On this date, 123 years ago, a great world leader was born in St. Ann’s Bay, Jamaica. At one time, he was the most talked-about Black man on the planet, but he died in 1940 a largely forgotten figure on the world scene. Nevertheless, Marcus Mosiah Garvey, the “Father of African Nationalism,” remains one of the most influential sons of Africa in all history.
His influence can be seen in the organization of the Nation of Islam; the inspiration for leaders such as Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya (as well as the colors of their nations’ flags); the African-African American Summits and self-help philosophy of Reverend Leon H. Sullivan, and even non-African leaders such as Ho Chi Mihn of Vietnam, who observed Garveyism during his time in New York City.
Marcus Garvey arrived in America in 1916 at a critical time in our history. The post-civil War freedoms won had been eroded by racist government officials who created laws limiting the rights of Black Americans and vicious white mobs that lynched and otherwise killed thousands of Black people. There was an effort to win the freedom of Black people, but it was split among those who wanted to play down political rights to concentrate on economic self-sufficiency and those who believed a “talented tenth” could be the vanguard of a resurgence of Black political power.
Like Prince Hall, Martin Delaney, Edward Wilmot Blyden and Henry Highland Garnet before him, Garvey advocated the involvement of the entire African Diaspora in the affairs of Africa, most of which was under European colonial rule at that point. However, Garvey took that view further, espousing a Pan-African mass movement to free Africa and create a universal Black nation. “Africa for the Africans…those at home and those abroad,” he said.
Like the Hebrew patriarch Moses, Garvey would lead his people to the Promised Land, but not get there himself. He died in 1940, more than a decade before the wave of freedom that swept across Africa and saw all of its nations become independent. In this year in which we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the independence of 17 African nations, how many of us give due credit to the man who stimulated both Africans and the Diaspora to seek freedom?
He had come to America to raise money for a Jamaican school to be modeled after Tuskegee Institute. However, America and its Black crisis attracted him. He began a series of speeches on the race problem that started slowly in New York, but by the time he had gone down the Atlantic seaboard and over to New Orleans, he had created a legend. In 1920, his Universal Negro Improvement Association claimed four million members. Garvey’s International Congresses in New York drew tens of thousands of delegates from across America, the Caribbean, Central and South America and Africa.
While some focused on the educated, professional class, Garvey spoke to the average Black man and woman. His economic ventures, including a shipping company, factories, restaurants and other businesses were initially well-received and successful among Black people. In fact, he was the first Black leader to get our people to invest in their own future. Unfortunately, there were those among us who saw him as dangerous.
The focus among the existing Black leaders of America was on incrementally gaining rights and fighting the hated Jim Crow laws. While this was a laudable goal, the established leaders considered this Jamaican interloper presumptuous and criticized what some would consider his “folderol and glitter.” The grandiosity of the Garvey trappings at his mass meetings was part of what attracted his many supporters. They wanted to be part of something larger than themselves, something that spoke of the grand history of the African people. They responded to his credo: “Up, you mighty race, accomplish what you will.” Garveyism resonated then with Black people and continues to do so today, even if many of us don’t realize it.
There is a misconception that the entire focus of Garveyism was on a “back to Africa” movement, but he said he never intended for all Black people to return to their ancestral home. Garvey believed the Black nation should know no boundaries and should embrace the Diaspora worldwide. Still, he supported those who wanted to return to Africa and help build the continent.
In Garvey’s day, Black people didn’t normally work in concert across organizations, regions or social status. That is not the case today. African nations are working slowly, but surely, on a plan to create a United States of Africa. Here in America, the Black Leadership Forum was created in the 1970s as a clearinghouse for Black organizations and continues to join the strength of dozens of Black organizations to press for solutions to issues of concern to our people. In the 21st century, the African American Unity Caucus was established to join dozens of Black-led organizations focusing on Africa and the nations of the Diaspora. Cooperation, not competition, has become the byword of the African Diaspora.
“Look for me in the whirlwind or the storm,” Garvey said. Indeed, the winds of change are blowing ever stronger, as the Black world Garvey foresaw nearly a century ago is now taking shape. It is the mark of a great leader that his vision carries on after he is gone and resonates with those who never knew him. To borrow a portion of a great speech by the late Senator Ted Kennedy, for Garvey “the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.”