Despite his profound status as the most significant black leader of the twentieth century, embarrassingly little is known about Garvey outside of academia. But as anthropologist Joel Augustus Rogers notes in his homage to this iconoclastic figure, Garvey inspired a spirit of hope in people of African descent that the most virulent form of racism could never quench:
He stirred the blacks in the New World and parts of Africa to feel that in spite of the white man’s vilifying of them they were human beings just the same. In other words, he gave them back self-respect and opened for them windows of hope that would never be closed.
Garvey’s seminal role in fostering black pride was appropriately recognized by the equally influential Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1965, who averred that Garvey “was the first man of color in the history of the United States to lead and develop a mass movement . . . the first man to give millions of Negroes a sense of dignity and destiny.”
Though a colorful figure, Garvey has been eclipsed by the likes of W. E. B. Dubois, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Booker T. Washington. Widely recognized as a forerunner of the civil rights movement, few possess an intricate understanding of Garvey and his radical ideas. In an era when blacks were characterized as second-class citizens, Garvey distinguished himself as the quintessential leader. As a young man, Garvey was presented with a slew of challenges that catapulted him into positions where he was the undisputed leader. Having endured an inveterately difficult father in his youth who had exceptionally high standards for his son, Garvey could only understand the language of success. During his time as a boy in Jamaica, Garvey acquired a voracious appetite for knowledge. His incessant desire to obtain useful knowledge would eventually serve him well as a formidable debater in his later years.
Thus, reading endowed Garvey with immense confidence by demonstrating that irrespective of race or class, all men have the capacity to reason, therefore rendering the notion of racial superiority obsolete. Hence, for the reasonable man to maintain his dignity, he must challenge the illogic of injustice. So it should not surprise us that in 1907, when the Printer’s Union in Kingston protested low wages, he quickly emerged as the leader of the movement. Garvey was remarkably passionate about ameliorating the conditions of the Jamaican working-class; however, he acknowledged that he needed money to make an impact.
Therefore in 1910 he sailed to Costa Rica, where he obtained employment on a banana plantation. Being repulsed by the social conditions encountered by black working-class migrants, Garvey sought the audience of the British consulate in Puerto Limon. The consulate expressed no interest in altering their plight, however. Undaunted by the lukewarm approach of diplomatic channels, Garvey started a publication called La Nacionale (The National), which lobbied for workers’ rights. Unfortunately, there was not much demand for a political movement in Costa Rica. Unperturbed by the reaction of Costa Rican workers, Garvey traveled extensively throughout the region, seeking to organize mass movements aimed at confronting unjust conditions for workers.
As an unrelenting champion for the downtrodden, the shackles of colonial institutions failed to prevent him from agitating for better working conditions. Mary Lawler and John Davenport, in their study of nationalism in Garvey’s thought, paints the portrait of a leader whose energy for liberating the working class was unphased by objections:
In the tobacco fields and copper minds of Ecuador, Garvey discovered more West Indian immigrants working in wretched conditions. Again, and again, he met with the islanders, heard their complaints, and tried to organize the men into workers’ associations. None of the British consulates in the countries he visited would listen to his appeals for help. They always insisted that they could not risk upsetting their friendly relations with the local governments . . . Wherever he went, he was harassed by government authorities, who viewed him as a dangerous subversive.
To avert the sufferings of West Indians, Garvey thought that traveling to England would allow him to network with influential individuals able to make sweeping political changes. After arriving in England in 1912, Garvey wasted no time educating himself by enrolling in classes at Birkbeck College, where he was exposed to Western philosophy and African history. During his sojourn in England, Garvey would come under the tutelage of Pan-Africanist Duse Muhammad Ali as a contributor to the publication Orient Review. Garvey’s time in England proved to be pivotal in forming his intellectual outlook. Studying the Western canon culminated in Garvey’s Afro-Saxon philosophy, though this may seem paradoxical to many, since he is often touted as a radical. Yet it must be noted that although fiery in his condemnation of Western imperialism, Garvey envisioned blacks building empires to rival Western hegemony.
Writing about the enigmatic Marcus Garvey, Professor Robert Hill revisits his Europhilia:
For, Garvey, success was measured solely according to the criteria of white Europe’s achievement, despite Garvey’s being the most outspoken black opponent of continual European domination of Africa in the postwar period. Paradoxically, he held up to blacks the systems of European civilization as a mirror of racial success. In this context, Garvey expressed strenuous opposition to black folk culture, which he viewed as inimical to racial progress and as evidence of the retardation that for generations had made for racial weakness.
Garvey saw no virtue in elevating a counterproductive culture on the account that it posed resistance to the West’s cultural hegemony. Unlike his contemporaries, he displayed no penchant for reverting to African primitivism.
For example, Professor of African American Studies Judson L Jeffries highlights a competing vision for the purpose of African culture in the liberation of blacks promulgated by Dubois:
Dubois stressed the view that African Americans needed to recognize their “oneness’’ with all Africans and further postulated that the struggle for equality in the United States was directly related to the fight for African independence. Interest in Africa, the ancestry and culture of African Americans, and the deliverance of the African continent from European powers was a recurring theme in Dubois’s works. Indeed, Dubois’s celebration of African primitivism and sensuousness of its arts was in tune with the prevailing sentiment of much of the writings of the Harlem Renaissance.
