of this man in his program that seemed ment Association, using Harlem as his base of operation,
impossible in his lifetime. His prophecy has been ful- built the largest mass movement among black people
filled in the independence explosion that brought more that this country had ever seen. This movement had
than 30 African nations into being. The concept of Black international importance and was considered to be a
Power that he advocated, using other terms, is now a threat to the colonial powers of Europe which were
reality in large areas of the world where the people of entrenched in Africa.
African origin are predominant. This magnetic and compelling personality succeeded
Marcus Garvey's principal areas of agitation were the in building a mass movement after other men had failed.
Afro-American struggle in the United States, his native This may be due to the fact that he was born and reared
Caribbean Islands and the universe of Black humanity in an age of conflict that affected the world of African
everywhere. From the year of his arrival in the United peoples everywhere.
States in 1916 until his deportation in 1927, the ethnic
The appearance of the Garvey movement was perfectly
community called Harlemwas his window on the world. timed. The broken promises of the postwar period had
From this vantage point he became one of the greatfigures
ofthe 20th century. produced widespread cynicism in the Black popula-
tion which had lost some of its belief in itself as a people.
It is no accident that Marcus Garvey had his greatest Adam Clayton Powell, Sr. wrote of Garvey: "He is the
success in the United States among Black Americans in only man that made Negroes not feel ashamed of their
the community called Harlem. He came to the United color." In his book, Marching Blacks, Adam Clayton
States and began to build this movement at a time of Powell, Jr. wrote:
great disenchantment among Afro-Americans who had
Marcus Garvey was one of the greatestmass leaders of all
pursued the "American Dream," until they had to con- time. He was misunderstoodand maligned,but he brought
cede that the dream was not dreamed for them. They had to the Negro people for the first time a sense of pride in
listened to the "American Promise," and also conceded being black.

The Garvey movement had a profound effect on the In his book Souls of Black Folk, Dr. W. E. B. DuBois
political development of Harlem and on the lives of both says that the West Indians were mainly responsible for the
the Adam Clayton Powells. The fight to make Harlem a manhood program presented by the race in the early
Congressional Districl began during the Garvey period. decades of the last century. Indicative of their tendency
In his New WorldA-coming, Roi Ottley (1943) observed to blaze new paths is the achievement of John W. A.
that, Shaw of Antigua, who, in the early 90's of the last century
Garveyleapedintotheoceanof blackunhappiness at a most passed the civil service tests and became deputy commis-
timelymomentfora savior.He hadwitnessedthe Negro's sioner of taxes for the County of Queens in New York
disillusionmentmountwiththe progressof theWorldWar. State.
Negrosoldiershadsufferedall formsof Jim-Crow, humilia- In 18th century America, two of the most outstanding
slander,andevenviolenceat thehands
of a whitecivilianpopulation.Afterthe war,therewas a figures for liberty and justice were the West Indians-
resurgence of Ku Klux Klaninfluence:anotherdecadeof Prince Hall and John B. Russwurm. When Prince Hall
racialhatredandopenlawlessness hadset in, and Negroes came to the United States the nation was in turmoil. The
againwereprominent amongthevictims.Meantime, admi- colonies were ablaze with indignation. Britain, with a
nistrationleaderswerequitepointedin tryingto persuade
in the war
Negroesthat in spiteof theirfull participation series of revenue acts, had stoked the fires of colonial dis-
efforttheycouldexpectno changesin theirtraditional status content. In Virginia, Patrick Henry was speaking of
in America. liberty or death. The cry "No Taxation Without Repre-
This attitude had helped to create the atmosphere into sentation" played on the nerve strings of the nation.
which a Marcus Garvey could emerge. In many ways the Prince Hall, then a delicate-looking teenager, often walk-
scene was being prepared for Marcus Garvey for over ed through the turbulent streets of Boston, an observer
one hundred years before he was born. There is no way unobserved.
