Grassroots Garveyism: The Universal Negro Improvement Association in the Rural South, 1920-1927

Grassroots Garveyism: The Universal Negro Improvement Association in the Rural South, 1920-1927

Grassroots Garveyism: The Universal Negro Improvement Association in the Rural South, 1920-1927

Grassroots Garveyism: The Universal Negro Improvement Association in the Rural South, 1920-1927


The black separatist movement led by Marcus Garvey has long been viewed as a phenomenon of African American organization in the urban North. But as Mary Rolinson demonstrates, the largest number of Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) divisions and Garvey's most devoted and loyal followers were found in the southern Black Belt. Tracing the path of organizers from northern cities to Virginia, and then from the Upper to the Deep South, Rolinson remaps the movement to include this vital but overlooked region.

Rolinson shows how Garvey's southern constituency sprang from cities, countryside churches, and sharecropper cabins. Southern Garveyites adopted pertinent elements of the movement's ideology and developed strategies for community self-defense and self-determination. These southern African Americans maintained a spiritual attachment to their African identities and developed a fiercely racial nationalism, building on the rhetoric and experiences of black organizers from the nineteenth-century South. Garveyism provided a common bond during the upheaval of the Great Migration, Rolinson contends, and even after the UNIA had all but disappeared in the South in the 1930s, the movement's tenets of race organization, unity, and pride continued to flourish in other forms of black protest for generations.


The stubborn fact remains that a man of a disadvantaged group, by
his almost unsupported strength and personal magnetism, has founded
so large a power in the English-speaking world as to add to the current
vocabulary of that language a new word, “Garveyism.”

William Pickens, the Nation, 28 December 1921

Garveyism did not disappear after Marcus Garvey’s deportation from the United States in 1927. Although it now goes by different names, Garveyism’s meanings remain essential to popular black nationalism and fundamental to many other strands of contemporary black thought. Garvey, a Jamaican of African ancestry, spread this ideology during World War I while promoting the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) as a worldwide race uplift organization for millions of people in the African diaspora. the founder’s voracious reading and shrewd observation of successful black leaders of his time informed his potent synthesis of ideas and strategies. Ultimately, through talented organizers and the wide circulation of his Negro World newspaper, Garvey connected with thousands of laboring blacks around the world, most significantly in the United States.

Marcus Garvey was born in 1887 in St. Ann’s Bay, a town on the north shore of the British West Indian colony of Jamaica. His aloof father was a bricklayer and an avid reader, and his doting, deeply religious mother came from a family of peasant farmers. in 1914, at the age of twenty-seven, Garvey founded the unia and African Communities League in Jamaica. After traveling to the United States, he reincorporated the organization in New York in July 1918. the unia reached its pinnacle of membership and influence in 1921 and 1922 with over a thousand divisions in the United States, Canada, the West Indies, South America, Africa, Europe, and Australia. By 1927, when its leader was only fortyone years old, the organization had become fragmented, and Garvey had been deported to Jamaica. Although short-lived and meteoric, the Garvey movement is widely recognized as the first global expression of popular black nationalism. Its endurance in black thought and influence on subsequent protest movements deserves greater recognition and explanation.

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.