The major difference between Garvey and his counterparts is that he articulated a serious plan to uplift black people across the world. In the pantheon of black leaders, Garvey is unique for discouraging blacks from linking their fortunes to the success of a government or the benevolence of white philanthropists. Contrary to the mawkish worldview of the black intelligentsia, Garvey was an ardent pragmatism. When other activists recommended socialism as an empowerment strategy, Garvey rightly declared capitalism to be superior to socialism and Communism. Historian John Mccartney succinctly dispels any image of Garvey being fond of Left-leaning economic systems:
Garvey rejects socialism, because he believes that it encourages “the dreamer’s vision” that one day the rich will “divide up their worth with the loafer.” Second, he criticizes communism, insisting that a high level of capitalist activity is needed to spur economic development. He further criticizes communism, socialism, and trade unionism because in his view, white communists, socialists, and trade unionists, are just as racist toward blacks as white capitalists.
Whereas intellectuals such as A. Philip Randolph, Hubert Harrison, and Chandler Owen reposed confidence in socialism, Garvey’s agenda was more sophisticated and liberating. Concomitant with the Western tradition of individualism, Garvey argued that black men and women could achieve astounding entrepreneurial success through their own efforts. In contrast to his rivals, Garvey did not view the state as a vehicle through which blacks could attain liberation. Although his ventures were financially unsuccessful, Garvey’s initiatives demonstrated to blacks innumerable possibilities for achievement. Instead of waiting on the government or white entrepreneurs to generate jobs for black Americans, Garvey pioneered his own enterprise. Counter to the agenda of his critics, Garvey believed that blacks were free agents with the potential to succeed, notwithstanding racism and without the benevolence of whites.
In an assessment of Garvey, Dean Anderson offers an overview of his inspirational business empire:
The balance of Garvey’s and the UNIA’s activities concerned a number of business enterprises, chiefly the unsuccessful Black Star Line, and, after that venture failed, the Black Cross Navigation and Trading Company. In addition, UNIA divisions in major cities in the United States opened a variety of businesses. The New York Chapter promoted its Universal Restaurants and Universal Chain Store Groceries. The Chicago division established a laundry, a hat factory, and a moving firm. Pittsburgh had a “short-lived publishing company.”
Without a doubt, Garvey reflects a candid illustration of human ingenuity at its finest.
Admittedly, Garveyism is a racialist philosophy, but not a racist doctrine. After engaging in deep analysis, Garvey concluded that, based on the visceral character of racism in America, it would make sense for blacks to create their own communities. Contemporary figures may judge him harshly, but given the circumstances, Garvey’s race realism was indeed logical. One cannot fault Garvey for eschewing romantic tendencies. Garvey in his wisdom acknowledged that history is merely the story of the rise and fall of great powers, and thought that unless blacks could outperform their white peers, they would gain no respect in America.
Like many thinkers, Garvey essentially affirmed Western civilization as being the best embodiment of human excellence. Therefore although he advocated separatism, interestingly, he wanted black people to refashion the success of their white counterparts. Garvey was no cultural relativist. Presently, it is fashionable to demean Western civilization, with intellectuals frequently demanding the removal of the Western canon from the curriculum. However, if he were alive today, Garvey would chide the idiocy of activists who think that Newton can be replaced with Indigenous Ways of Knowing.
Similarly, Garvey often ridiculed fellow intellectuals for their sentimentality:
Unfortunately, among the sentimental, emotional, and sometimes superstitious, people of ultra mental slackness are members of the negro race who dream and see visions, not in the sober practical way but as actuated and influenced by pure emotions. Such a practice has led the race to no appreciative goal, but to the contrary has left us dumped in the gutter of practical life.
Yet with all his accolades, the movement to pardon him has not reaped success. But since we are in an age of racial reckoning, pardoning Garvey should be on the top of Joe Biden’s agenda. There is widespread consensus among academics that the charges of mail fraud leveled at Garvey in 1922 fell below the required threshold for a just case. Even more interesting is the fact that, as early as 1919, J. Edgar Hoover orchestrated a campaign to have him indicted. In a memo to special agent Ridgley, Hoover made the following remarks about Garvey:
Garvey is a West-Indian Negro and in addition to his activities in endeavoring to establish the Black Star Line Steamship Corporation he has also been particularly active among the radical elements in New York City in agitating the Negro movement. Unfortunately, however, he has not yet violated any federal law whereby he could be proceeded against on the grounds of being an undesirable alien, from the point of view of deportation. It occurs to me, however, from the attached clipping that there might be some proceeding against him for fraud in connection with his Black Star Line propaganda, and for this reason I am transmitting the communication to you for your appropriate attention.
Moreover, as Garvey’s biographer Judith Stein recalls: “The Justice Department arrested Garvey on January 12, 1922, and a grand jury indicted him and three other officers of the Black Star Line on February 16 for violating Section 215 of the U.S. Criminal Code — using the mails for fraudulent purposes . . . Proof that the mails were used to effect the scheme, crucial to justify the federal standing in the case was weak.” From the evidence, we can confidently conclude that Garvey was unfairly punished, and therefore deserves to be pardoned. If Joe Biden is truly serious about racial healing, then he must pardon Garvey.
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