to understand this without looking at the American A few months before these hectic scenes, he had arrived
antecedents of Marcus Garvey, i.e., the men, forces and in the United States from his home in Barbados, where
movements that came before him. he had been born about 1748, the son of an Englishman
and a free African woman. He was, in theory, a free man,
but he knew that neither in Boston nor in Barbados were
During the eighteenth century there was strong agita- persons of African descent free in fact. At once, he ques-
tion among certain groups of Black people in America tioned the sincerity of the vocal white patriots of Boston.
for a return to Africa. This agitation was found mainly It never seemed to have occurred to them that the an-
among groups of 'free Negroes' because of the uncer- nounced principles motivating their action was-stronger
tainty of their position as freed men in a slaveholding argument in favor of destroying the system of slavery.
society. "One can see it late into the eighteenth century," The colonists held in servitude more than a half million
Dr. DuBois explains in his book Dusk of Dawn, "when human beings, some of them white; yet they engaged in
the Negro Union of Newport, Rhode Island, in 1788, the contradiction of going to war to support the theory
proposed to the Free African Society of Philadelphia a that all men were created equal.
general exodus to Africa on the part of at least free More than a hundred years of struggle, agitation and
Negroes" disenchantment would follow this period. When Marcus
The Back-to-Africa idea has been a recurringtheme in Garvey began his organizational work in the United
Afro-American life and thought for more than a hundred States a large number of Black Americans were willing
years. This thought was strong during the formative to listen to him.
years of the Colonization Society and succeeded in con- In Philosophyand OpinionsMarcus Garvey would later
vincing some of the most outstanding Black men of the ask himself: "Where is the black man's government?
18th and 19th centuries, such as: John Russwurm, the Where is his king and his kingdom ? Where is his president,
first Black college graduate (Bowdoin, 1820), and Lott his country and his ambassador, his army, his navy, his
Carey, the powerful Virginia preacher. Later the Society men of big affairs?" He could not answer the question
fell into severe disrepute after an argument with the affirmatively, so he decided to make the Black man's go-
Abolitionists. vernment, king and kingdom, president ana men of big
Marcus Garvey was not the first West Indian to play affairs. He taught his people to dream big again; he
a vital role in the Afro-American freedom struggle. reminded them that they had once been kings and rulers
West Indians have been coming to the United States of great nations and would be again. The cry "Up you
for over a century. The part they have played in the pro- mighty race, you can accomplish what you will" was a
gress of the Afro-American in his long march from sla- call to the Black man to reclaim his best self and re-enter
very to freedom has always been an important factor. the mainstream of world history. When Marcus Garvey
More important is the fact that the most outstanding of came to the United States in 1916, World War I had
these Caribbean-Americanssaw their plight and the plight already started. The migration of Black workers from
of the Afro-American as being one ai d the same. the South to the new war industries in the North and
As early as 1827, a Jamaican, John B. Russwurm, one eastern parts of the United States was in full swing. Dis-
of the founders of Liberia, was the first colored man to be satisfaction, discontent, and frustration among millions
graduated from an American college and to publish a of Black Americans were acceleratingthis migration. The
newspaper in this country; 16 years later his fellow atmosphere and the condition was well prepared for the
countryman, Peter Ogden, organized in New York City message and the program of Marcus Garvey.
the first Odd-Fellows Lodge for Negroes. Prior to the
Civil War, West Indian coi tribution to the progress of *
Afro-American life was one of the main contributing He came to the United States in 1916, one year after the
factors in the fight for freedom and full citizenship in the death of Booker T. Washington. He had exchanged cor-
northern part of the United States. respondence with Booker T. Washington with the hope

of securing some means to build, in Jamaica, a school He organized, very boldly, the Black Star Line, a
similar to Tuskegee in Alabama. Unfortunately, Booker steamship company for transporting cargoes of African
T. Washington had died the previous year. produce to the United States, and because of this spread
Marcus Garvey's plans for the self-determination of rapidly throughout the Caribbean area and Central and
his people are outlined in the following excerpts from South America, among West Indian migrant laborers.
And due to the effectivenessof the American mass media
"Aims and Objects of Movement for Solution of Negro of communication, it penetrated into the continent of
Problem" issued by Marcus Garvey as President- Africa.
