Marcus Garvey was an incredible leader in the history of the African Liberation Movement who built an organization with a membership of millions of Africans around the world.
Each August, growing numbers of Africans around the world celebrate the birth of Marcus Mosiah Garvey who was born on August 17, 1887 in St. Ann’s Bay, Saint Ann, Jamaica.
The celebration of Garvey’s birth date is due to the fact that since the attack on Africa that led to the capture, dispersal and enslavement of millions of Africans and the colonization and balkanization of Africa, no African has been more instrumental in creating the vision of a free and liberated Africa and African people. No African has been more successful in setting the example for organized resistance that would result in the liberation and unification of Africa and African people everywhere.
Garvey, more than anyone, contributed to the ideas advancing the existence of African people as a dispersed nation to be liberated from imperialism and served by our own all-African government in Africa.
In 1914, Garvey organized the Universal Negro Improvement Association in Jamaica. At the time, the UNIA was conceived as a fraternal reform association that would work for the upliftment of African people through the creation of educational institutions and industrial opportunities. However, it was only after his relocation to Harlem in 1916 that the organization began to achieve rapid growth.
By 1920, there were more than a thousand UNIA branches and divisions around the world. In August of 1920 at its first convention, held in Madison Square Garden in New York, more than 25,000 Africans from Africa and virtually everywhere else Africans had been forcibly dispersed, came together in a month-long display of unity and organization never before witnessed by Africans or anyone else.
The UNIA, which would become the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League, was comprised of members and followers who were mostly working class. This was one of the most important reasons for its strength, estimated at being from 6 to 11 million members and followers, and also one of the reasons it was greatly feared and hated by various imperialist governments and significant sectors of African middle class leadership, most of whom saw assimilation into U.S. imperialist society as the only way to achieve their aspirations.
Garvey makes incredible accomplishment in building steamship line
In 1919, the UNIA founded the Black Star Line Steamship Corporation. This was one of several ventures that included the Universal Printing House, the Negro Factories Corporation, and the Negro World Newspaper, printed in three languages.
All of these were among the efforts to create an economy around which the oppressed and dispersed African nation would be organized. Central to these efforts was the Black Star Line that was to initiate trade between Africans worldwide.
The Black Star Line venture failed because of a number of factors including inexperience on the part of Garvey and the UNIA. And, while the ineptitude of Garvey and the UNIA is something all his detractors, then and now, love to expound on as being the reason for the failure of the Black Star Line, this explanation overlooks the fact that this was not the primary reason for its failure. It also overlooks the significance of the creation of the Black Star Line.
The fact is that Garvey and the UNIA built a steam ship line in 1919 when almost the whole African world lived under white colonial domination, the exceptions being the nominal independence of Liberia and Ethiopia. Additionally, this was only a little more than 50 years after the formal emancipation of enslaved Africans in the U.S. and during the year that was the bloodiest in post-emancipation America in terms of anti-African terror launched by whites in the U.S.
Clearly, this was not a sign of ineptitude. If anything, it was miraculous.
Also, the hostility of the U.S. and white society to African economic advancement during the period is revealed in the fact that only two years after the launching of the Black Star Line, the Black Wall Street in Tulsa, Oklahoma was attacked and bombed, destroying it. Today no one claims that the destruction in Tulsa was due to the ineptitude of the African business people there.
No. Ineptitude was not the primary factor in the failure of the Black Star Line. The most critical factor in its failure was the active opposition and sabotage by the U.S. government, the white left, and the African petty bourgeoisie. The Communist Party USA worked tirelessly to undermine Garvey while the NAACP and W.E.B. Du Bois actively sought the support of the U.S. attorney general to acquire a ship that could be used to destroy the Black Star Line.
Along with the white left and African petty bourgeois active opposition, the Bureau of Investigation (precursor to the FBI), launched its own vicious campaign to rid the imperialist world of Marcus Garvey and the UNIA. In 1922, Garvey would be indicted by the U.S. government on contrived charges of using the mail to defraud through sale of the Black Star Line stock.
Though the charge was politically motivated and facilitated by agents who worked within the Black Star Line for the U.S. government, Garvey was tried and imprisoned in 1925. He spent two years in prison before being released and deported to Jamaica.
The movement that Garvey led would never be the same after his imprisonment and deportation. Agents and opportunists within the organization and enemies without were finally able to render the UNIA ineffective. Garvey, from his location in Jamaica and separated from the connections and membership in the U.S. — which was then becoming a major imperialist center — was unable to effectively defend the organization. On June 10, 1940, Marcus Mosiah Garvey died in relative obscurity in London, England.
