Marcus Garvey’s Enduring Legacy: Pan-African Nationalism


Marcus Garvey

[Commentary: Tribute]

Marcus Moziah Garvey, who was born August 17, 1887 and who died in 1940, is numbered among the greatest Africans of the 19th and 20th Centuries for his daring, visionary character, organizational ability, charismatic personality, outspokenness and forward thinking as well as mobilization abilities that has shown the way to so many engaged in struggle to uplift African people worldwide.

I’m reminded during the First Emancipation Day festivities in Ghana, West Africa, in August 1998, when President Jerry Rawlings celebrated the return of activist Sonny Carson’s great-great grand-uncle, Samuel Carson, he equally honored Marcus Garvey for his early insistence that Blacks in the Diaspora identify with and celebrate their African heritage and culture. 

One of Garvey’s famous lines is that he looked at the Black man, degraded, dehumanized and debased as Africa lay prostrate resulting from the slave trade and rampant European imperialism and colonialism, at the turn of the 20th Century.  In response he said: “Black man, where are your men of big affairs?”  Looking around, he could not find any.  So he created organizations such as The Universal Negro Improvement Association, The African Communities League, The Black Cross Nurses, Black Madonna and Child, and The Black Star Line, and created the Red, Black and Green flag.  Red is for the Blood, Black is for the color of the people and Green is for the land. 

Garvey knew that symbolism was important in motivating and inspiring action.

For combat he formed The African Legions, whose outfit Bakpetu Thompson described as, “arrayed in black uniform with red seams, red shoulder-straps, and a red band around the collar of the tunic, [who] will go forth to conquer Africa, even if it means as their leader says, walking knee-deep in blood and grime.”  Garvey even made influential titles as the Duke of the Nile, Earl of the Congo, the created African Orthodox Church, and so much more. He made himself Provisional President of Africa. 

Symbols, ethos, cultural motifs, institutions, organizations, military organs are all needed by a people seeking to prolong their existence, dignity and gain respect from others in a sometimes hostile world.  Much of this Marcus Garvey insisted on as he laid the foundation for Black men and women to stride towards advancement, upliftment and progress. Garvey coined the phrase “Black is Beautiful.”  He said Black people were a “a gifted race with a proud past and a great future.”

He founded his own media to get his message to the people.  The Negro World published his message on a weekly basis.  He also had a daily newspaper called The Negro Times.  He targeted the Black masses worldwide but his philosophic, economic, and cultural and motif messages were challenged and curtailed by the colonial apparatus that controlled Africans worldwide. In this regard, again Thompson informed: “Garvey’s newspaper The Negro World was banned, and heavy penalties were imposed on people found reading or even possessing copies of it.  The punishment in certain colonial territories for possessing The Negro World was five years imprisonment with hard labor. In Dahomey (now Benin), formerly French West Africa, it was “life imprisonment.”  The paper was also suppressed in Trinidad, British Guiana, Barbados in the West Indies, and all French, Italian, Portuguese, Belgian and some British colonies in Africa.”

Nevertheless, when we consider the state of the Black world in 1915 when Garvey came to America and where we are today, clearly he was a significant pillar and a driving dynamo that propelled our people along to achieve and face the many challenges still awaiting us in the 21st Century.  No wonder, almost a century after his arrival in America people still practice his philosophy and identify with his goals and aspirations.  

Interestingly enough, men of great ideas have disagreements but some of these leaders even though they have a people’s well being in mind, can sometimes go over the edge and spew vile vituperation or even conspire against and sometimes murder their competitors, who seem to challenge them for leadership. 

In an age of Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. DuBois and others, Marcus Garvey was looked upon as a “foreigner,” even though he is now considered a pillar in the foundation of Pan-Africanism. Just as DuBois challenged Washington he challenged Garvey.  In that era of “Jim Crowism,” lynchings, fear and intimidation of black people, one leader accused the other. 

DuBois accused Washington of serving the white man’s interests, saying only his own “Talented tenth” idea was most practicable.  Garvey accused DuBois of being a “Traitor to the race” and a “white Man’s Nigger.”  DuBois on the other hand, said Garvey was “insane” and “without a doubt, the most dangerous enemy of the Negro race in America, and the world.  He is either a traitor or a lunatic.” 

How harsh could they be.

Nevertheless, and strange enough they ended up, with the passage of time, seeing the wisdom, foresight and honest concern for African people, of those they once vilified.  Thompson says Dubois would later confess: “Garvey was an extraordinary leader of men and regarded his movement as ‘one of the most interesting spiritual movements of the modern world.’  In another place, he had said of the Garvey movement: ‘Shorn of its bombastic exaggeration, the main lines of the Garvey plan are perfectly feasible.  What he is trying to say and do is this: American Negroes can, by accumulating and ministering their own capital, organize industry, join the Black Centers of the South Atlantic by commercial enterprise and in this way ultimately redeem Africa as a fit and free home for Black men.’”   