General of Universal Negro Improvement Association,
1924. One year after he entered the United States, in 1917, he
The UniversalNegro ImprovementAssociationis an orga- made a speaking tour of the principal cities, building up a
nization among Negroes that is seekingto improvethe con- national following. By 1919 he had branches well esta-
a Nationin
ditionof the race,withthe viewof establishing blished all over the world preparingto send delegates and
Africa where Negroes will be given the opportunity to
develop by themselves,withoutcreatingthe hatredand ani- representatives of fraternal organizations to "the first
mosity that now exist in countriesof the white race through International Convention of the Negro Peoples of the
Negroes rivalingthem for the highest and best positions in World," which was held in August 1920 in New York
government, politics,societyand industry.Thisorganiza- City.
tionbelievesin therightsof allmen,yellow,whiteandblack.
To us, the white race has a right to the peacefulpossession The first public mass meeting was held at Madison
and occupationof countriesof its own and in like manner
the yellow and black races have their rights .. Only by an Square Garden -the largest auditorium in the state, and
honest and liberalconsiderationof such rightscan the world white reporters conceded that about 25,000 assembled
be blessed with the peace that is sought by Christiantea- inside the auditorium, and there was an overflow standing
chersand leaders. in the streets.
The SpiritualBrotherhoodof Man. The following pre-
amble to the Constitution of the organization speaks for The significance of this thirty-day convention was that
itself: The Universal Negro ImprovementAssociation and for the first time representatives of African people from
African Communities'Leagueis a social, friendly,humani- all over the world met in sessions to report on conditions
tarian, charitable, educational, institutional, constructive,
and expansive society and is founded by persons, desiring under which they lived-socially, economically and
to the utmost, to work for the general uplift of the Negro politically-and to discuss remedial measures.
peoples of the world. And the memberspledge themselves
to do all in theirpowerto conservethe rightsof all mankind, After the historic First UNIA International Conven-
believingalwaysin the Brotherhoodof Man and the Father- tion of the Negro Peoples of the World in 1920, the cry,
hood of God. The motto of the organizationis: One God!
One Aim! One Destiny! Therefore,let justice be done to "Africa for the Africans, those at home and those
all mankind,realizingthat if the strongoppressesthe weak, abroad," became part of the folklore of the Black
confusion and discontentwill ever mark the path of man, Americans. The most important document that came
but with love, faith and charitytowardall, the reignof peace out ot this convention was the Declaration of the Rights
and plenty will be heraldedinto the world and the genera-
tions of men shall be called Blessed. of the Negro Peoples of the World. Marcus Garvey had
The declaredObjectsof the Associationare: To establish started negotiations with the President of Liberia for
a Universal Confraternityamong the race; to promote the colonization and development of Africa by Western
spiritof prideandlove;to reclaimthe fallen;to administer world Blacks. This was the beginning of the hope and
to andassistthe needy,to assistin civilizingthe backward heartbreak of Marcus Garvey's colonization scheme.
tribesof Africa;to assistin thedevelopmentof Independent
Negro Nationsand Communities; to establisha central Between 1920 and 1925 the Garvey Movement rose to
nationfortherace;to establishComrrissionaries orAgencies
in the principalcountriesand citiesof the worldfor the great heights and in spite of its troubles, continued to
representationof all Negroes. grow. This is the period in which the Movement had its
The early twenties were times of change and accom- greatest success and was under the severest criticism. The
plishment in the Harlem community. It was the period Convention of 1920 was a monumental achievement in
when Harlem was literally put on the map. Two events Black organization. This convention came in the years
made this possible: a literary movement known as the after the First World War, when the promises to Black
Harlem Renaissance and the emergence in Harlem of the Americans had been broken, lynching was rampant, and
magnetic and compelling personality of Marcus Garvey. when Blacks were still recovering from "the red summer
He was the most seriously considered and the most color- of 1919," in which there were race riots in most of the
ful of the numerous black Manassehs who presented major cities and the white unemployed took out their
themselves and their grandiose programs to the people of grievances on the Blacks, who many times were com-
Harlem. peting with them for the few availablejobs. During this
Marcus Garvey's reaction to color prejudice and his time, Marcus Garvey brought the Black Star Line into
search for a way to rise above it and lead his people back being and into a multiplicity of troubles. He divorced
his wife and married another, and made his name and
to Africa, spiritually if not physically, was the all-con- his organization household words in nearly every part
suming passion of his existence. His glorious and ro- of the world where Black people lived.
