Back in 1997, Elizabeth Wright had a newsletter called Issues & Views, which highlighted the Jamaican-born leader’s work.
Garvey came to the United States from Jamaica in 1916, eager to meet with and learn from Booker T. Washington, whom he considered his most important mentor. The two had carried on a correspondence and were soulmates in their belief that industry leading to wealth accumulation was the key to black independence. Unfortunately, Washington died just four months prior to Garvey's arrival, and the two never met.
It is hard to describe briefly all that Garvey accomplished because so much of what he left behind lay in intangible precepts that eventually touched millions. The major vehicle he founded was the Universal Negro Improvement Association. Unique in itself, UNIA was a sort of mass fraternal organization that promoted commerce and industry among blacks, while providing practical instruction and skills, and advocating responsible, moral behavior. (Its goals were among the noblest: "To establish educational and industrial colleges for the further education and culture of our boys and girls; To conduct a worldwide commercial and industrial intercourse; To rescue the fallen from the pit of infamy and vice.")
At the height of its influence, UNIA had branches in the United States, West Indies, Central America and Africa. Its membership numbered in the millions. Members of UNIA were motivated by pride of race and a commitment to work for the uplift of blacks around the world. Another project, the Negro Factories Corporation, a chain of businesses in Harlem, was formed with the hope of making UNIA a self-reliant entity.
But it was the Black Star Steamship Corporation that embodied Garvey's greatest hopes. And it was this enterprise that would bring about his financial downfall. The story of the shipping line, through which he had grandiose plans to unite the world's black populations via trade between the United States, Caribbean and Africa, is a story of monumental mismanagement. Its failure was inevitable, mainly due to Garvey's poor choice of associates and his misguided business policies that were more idealistic than practical.
By the 1920s, Garvey had many enemies, and had wound up on every left-wing hit list. He had to contend with federal agencies that were investigating the books of his failing shipping line. He had to counter a rising tide of black elites, for whom the government was not working fast enough in its prosecution of him. Fearful of Garvey's positions against integration, these blacks urged the Attorney General to "speedily push the government's case against Marcus Garvey," whom they referred to as the leader of a "vicious movement." Among Garvey's staunchest and most relentless enemies was the American Communist Party. For all the obvious reasons, both black and white Party members belligerently attacked his crusade to make capitalists of the black masses.
Garvey thought like a capitalist and taught blacks to do so. He once asked, "Why should not Africa give to the world its black Rockefeller, Carnegie and Henry Ford?" Imagine how the mention of such "capitalist pigs" rankled Communist sensibilities. Imagine this leader of the largest mass movement of blacks ever known teaching his followers that "Communism robs the individual of his personal initiative and ambition or the result thereof," and claiming that capitalism was "necessary to the progress of the world." And calling the enemies of capitalism "enemies of human advancement."
No group worked harder to recruit American blacks than the Communist Party. Throughout the 1920s, the Communists did all they could to capture Garvey disciples and undermine his influence. Historian Harold Cruse calls Garvey's movement "the biggest stumbling block to Communist penetration into Negro life." And adds that this was "a fact that the Communists never forgot."
Between the black elites (mainly in the NAACP), who sought to scare whites with a distorted picture of Garvey's mission, government agencies nipping at his heels, a labor movement whose leaders resented Garvey's rejection of trade unionism, and a Communist Party that worked overtime sending its black flunkies into his organizations to sabotage his efforts--Garvey didn't stand a chance. After being convicted of mail fraud and income tax evasion and having his prison sentence commuted by President Coolidge, Garvey was deported from the country in 1927.
[The story of how certain blacks of this period were putty in the hands of the country's white Communists, primarily due to these blacks' hungering after integration, is a story waiting to be told. One of the best cultural histories of these years is Harold Cruse's The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual: A Historical Analysis of the Failure of Black Leadership.]
Those in the mainstream who know about Garvey at all, know only of his call for blacks to return to Africa or of a questionable history of the African past that is attributed to him. Garvey did, indeed, mix truth with legend in his depictions of a glorious ancient Africa. He was no historian, but he believed that the disillusioned masses could best be motivated to achieve in the here and now, if they could look back with pride upon a glorious Continent filled with ancestral heroes. It was not Garvey's fault if, years later, people calling themselves "scholars" chose to pick up on the more fanciful aspects of his musings, embellishing further his myths and parables, in order to weave their strange "Afrocentric" curricula.
Garvey should be honored for the constructive role he played in inspiring a multitude of ordinary blacks to find their own bootstraps and work diligently to uplift their lives and become all-around good citizens. He should be honored especially by the descendants of those who worked so hard to defame and destroy him.
Copyright ⌐ 1997 Issues & Views