Pan-Africanism and Marcus Garvey
This 1923 photo of Marcus Garvey demonstrates his flair for drama but also the pride that Garvey and his followers took in their movement. UNIA chapters included various ranks and positions which gave members a feeling of importance and belonging.
Black scholars responded to the racial bigotry found within I’ll Take My Stand by celebrating black life and history in ways that reflected a new attitude of self-awareness and self-assertiveness. Scholar Alain Locke referred to this orientation as “The New Negro,” an expression that came to embody the 1920s, even if the phrase itself had been used for over a generation. An African American journalist writing for the Cleveland Gazette may have coined this phrase in 1895. Five years later, Booker T. Washington used the phrase for the title of his book A New Negro for a New Century. However, the phrase took on a new meaning beyond self-help when Locke began to use it in the 1920s. The “New Negro” he described demanded respect and fair treatment. The “New Negro” might be an artist, an intellectual, a professional, or a common laborer. What they had in common was the refusal to kowtow to those who failed to recognize the dignity of their person or their labor.
W. E. B. Du Bois demonstrated this new spirit of willful confrontation to white supremacy by publishing essays that exposed white power organizations. These reports were based on the investigations of the biracial and blue-eyed Walter White who infiltrated these groups. White’s “passing” was in this instance a daring expression of the new militancy among some African Americans. At the same time, it was a reminder that some other black women and men were still fleeing from their true racial identity.
Du Bois and the NAACP also demonstrated the spirit of the “New Negro” by supporting dozens of civil rights lawsuits and demanding an end to the colonization of Africa. Du Bois believed that the second-class citizenship of African Americans reflected this colonial orientation and remained the prominent voice of the NAACP and black intelligentsia throughout the 1920s. However, Du Bois and the NAACP were overshadowed during the early 1920s by a Jamaican named Marcus GarveyA Jamaican advocate of Pan-African unity, Garvey created the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) in New York. The goal of the UNIA was to promote black pride and economic self-sufficiency in the near term while working toward creating independent black republics in Africa, Latin America, or the Caribbean. who advocated a different brand of Pan-Africanism.
Garvey came to America in 1916 and toured Tuskegee Institute, an Alabama teacher’s college which was founded by the late Booker T. Washington. While there, he accepted an invitation to tour Harlem and was particularly impressed with the new attitude of self-reliance he saw in hundreds of small businesses throughout the predominantly black New York neighborhood. For Garvey, these economic enterprises that were independent of white money and white control represented the key to racial advancement. Garvey believed that lawsuits demanding integration were wrongheaded because he did not believe that white Americans would ever consent to sharing economic and political control with blacks. Furthermore, Garvey thought that the NAACP was foolish to launch civil rights lawsuits to force white businesses to treat black customers the same as white customers when the result would only mean more business for the white proprietor. He also did not approve of what he perceived as a cringing attitude among some black leaders who “begged” white government leaders to permit them to vote without fear of lynching or to sit in a white-owned theater among other whites.
Instead, Garvey believed the goal was to create black-owned theaters that showed films made by and for black people. He wanted black-owned restaurants and stores that would provide jobs for black employees and outlets for the products made by black artisans. He also wanted black voters to select black candidates, but doubted this would ever happen in the predominantly white political world. As a result, Garvey called for people of African descent to create independent black nations in the Caribbean, South America, and Africa where equality of rights would be recognized in law and deed.
In support of this goal, Marcus Garvey created the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA)Created by Marcus Garvey in 1917, the UNIA was a fraternal organization that sought to promote pride, economic independence, and a common identity among people of African descent. The UNIA’s newspaper The Negro World had a circulation that reached millions, while individual UNIA chapters started many successful cooperative economic ventures. The economic ventures of Garvey, however, proved to be epic failures, and the UNIA declined after its national leader was arrested and deported. in Jamaica in 1914. Garvey established the first UNIA branch in the United States three years later, which was aimed at promoting racial pride and developing black-owned businesses; he hoped this would ultimately lead to black economic and political independence, which formed the foundation of his Pan-African vision. Although Illinois’s Oscar De Priest would win election to the US Congress in 1928, those who subscribed to the ideal of black nationalism would point out that De Priest was placed on the ballot to secure black support for the lily-white machine politicians that controlled Chicago. De Priest himself advocated civil rights causes, but those who supported black nationalism would also point out that he was the only black American elected to Congress since the late nineteenth century.
Illinois congressman Oscar De Priest was born to former slaves in Alabama. His family were Exodusters who moved to Ohio in the late 1870s. De Priest eventually settled in Chicago where he was a local politician before winning election to Congress.
Garvey’s charisma and message of economic independence resonated with the masses of black Americans. His supporters resented the way their labor was exploited by white bosses while their earnings enriched white store owners and landlords who were often disrespectful. Garvey was unrivaled as a promoter, and he established dozens of businesses that produced products black men and women could be proud of, such as black dolls for children and uniforms for black nurses. Independent UNIA chapters launched dozens of economic cooperatives—stores run by black consumers who pooled their money to purchase goods directly and share profits equally. Together, black Americans rallied under Garvey’s goal of “Negro producers, Negro distributors, Negro consumers,” which he promised would end the neocolonial power structure that turned black labor into white profit.
Garvey’s newspaper The Negro World was produced in several languages and had a circulation of nearly 200,000 around the world. The paper included uncompromising editorials about the white power structure and the need for a Pan-African independence movement. It also called for an end to colonialism, in both Africa and the United States. Garvey’s militancy attracted the attention of federal agents who feared the charismatic leader of the UNIA might encourage a revolution among black Americans. The federal government tracked Garvey’s movements and sought out complaints among his investors in hopes of deporting Garvey back to Jamaica. By 1923, they had enough evidence to imprison the black leader for fraud.
Garvey’s most ambitious project was an international passenger and freight company called the Black Star Line. The purpose of this company was to promote trade and travel with Africa. Garvey received hundreds of thousands of stock subscriptions and purchased several large but aging ships that turned out to be poorly suited for international travel. For example, the first ship Garvey purchased ended up being worth only a fraction of its price. A touring ship Garvey purchased called the SS Shadyside had a leak in the side of its hull and sank. The irony of this disaster did little to improve the financial condition of the Black Star Line. After several voyages, most of the ships were in disrepair, and nearly every black leader had turned against Garvey for the loss of nearly every dollar entrusted to him by working-class men and women.
Black leaders were also angered by Garvey’s calculating effort to solicit donations from the Ku Klux Klan to further his plans to create an independent black republic. Garvey hoped the Klan’s desire to eliminate nonwhites would lead to financial assistance for his dream of creating an independent black republic outside of the United States. In the end, it was the failure of the Black Star Line and several duplicitous promises to his investors that destroyed Garvey’s movement. After serving a brief jail sentence for investment fraud, Garvey was deported back to Jamaica in late 1927. Despite the poor management of his shipping company, the Garvey movement encouraged black pride. It also facilitated a number of local collective and economic ventures that fared much better than Garvey’s ambitious but poorly operated shipping line. At the same time, Garvey’s failures also drained precious financial resources from the black community and discouraged investment among those who purchased stock in Garvey’s Black Star Line.