“The fact is that Garvey and the UNIA built a steam ship line in 1919 when almost the whole African world lived under white colonial domination… only a little more than 50 years after the formal emancipation of enslaved Africans in the U.S.”
Garvey initiated process of creating a united, liberated Africa that influenced other oppressed peoples’ struggles
However, the legacy of Marcus Garvey lives today. And it should, despite the barrage of slander that had been unleashed against him when alive and despite the efforts by U.S. and European imperialists and African petty bourgeois liberals to erase him from history.
Garvey was not only the man who moved toward constructing a unifying national economy and a vision for African liberation, unification and redemption. He was also voted by oppressed Africans from around the world as the provisional president of Africa when Africa suffered under the boot of direct white power colonialism.
Garvey began creating all the organizations and symbols of State power to be exercised by an independent African people. He initiated a process in Liberia, where he bought land and sent a construction expedition that would create a beachhead from which the struggle to free Africa could be launched.
The great meetings of the Garvey movement at its Liberty Halls, especially in New York, would become of major interest to all imperialists. Not only were Africans from throughout the world, especially seamen, constantly visiting these meetings, but also other oppressed people and their developing leaders, such as Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh who regu larly attended Garvey meetings.
The Negro World also became a major irritant to imperialists. During the period of the resistance to U.S. imperialism in Nicaragua during the 1920s, the Negro World became a means through which followers of the anti-imperialist Nicaraguan revolutionary leader Augusto Sandino would communicate and advance their ideas.
On August 13, 1920, the UNIA adopted the Declaration of Rights of The Negro Peoples of the World. The significance of this declaration resonates today, some 86 years later. Among the complaints laid out in the declaration is Point 3 which declares, “That European nations have parceled out among them and taken possession of nearly all of the continent of Africa, and the natives are compelled to surrender their lands to aliens and are treated in most instances like slaves.”
Among the rights advanced by the declaration is this one that declares, “that Negroes, wheresoever they form a community among themselves should be given the right to elect their own representatives to represent them in Legislatures, courts of law, or such institutions as may exercise control over that particular community…
“…We believe that the Negro should adopt every means to protect himself against barbarous practices inflicted upon him because of color…
“…We believe in the freedom of Africa for the Negro people of the world…
“…We strongly condemn the cupidity of those nations of the world who, by open aggression or secret schemes, have seized the territories and inexhaustible natural wealth of Africa, and we place on record our most solemn determination to reclaim the treasures and possession of the vast continent of our forefathers…
“…We believe in the self-determination of all peoples…
“…We demand complete control of our social institutions without interference by any alien race or races…
“…That the colors, Red, Black and Green, be the colors of the Negro race…
“…We proclaim the 31st day of August of each year to be an international holiday to be observed by all Negroes…
“…We want all men to know that we shall maintain and contend for the freedom and equality of every man, woman and child of our race, with our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor…”
These select quotes from the extensive declaration help us to understand the significance of the vision and the organizational efforts of the movement founded and led by Marcus Garvey. They also help to explain why the legacy of Garvey is eternal.
Political movement of Pan Africanism born in opposition to Garvey
Today, with the crisis-ridden imperial white power groaning in response to the efforts of the oppressed peoples of the world to free ourselves from its domination, more and more of the African middle class or petty bourgeoisie are also looking toward Africa and some form of African unity.
In many ways, this is similar to the time of Garvey when for a time the imperialists were engaged in the first imperialist war to divide the world among themselves and oppressed peoples everywhere were attempting to forge their own path to freedom from colonial domination.
The power of the Garvey legacy has resulted in an effort by some, especially petty bourgeois African liberals, to lump Garvey and Du Bois together as founding fathers of practical, political, Pan Africanism. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Garvey was not a Pan Africanist. In fact, Pan Africanism, as a political movement, was formed by Du Bois and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). It was founded in opposition to the Garvey movement and as part of the overall imperialist-led struggle that led to its demise.
Both Du Bois and Garvey were always clear that they were opponents. In a June 20, 1921 letter to the New York Age and quoted in Volume III of the Marcus Garvey Papers edited by Robert Hill, Du Bois writes, “Bishop Smith mingles the Pan African Congress and the Garvey movement as practically one idea. This is a grave mistake. The Pan African Congress has nothing to do with any ‘Africa for the Africa[ns]’ movement. The object of the Pan African Congress is simply to bring representatives of the various people of African descent into knowledge and common acquaintanceship, so that out of such conferences general policies and actions can be evolved…
Marcus Garvey built a single international economic capacity for African people in the early 1900s that has not yet been duplicated. This was one of many aspects of Garvey’s work to consolidate our single African nation.
