The politics of Marcus Garvey

May 18, 2012

Christina Bergmark looks at the reasons why a mass Black nationalist movement arose in the early 20th century around the vision put forward by Marcus Garvey.

IT'S NOT difficult to see why, at particular junctures of American history, many Blacks believed the ideas of Black nationalism held great promise and power. It is precisely the viciousness and pervasiveness of American racism which has led many to consider the ideas of separatism.

One such period followed the First World War, which had raised the hopes of Blacks. Some 360,000 Blacks had entered military service and many had migrated to the North in search of higher paying jobs in the war industries. Hopes for a better life had been raised.

After the war, instead of having these expectations met, Blacks met with violent racist reaction. In addition to race riots in the North. Blacks were pushed out of the better jobs they had held in wartime and were systematically excluded from the unions. The great Northern slums grew and grew. It was in this context that the ideas of Marcus Garvey struck a chord with hundreds of thousands of people.


GARVEY, BORN in Jamaica in 1887, went to London in 1912. In his two years there, he met up with a number of nationalists--followers of Sun Yat-sen of China, and others--and heard such slogans as "India for the Indians" and "Asia for the Asiatics." Struck with the ideas, he endorsed a notion of Pan Africanism whose chief slogan was: "Africa for the Africans at home and abroad."

The History of Black America

The dreams of a Black-ruled Africa inspired Garvey. He saw "a new world of Black men, not peons, serfs, dogs and slaves, but a nation of sturdy men making their impress upon civilization and causing a new light to dawn upon the human race."

After a brief return to Jamaica, Garvey moved to the United States and, in 1917, set up the New York chapter of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). The UNIA was meant to unite "all the Negro peoples of the world into one great body to establish a country and government absolutely their own" and to "establish a universal confederacy among the race, to promote race pride and to administer to and assist the needy."

The most important focus of the UNIA was Black pride, and its program of activities included marches and mass meetings. It also had a newspaper, Negro World, which by 1919 had become the most widely read Black weekly paper in the United States, if not the world.

In the first few years of the UNIA, some of its leaders were socialists--several later became Communists. The slogans and paper positions of the group were left wing, in that they stressed not just separation, but full equality for human beings, and in that they called for an active resistance to racism and injustice. The catchphrase which captured the imagination of many struggling for a different world was "Up You Mighty Race." In a period of blatant racist reaction, this was a radical slogan indeed.

But Garvey was not, himself, a socialist. He saw socialists and Communists as his temporary allies, and the left-wing slogans and positions as a way of organizing larger numbers of people into his movement. For Garvey, the bottom tine was separation, and his vision was not even of Black socialism, but an African empire to be run by himself and others.

The UNIA phenomenon was very short-lived. Founded in the U.S. in 1916, it reached its peak in 1920 with 300,000 to 500,000 dues-paying members, and by 1922, it was a shadow of its former self.

The reasons for its decline have to do with both the context of the movement and its content.

First, there was a decline in the ferment among Blacks following the war. Blacks became more beaten back than angry, so sustaining a movement grew more difficult. In terms of the movement itself, it provided inspiration for many, but failed to provide any real direction. Except for the people who wanted to be among the first families to move back to Africa, Garveyism provided no real solutions.

Another factor was harassment by the government. As early as 1919, the government investigation of Garvey and the UNIA began, and it took a heavy toll on the movement. And then there was the fact that many people did feel swindled when all the facts about Garvey's Black Star project surfaced.

After a long investigation, the U.S. government arrested Garvey in 1922 for using the mails to commit a fraud. In February 1925, he was sent to jail for five years, and in 1927, he was deported to Jamaica. Oddly enough, he never went to Africa. He died in London in 1940.

To many whites in the U.S., Garvey seemed to be a clown. But Garveyism was the first genuine mass movement among American Blacks. Garvey captured the imagination of many Blacks for whom the American Dream was a dirty joke.

Henry Lincoln Johnson said: "If every Negro could have put every dime, every penny into the sea, and if he might get in exchange the knowledge that he was somebody, that he meant something in the world, he would gladly do it...The Black Star Line was a loss in money, but a gain in soul!"


THE TRUTH is that many Blacks did put hard-earned pennies, dimes and dollars into the Black Star effort, and gained in return only a fleeting knowledge of power and pride. The naive vision of a separate, insulated nation in a hostile world had not yet been tested as thoroughly as it has today, but it was just as misguided then.

Then, as now, nationalism can be progressive, or it can serve as a limiting force. In the case of Garveyism, it was double-edged. Many joined the UNIA or considered themselves Garveyites because the idea of Black pride and dignity was so important. This was a step forward. But with the decline of mass activity, Garvey failed to provide any real alternative for Blacks. Instead. Garveyism served as a block to Blacks realizing the real motor of the system and the way forward for themselves and other workers.

In this context, it is not so difficult to understand why Garvey met with the Ku Klux Klan in 1922 to convince them that he shared a common vision and interest with them--separation of the races--and that they should support his project of moving Blacks back to Africa.

As long as vicious and pervasive racism is the rule, the ideas of Black nationalism will appear again and again, in a variety of forms, as the only answer for Blacks. Socialists must support the struggle against racism, but also argue while there is a solution to racism, and it does not lie in separation or nationalism.

Racism will only be defeated when a better world is won for all of humanity: A world run by workers--Black and white, male and female, young and old, all the workers of the world.

This article first appeared in the July 1985 issue of Socialist Worker.

E-mail alerts

Further Reading

Today's Stories

From the archives