MARCUS GARVEY and the Rise of Black Nationalism

By Watson, Elwood D. | USA TODAY, November 2000 | Go to article overview

MARCUS GARVEY and the Rise of Black Nationalism


Watson, Elwood D., USA TODAY


"[Garveyism] was able to tap successfully into the ambitions and emotions of the downtrodden, the beaten, the hopeless--people whose lives were held down by class, economics, and racism."

MARCUS MOSIAH GARVEY'S campaign to promote the virtues of self-pride, self-motivation, self-sufficiency, and other progressive attributes to his brethren of African descent and the fiercely independent segregationist legacy he promoted are still being felt by a largely integrationist U.S. During the 1990s, there was a remarkable reawakening of Garvey's philosophy. Young black men and women began to become increasingly acquainted with the literature of their ancestors and contemporaries. Moreover, black writers are enjoying a renewed interest of nationalism among an eager contemporary public (including a small niche of suburban white youth) that had not been seen since the 1960s. Various entertainers and intellectuals have made a valiant effort to analyze and reexamine the legacy of Garvey, in addition to other early- and mid-20th-century black nationalists.

The years following World War I were filled with disillusionment for American blacks. U.S. involvement in that war encouraged a new wave of African-American migration out of the South. As northern industries supplied the needs of the Allies and with European immigration closed off, the nation had a demand for both skilled and unskilled labor. Black hopes raised by these opportunities were dashed as relations between the races worsened in the 1920s. After the Supreme Court declared municipal segregation ordinances unconstitutional in 1917, restricted residential covenants were drawn up by many white real estate agents. These discriminatory practices carried over into the labor force, where African-American workers were given the more menial, lower-paid, or arduous jobs.

In 1917, Garvey had opened the New York Division of the United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), which he had founded in his native Jamaica three years earlier in order to establish "a Universal Confraternity among the race," promote "the spirit of race pride and love," create "Agencies in the principal countries of the world for the protection of all Negroes irrespective of nationality," and conduct "a world-wide commercial and industrial intercourse." By the mid 1920s, the UNIA had more than 700 branches in 38 states in every section of the country (including the Deep South) and another 200 branches in the West Indies and Central and South America. In 1918, Garvey established his newspaper, the Negro World, which, by the early 1920s, had a weekly circulation of more that 50,000 and was read as far away as Africa.

In 1919, Garvey purchased an auditorium on 138th Street in Harlem, New York's largest black neighborhood, renamed it Liberty Hall, and held nightly meetings where his great eloquence transformed listeners into followers. Within a few years, he could address his fellow blacks in Liberty Halls in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Detroit, Cincinnati, Chicago, and Los Angeles. It was also during 1919 that he organized the Black Star Line of Ships, financed by the donations of his followers. Within a year, the line raised $610,000, owned three ships, and began to carry out its ultimately unsuccessful scheme of transporting passengers and cargo between the U.S., the West Indies, and Africa.

The rise of Garveyism

Garveyism and the UNIA combined the various elements of black nationalism--religious, cultural, economic, and territorial--into a distinctive blend of philosophy and agenda. Fundamental to this viewpoint was the emotive power of blackness. Garvey was a zealot who advocated self-economic determination and African redemption. Garveyism proclaimed and promoted the coming revitalization of people of color around the world and exalted the power of the black race.

The UNIA spread rapidly throughout many urban American cities, particularly New York and Chicago.

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