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

Article excerpt

Grassroots Garveyism: The Universal Negro Improvement Association in the Rural South, 1920-1927. By Mary G. Rolinson. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007. Pp. xii, 286. Acknowledgments, illustrations, maps, appendices, notes, bibliography, index. $59.95, cloth; $22.50, paper.)

Marcus Garvey's program for racial advancement, which gained currency during the post-World War I era, is typically associated with urban black northerners, but Garveyism also enjoyed widespread support among rural black southerners, including many in Arkansas. In Grassroots Garveyism, historian Mary G. Rolinson looks carefully at the landless black farmers of the cotton belt who embraced Garveyism and joined the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). By studying these local activists, Rolinson aims to provide a more detailed portrait of Garveyites and a deeper understanding of the evolution of Garveyism.

Long before Garveyism became popular, rural black southerners had accepted its ideological underpinnings. Rolinson is aware of the importance of rural black southerners' political history, and, as a result, she begins her study by examining Garveyism's antecedents, which she identifies as emigrationism, economic self-reliance, race pride, and Christian missionary work in Africa. Rolinson documents the enthusiasm that rural black southerners exhibited for these ideas by detailing the organizing activities of African-American educators, missionaries, and emigration advocates who worked extensively in future Garvey strongholds. She pays particular attention to Booker T. Washington, the founder of Tuskegee Institute, and to Rev. Henry McNeal Turner, the outspoken bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal church. By unearthing rural African Americans' deeply rooted interest in the core components of Garvey's program, Rolinson establishes the foundation for the resonance of Garveyism below the Mason-Dixon Line.

In charting the spread of Garveyism in the South, Rolinson is careful not to treat the region as a monolith. She shows a keen understanding of the differences in the ways that African Americans negotiated Jim Crow in coastal cities and interior towns and in urban centers and rural hamlets. This appreciation adds significant depth to her discussion of the organizing lessons that Garvey learned from his initial forays into metropolitan Virginia, Florida, and North Carolina. Above all else, explains Rolinson, Garvey's experiences in the urban South taught him to choose his organizers wisely and to deal with white authorities pragmatically. This perspective also frames her treatment of the uneven growth of Garveyism in the cotton belt, which she attributes to limited organizational resources, rather than to local disinterest. …


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