The Legacy of Marcus Garvey

By Tony Martin

Marcus Garvey died on June 10, 1940 after building the most successful Pan-African government of all time. Garvey organized the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League in 1914 at a time when the future of the African World looked grim. The final touches to the European imperialistic conquest of Africa were being put in place. Heaped upon the devastation of four and a half centuries of trans-Atlantic and Arab slave trades, there now came, in the wake of European conquest, genocide, forced labor, slavery and political and cultural subjugation.

In Afro-America the civil rights gains of the post-Civil War period had been wiped out.  A reign of terror unleashed by the Klu Klux Klan and similar groups, aided and abetted by racist state legislatures, a conniving judiciary and an indifferent federal government, had all conspired to return  the African-American population to the brink of slavery.  By 1914 thousands of Black people had been savagely murdered in the streets, at the hands of mobs of white people, numbering at times in the thousands.

In the Caribbean, poverty and lack of educational opportunity had conspired  to expel tens of thousands of emigrants who scoured the world in search of education, work and political space.  Despite the relative absence of overtly racist laws such as obtained in the United States, the British colonizers nevertheless successfully prevented over ninety percent of its Caribbean subjects from voting.  Amont the few voters, a disproportionate number was white.  Similar distressing situations existed in other areas of African populations, such as Brazil and in areas of minor African settlements, such as Europe and Canada.

Into this situation Garvey forcefully injected himself with a bold plan to gather up an embattled people, reverse their downward slide and point them on the way forward to freedom, justice, equality and power.  Garvey's main goals may have been summarized as follows- first, he sought to build confidence in self.   His slogan "Race First" suggested that Black people must see beauty in themselves.  They must also reclaim the right to interpret their own reality and control their own destiny.  Black people, he taught, must write their own history, criticize their own literature, build and lead their own organiztions and worship a God that looked like them.

Garvey stressed, secondly, the goal of self reliance, especially in the area of economic activity.  His Black Star Line, Negro Factories Corporation and other ventures were efforts in that direction.  Garvey stressed, thirdly, nationhood or political self-determination.  He saw a strong Africa as crucial in this regard, since its ancestral significance and economic resources made it a potential anchor for Pan-African struggle.

Garvey's impact on his own was without parallel.   Approximately twelve hundred branches of the UNIA in over forty countries speak for itself.  His impact on succeeding generations has also been immense, in spite of a concerted mainstream effort first to expunge him from the pages of history and secondly, when the effort failed, to distort his record.  Many African leaders in succeeding decades have expressly acknowledged their debt to Garvey's influence.  They include Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, Nnamdi Azikewe of Nigeria and Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya.   Modified versions of Garvey's red, black and green flag can be seen in the national flag of Kenya and the flag of the African National Congress in South Africa.  The strong influence of Garveyism on the ANC of the 1920's and '30s continued in the ANC Youth League of the 1940s and resides today in the Pan-Africanist Congress of Azania.

Garvey's influence in Afro-America can be traced through a variety of major organizations and leaders.  Elijah Muhammad was a member of the UNIA in Detroit and his Nation of Islam bore many obvious similarities to Garvey's organization.  The parents of Malcolm X were both local UNIA leaders in Omaha, Milwaukee and Lansing Michigan.  Garvey himself visited the home of Malcolm's parents on more than one occasion.  Carlos Cooks of the African Nationalist Pioneer Movement, former Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm and ex-congressman Charles Diggs are among the post-Garvey leaders who emerged out of a Garvey background.  The entire Black Power Movement of the 1960's and 70's was permeated with Garveyite symbols and ideas.

The Black Arts Movement was a counterpart of Garvey's literary and cultural program which spearheaded the Harlem Renaissance.  In the Caribbean practically the entire group of labor/political leaders who emerged circa the 1930's were influenced in one way or another by Garveyism.  They included Clement Payne of Barbados and Trinidad, St. William Grant of Jamaica, D. Hamilton Jackson of St. Croix and others.

Garvey's influence can be traced also in non-African figures, particularly Ho Chi Minh of Viet Nam, an ardent support of UNIA during his New York sojourn in his younger days.

The African World since Garvey has accomplished much, thanks to the efforts of Garvey and others who labored long and often died before hope loomed on the horizon.  Political independence has been achieved even in areas of most tenacious colonialism, such as Zimbabwe, Angola and Namibia.

South Africa, the most outrageous case of settler colonialism for the entire twentieth century, now appears poised for a showdown.  The Civil Rights and Black Power struggles in the United States have brought a restoration of basic rights not enjoyed since Reconstruction.  Som inroads have been made in politics, business, and education.

Yet, much remains to be done and these gains have sometimes been tempered by losses.  Colonialism still persists in the French West Indies, where the lessons of Guinea, Viet Nam and Algeria appear to have been forgotten.   South African destabilization was wrought great havoc in the neighboring frontline states, particularly economics of many African and other states.

Independent African and Caribbean states have often been slow to assert control over education and media, leaving their populations at the mercy of alien influences.  In economic and military terms Africa is probably weaker, vis-a-vis the major powers, than it was in 1441, when the Trans-Atlantic slave trade had its beginnings.  Whereas countries such as Brazil, Argentina, Israel, India, Iraq and the racist regime in South Africa have become important manufacturers of armaments, Africa still remains in danger of being left behind.  This would have destressed Garvey, who saw a people without power as being a people without respect.

Garvey's efforts to mobilize technical and financial support scattered Africans for Africa's regeneration still remains a viable goal.   The neutralizing of South Africa's destabilizing influence and the hopeful revitilizing of African economies may yet lay the foundation for an African resurgence in the 21st century, of which Garvey would be proud.  Afro-America, despite its problems, edges ever closer to the heart of power in the United States, in Congress, in the armed forces, in entertainment, business, sports and education.  African Brazil, the sleeping giant of Pan-Africanism, has begun to stir.  And the Caribbean, with its highly educated and globally oriented population, and with its proximity to North and South America and Africa itself, may yet fulfill Garvey's 1913 prophesy, that out of this area may come the instruments for uniting and empowering a scattered and embattled race.


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Last revised: January 28, 2005

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