Naturally and sometimes, institutions, ideas, speeches and even memorabilia can be forgotten or perish but the written word, can last forever for it freezes the individual’s thoughts in time and can be resurrected later to be used for the initial purpose intended.  In this case, “The Philosophy and Opinions of Marcus Garvey” has captured the essence, ideas, philosophies and aspirations as well as insights of the man who brought great hope and enlightenment to so many people of African descent throughout in Africa, America, the Caribbean, Latin America, Europe and even Asia.

Here in these United States Marcus Garvey and his teachings in more ways than one influenced many a movement dating back to the first decades of the 20th Century.  In his organizational building approach he held conventions in the late teens and early nineteen twenties. There were spectacular parades with pomp and great reverence.  Harlem was lit up by the reverence and revelry associated with his movement. 

Some of the local separatist and nationalist groups and individuals Marcus Garvey influenced from that time included Roy Innis and Congress of Racial Equality; Elijah Muhammed and the Nation of Islam; Noble Drew Ali and many more. 

All drew inspiration and ideas from his economic, political, separatist, nationalist, cultural and historical as well as Pan-Africanism in which Garvey and his movement played a role.  In Africa as well as the Caribbean and Middle and South America, Marcus Garvey equally influenced Nkrumah and a whole host of nationalists and independence seekers. In Ghana under Kwame Nkrumah the Ghana Shipping Line was formed to carry on the Black Star Line legacy and there was a Black Star Square in the capital of Accra.  Even the Ghanaian flag with its colors of red, gold (yellow) and green, with a black star copied the similar colors of the Garvey Flag adopted by the UNIA.

In Tony Martin’s Preface to the Majority Press Centennial Edition of “The Philosophy and Opinions of Marcus Garvey” he writes: “The history and contents of the book are a metaphor of the Black experience of the last five hundred years.  Careful perusal of these pages reveals much more than the dreams and achievements and the trials and tribulations of the most successful Pan-African movement of all time.  They reveal much also of the strengths and hopes, of the failures and frustrations besetting scattered Africa in its tedious meanderings out of the quagmire of slavery and subjugation.”

According to Martin, “The Black struggle in the western world, like all struggles of oppressed peoples everywhere, has produced leaders of exceptional ability and unswerving dedication to a cause.  In these pages we see the singleness of purpose, the breath of vision, the belief in the righteousness of his work, the boldness born of conviction, that made Marcus Garvey both the most loved and the most feared and hated Black man of his time.  Qualities like these in leaders from Toussaint L’Ouverture to Nat Turner to Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X have always helped sustain this struggle when the need was greatest.”  Even further, Martin continued, “The price of such leadership has always been too high.  All of the names enumerated above suffered martyrdom.  Marcus Garvey escaped the assassin’s bullet only to be jailed, deported, hounded and harassed.”

He did affirm that leadership means everything – pain, blood, death.

Today the world knows Marcus Garvey, while the people who conspired against him for the most part have gone down in oblivion and the influence he wielded helped fan the whirlwind of African independence following World War II.  The timelessness of his ideas still inspire young people, Pan Africanists and conscious-thinking individuals who can gain from his experiences, trials, tribulations, triumphs, failures, betrayals and vision.  Except for those who lived before his time, all great Black men who have imprinted on their time, unquestionably benefited from the ideas of Marcus Garvey.

A perusal of the Table of Contents of the book “The Philosophy and Opinions of Marcus Garvey” shows how wide was the breadth of the man’s thinking, a man essentially self-taught at a time when education for Africans anywhere in the world was a hard won sacrifice.  He wrote about “Propaganda, slavery, force, education, miscegenation, prejudice, radicalism, government, evolution and the result, poverty, power, universal suspicion, dissertation on man, race assimilation, Christianity, the function of man and traitors.”
Then there is “Present Day Civilization, Divine apportionment of earth, universal unrest in 1922, world disarmament, causes of wars, the fall of governments, great ideals know no nationality, purpose of creation, purity of race, man know thyself, a solution for the world peace in 1922, god as a war lord, and the image of god.” 

Even further, “the slave trade, Negroes’ status under alien governments, the Negro as an industrial makeshift, lack of co-operation in the Negro race, white man’s solution for the Negro problem in America, the true solution of the Negro problem, white propaganda about Africa, the three stages of the Negro in contact with the white man, Booker T. Washington’s program, belief that race problem will adjust itself a fallacy, examples of white Christian control of Africa, the thought behind their deeds, similarity of persecution, shall the Negro be exterminated? Africa for the Africans, the future as I see it.”

Finally, “Emancipation Speech, Christmas Message, Easter sermon, Convention speech and statement on arrest.”  These words have been so piercing and influential they were instrumental in galvanizing Kwame Nkrumah as he chaired the 5th Pan African Conference in Manchester, England after World War II and in his struggles to free Ghana and assist in decolonization in Africa.

In this country, Raymond Hall in “Black Separatism in the United States” (1978: 66): wrote offering a synopsis of Garvey and his movement. “Marcus Garvey was the UNIA’s sole architect.  The movement’s values, in essence, reflected only slight differences from those of mainstream America. 