mantic movement exhorted the Black people of the world
and fixed their eyes on the bright star of a future in which The trials and tribulations of the Black Star Line would
they could reclaim and rebuild their African homeland read like the libretto of a comic opera, except the events
and heritage. were both hectic and tragic, and there were more villains
than heroes involved in this attempt to restore to Black
Garvey succeeded in building a mass movement among people a sense of worth and nationness.
American Blacks while other leaders were attempting
it and doubting that it could be done. He advocated the Marcus Garvey's trouble with the courts started soon
return of Africa to the Africans and people of African after the formation of the Black Star Line. The charges
descent. and counter-chargesrelating to the Black Star Line were


the basisof most of his troublesand the causeof his con- proudlywaved the Association'sflag (black for Negro
viction and being sent to AtlantaPrison. This was the skin, greenfor Negro hopes, and red for Negro blood).
beginningof the end of the greatestyearsof the Garvey Neveragainwas the raceto havea leaderwho couldpro-
Movement. duce such a wonderfulshow."
The yearsof triumphand tragedywerebuildingyears, DuBoispubliclyignoredGarveyuntilDecemberof 1920
searchingyears and years of magnificentdreaming. and this tardinessof editorialrecognitionwas probably
MarcusGarvey'svision of Africahad lifted the spiritof due to the Crisiseditor'sambivalencetowardhim. Du-
BlackAmericansout of the Depressionthat followedthe Bois was profoundlyimpressed'by "this extraordinary
First World War. The UNIA's African Legions and leaderof men," and he acknowledgedthat Garveywas
BlackCrossNursesbecamefamiliarsightson the streets "essentiallyan honestandsincereman witha tremendous
of Harlem. The UNIA grewin membershipand in sup- vision,greatdynamicforce, stubborndeterminationand
port of all kinds. Garveywas the beatingheart of the unselfishdesireto serve."However,the Crisiseditoralso
movement.His persuasivevoiceandprolificwritingsand consideredhim to be:
his effectiveuse of pageantrystrucka responsivechord ... dictatorial, vainandverysus-
domineering, inordinately
throughout the Black communities of America and picious... Thegreatdifficulty withhimis thathe hasabso-
abroad. Branchesof the Movementwere established lutelyno businesssense,no flairfor realorganization and
in Latin America,wherevertherewere large Caribbean his generalobjectsare so shot throughwith bombastand
communities.An AfricanOrthodoxChurchwasfounded exaggerationthatit is difficultto pinthemdownfor careful
in America. Now the Blackmanwas searchingfor a new
God, as well as a new land. The following month, after DuBois had requested (and
failed to receive) a financial statement from the Jamaican
The GarveyMovementbegan to take effectiveroots on the Negro Improvement Association and the Black
in Americawhen millions of Blackshad begun to feel Star Line, the Crisis editor wrote: "When it comes to
that they would neverknow full citizenshipwith dignity Mr Garvey's industrial and commercial enterprises there
in this countrywheretheir ancestorshad been brought is more ground for doubt and misgiving than in the mat-
againsttheirwill, and wherethey had contributedto the ter of his character."