“Garvey was not a Pan Africanist. In fact, Pan Africanism, as a political movement, was formed by Du Bois and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). It was founded in opposition to the Garvey movement and as part of the overall imperialist-led struggle that led to its demise.”
“Many colored persons know this, but have been restrained by the Garvey movement. Mr. Garvey’s African program has been dangerous, ill-considered, impracticable, and for that reason the Pan African Congress has not invited him to participate. On the other hand we must be generous enough to give Mr. Garvey the credit of having foreseen the necessity of union in business and social uplift between all the African people. He is not the man to carry this out because he lacks poise and business ability…”
Garvey, quoted in the same book on page 583, introduced this resolution during his opening address at the August 1921 UNIA convention:
“Be it resolved: That we, the duly elected representatives of the Negro peoples of the world, from North America, South America, Central America, West Indies, Asia, Europe, Australia and Africa, assembled in open conclave on this day of August, 1921, at the 12th Regiment Armory, New York City, United States of America…do hereby place on record our repudiation of a Pan African Congress to be held in London, England…
“Our repudiation of this Congress, as representatives of the Negro peoples of the world, is based on the fact that W.E.B. Du Bois, secretary of the so-called Pan African Congress, and those associated with him, are not representatives of the struggling peoples of the world, and that the men who have called the said Congress have not consulted with the Negro peoples of the world of their intention, and have received no mandate from the said people to call a Congress in their name…
“That we believe the motives of the Congress are to undermine the true feeling and sentiment of the Negro race for complete freedom in their own spheres, and for a higher social order among themselves, as against a desire among a certain class of Negroes for social contact, comradeship and companionship with the white race…”
There is no confusion here, by either Du Bois or Garvey. Moreover, a careful reading of the statements from both men will reveal the class bias of each.
Du Bois, with his concern for Garvey’s lack of poise and his begrudging and cynical praise for Garvey’s recognition for “union in business,” speaks volumes of his class sympathies as does Garvey’s complaint that Du Bois and his cohorts “are not representatives of the struggling peoples of the world.”
The imprisonment and deportation of Garvey were necessary for the development of the Pan Africanist movement which, up to then, was simply a gathering of a handful of African intellectuals, some of whom, like Blaise Diagne in France, actually worked for imperialist governments.
With Garvey’s forced removal from the scene, many people joined the Pan Africanist movement out of confusion while some others, like Garvey’s wife Amy Jaques Garvey, joined in 1945 in an effort to advance the work of her late husband.
Garvey’s work continues on in work to build the African Socialist International
We, of the African People’s Socialist Party, are African Internationalists, followers of Garvey who continue to develop his ideas to make them consistent with the times in which we live.
Our opposition to Pan Africanism is not opposition to the literal translation of the words, which simply mean “all-African.” Our opposition is to what Pan Africanism is as a political expression.
People like Du Bois, and later George Padmore, created Pan Africanism as something petty bourgeoisie in outlook, pacifist and parliamentarian in tactics and strategy, anti-communist and neocolonialist in worldview.
However, for most people, Pan Africanism is whatever its advocates want it to be. It is not a theory, so much as it is a belief in the solidarity of African people worldwide, without regard for issues of class or practical program to liberate and unite Africa and African people in a revolutionary struggle against imperialism.
There have been many brilliant, heroic Pan Africanists. They include giants like Kwame Nkrumah, Patrice Lumumba, Walter Rodney and Mangaliso Sobukwe. However, most of the difficulties and disasters that destroyed these courageous leaders and their movements, Rodney being a possible exception, came as a result of their adherence to the Pan African values that came from Du Bois and Padmore.
We believe that the efforts to build the African Socialist International, a single organization of African revolutionaries committed to the struggle to liberate and unite Africa and African people under the leadership of the African working class and to create a socialist United States of Africa is Garveyism in the era of imperialism in crisis.
For the African People’s Socialist Party the celebration of the legacy of Garvey means that we should live like him and fight to accomplish his vision in our lifetime. We call on all others who would be like Garvey and who go beyond the annual process of paying homage to a deceased Garvey, to join us in building the ASI, our greatest testimony to the fact that Garvey lives!
One Africa! One Nation!