Lewis makes the point, however, that Garvey’s ideological creation is paradoxical.  Garvey’s militant call for Black Nationalism might be too quickly called extremely radical, but its content and emphasis, all reflected  ‘the conventional American world view.’  That is, in exhorting Blacks to be proud of their blackness and black historical achievements, ‘Garvey was merely turning the white American’s racial chauvinism on its head.’  His ideas of justice and world order were based on the nation-state concept, which most Americans would embrace.  His economic philosophy, like Washington’s and most Americans’, was bourgeoisie.  Finally, “except for its emphasis on the return to Africa, the only ‘radicalism’ in Garvey’s thought” was “his basic assumption that black men could and would manage their affairs in the same manner as did white men.”

Assessing some aspects of Garvey’s economic philosophy, Hall believed while Garvey influenced many, others also in turn influenced him.  He wrote: “Clearly, Garvey proposed to bring to fruition Washington’s goal of ‘economic separatism’ in urban America.  Washington had been concerned about economic separatism – or Black independence – in the rural South, and Garvey applied his philosophy to urban America, with the Back-to-Africa label as an added incentive.  He knew that black people had already had large doses of economic self-determination from Washington and of Back-to-Africa from Bishop Turner, Blyden, and others; he therefore had to combine the two with dynamic variables.  Perhaps he saw that it was necessary to augment economic independence and Back-to-Africa with race chauvinism, pride in one’s racial heritage, glorification of the African past, confidence in oneself, and other ego-bolstering tactics.”

Vincent Bakpetu Thompson in “Africa and Unity”: The Evolution of Pan-Africanism praises Garvey for the many slogans he coined in seeking African unity and progress.  These included: “Africans for the Africans,” “Renaissance of the Black RACE,” “Ethiopia Awake,” “Look for me in the eye of the storm,” “Man love your brother,” “Up, you mighty race, you can accomplish what you will.” 

His “One God, One Destiny” sought to unite Africans and determine the road ahead.  As a compliment to his “One destiny” belief Garvey declared: “Therefore, let justice be done to all mankind, realizing that if the strong oppress the weak, confusion and discontent will ever mark the path of man, but love, faith and charity toward all, the reign of peace and plenty will be heralded into the world and the generation of men shall be blessed.”  Yet still, he did believe passionately: “No one knows when the hour of Africa’s redemption cometh.  It is in the wind. It is coming.  One day, like the storm it will be here.  When that day comes all Africa will stand together.  Any sane man, race or nation that desires freedom must first of all think in terms of blood.  Why, even the Heavenly Father tells us that ‘without the shedding of blood there can be no remission of sins?”  Then how in the name of God, with history before us, do we expect to redeem Africa without preparing ourselves – some of us to die.”

He continued: “Wake up Ethiopia!  Let us work towards the one glorious end of a free, redeemed, and mighty nation.  Let Africa be a bright star among the constellation of nations.”  Even further, the declared objectives of Garvey’s Organization were stated thus: “To establish a universal confraternity among the race; to promote the spirit of pride and love; to reclaim the fallen; to administer to and assist the needy; to assist in the development of independent Negro nations and communities; to establish a central nation for the race, to establish commissaries or agencies in principal countries and cities of the world for the representation of all Negroes; to promote a conscientious spiritual worship among the native tribes of Africa; to establish universities, colleges, academies and schools for the racial education and culture of the people; to work for better conditions among Negroes everywhere.”

Finally, Thompson summed up Garvey’s program with its four principles that are hallmarks of the Pan-African movement today: “first, the common destiny of all Africans and the need for continental unity as a prerequisite for dealing with the numerous problems; second, the ‘Negro or African Personality’; third, the repudiation of all foreign rule and control and the eradication of all its vestiges which are retarding the grown of African man; and, fourth, social change including cultural regeneration and reactivation of the world’s cultures.”

Clearly a visionary, Garvey hoped to create an African world state that mirrored the universalism of the Catholic Church.  He argued that: “Our union must know no clime, boundary or nationality.  Like the great Church of Rome, Negroes the world over must practice one faith, that of confidence in themselves, with One God, One Aim, One Destiny…the founding of a racial Empire whose only natural, spiritual and political limits shall be God and Africa at home and abroad.”

Certainly his influence has been immeasurable and his name became enshrined in motifs as schools, parks, and even streets today bear the name of this Pan-African and nationalist icon who helped get us here today.

However, while we can give Garvey great grades for his efforts in mobilizing “400,00,000 Negroes” around the world we ought to pay some attention to the mistakes he made, trusting in others who betrayed him, meeting with the Ku Klux Klan, underestimating the power of Europeans who controlled those 400,000,000 Negroes through colonialism and the role of Ethiopia and Liberia as pawns in “Global white supremacy,” imperialism, colonialism and power politics. 

His Black Star Line was an alligator that bled the UNIA, his return to Africa through the Liberia experiment was un-researched  and betrayed, the “Negroes in America” who conspired and had him arrested are all causes of his failures.  Nevertheless, no matter what happens, when the people believe in you, your ideas, vision or name never dies and this is why we celebrate and give Marcus Garvey such high marks today.  On his arrest he remarked, “You have caged the lion but his cubs are running free out there!”  God Bless Marcus Garvey and his timeliness as his ideas, efforts and charisma helped Black people to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Happy Birthday Marcus Moziah Garvey.

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