wealthand developmentof the countryin spiteof condi-
tions of previousservitude. Againstthis backgroundof At least once DuBois entertained the idea that his own
brokenpromisesand fadinghope, MarcusGarveybegan hopes for Africa's reclamation and an international
to build a world-wideBlack movement. This, the first Black economy could be achieved through Garvey's mass
Blackmass protestcrusadein the historyof the United appeal. The two men were not strangers to each other
Statesbeganto pose seriousproblemsfor whiteAmerica. before Garvey came to the United States in 1916. In the
This movementalso posed seriousproblemsfor the then years between their first meeting and the eve of the Second
existingBlack leadership,especiallyfor Dr. W. E. B. Pan-AfricanCongress,DuBois had built a Black intel-
DuBois. lectualmovement,while Garveyhad built a Blackmass
In the article,"DuBois VersusGarvey:Race Propa-
gandistsat War,"the writerElliottM. Rudnickoutlines Garvey and his movement had a short and spectacular
the originsof the conflictbetweenthesetwo Blackgiants life spanin the UnitedStates. His movementtook really
who looked at the world from differentvantagepoints. effectiveformin the UnitedStatesin about 1919,and by
Both of themwerePan-Africanists and both of themhad 1926 he was in a Federal prison, charged with misusing
as theirobjectivesthe freedomandredemptionof African the mails. From prison he was deported home to Ja-
maica. This is, briefly, the essence of the Garvey saga in
people everywhere. Yet, there was no meetingof the America.
mindson the methodsof reachingthese desirablegoals,
In the articleRudnicksays: "Unlike DuBois, Marcus MarcusGarvey,who was duly elected ProvisionalPresi-
Garveywas able to gain mass supportand his propa- dent of Africa by his followers, was never allowed to set
ganda had a tremendousemotionalappeal. He esta- foot on Africansoil. He spokeno Africanlanguage.But
blished the UniversalNegro ImprovementAssociation Garvey managedto conveyto Africanpeopleeverywhere
in New York (with branchesin many U.S. cities and (and to the rest of the world)his passionatebelief that
severalforeigncountries). The aim of the organization Africa was the home of a civilizationwhich had once
was the liberationof Africa. By 1919,he set up the Black been great and would be great again. When one takes
Star Line and the Negro Factories Corporation. In into considerationthe slendernessof Garvey'sresources
August, 1920, Garveycalled a month-longconvention and the vast material forces, social conceptions and
of the U.N.I.A. in New York City. In the name of imperialinterestswhichautomaticallysoughtto destroy
'400,000,000Negroes of the World,' he declaredthat him, his achievementremainsone of the great propa-
Africamust be free. He did not botherto displaythe gandamiraclesof thiscentury.
restraintwhich characterizedPan-Africanleaders and
Garvey's voice reverberated inside Africa itself. The
manyof his remarkswereinflammatory.He warnedthat King of Swaziland later told Mrs Marcus Garvey that he
his race was preparedto shed its blood to removethe knew the names of only two Black men in the Western
whitesfromthe natives'rightfullandin Africa. His con- world: Jack Johnson, the boxer who defeated the white
ventiondelegatesandmembersparadedthroughHarlem. man JimJeffries,and MarcusGarvey. Fromhis narrow
Tensof thousandsof Negroeswereexcitedby the massed
unitsof the AfricanLegionin blueand red uniformsand vantage point in Harlem, Marcus Garvey became a
the white-attiredcontingentsof the BlackCrossNurses. worldfigure.
Garvey's followers sang the new U.N.I.A. anthem, After years of neglect, new interest in the life and
'Ethiopia, Thou Land of Our Fathers' and they ideas of this remarkableman has created a Marcus

Garvey Renaissance. In his homeland, Jamaica, he has overstated, gave the movement a broader and more
been proclaimed a national hero. All over the Black colorful base, and may have extended its life span. The
world he is being reconsidered with respect and reve- movement was the natural and logical result of years of
rence. His greatness lies in the fact that he was daring neglect, suppression, and degradation. Black Americans
enough to dream of a better future for Black people, were projecting themselves as human beings and de-
wherever they live on this earth. manding that their profound humaneness be accepted.
It was the first time a large number of Black writers,
The Garvey movement began to fragment and decline
artists, and intellectuals took a unified walk into the
concurrently with the end of the Harlem Renaissance. North American sun.
This period had a meaning that is generally missed by
The Black nationalists and freedom fighters before and
most people who write about it. This movement had after Marcus Garvey were saying, no more or less than
indigenous roots and it could have existed without the what Garvey had said in word and deed: "Up! Up! You
concern and interest of white people. This concern, often mighty race. You can accomplish what you will."[]

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