From Garvey to Jackson

From Garvey to Jackson

Edited by Robert A . Hill. University of California Press.


This review originally appeared in the March 31, 1984 issue.

Edited by Robert A . Hill. University of California Press.
Volume I: 1826-August 1919. 579 pp.
Volume II: 27 August 1919-31 August 1920. 710pp. $38.50 each.

The most common misconceptions about black politics stem from the supposed division of black political thought into mutually exclusive nationalist and integrationist tendencies. Although the dichotomy helps us understand some of the points of contention among black leaders, it obscures the important common assumptions and vocabulary unifying Afro-American political history.

If we abandon the view that black political thought has developed along two separate historical lines, we can see the ideological continuities that link the pioneering protest leader Frederick Douglass and the pre-eminent accommodationist Booker T. Washington, or Washington and the prototypical black nationalist Marcus Garvey, or even Garvey and Presidential candidate Jesse Jackson. It may be difficult for some to connect Garvey with Jackson, because the former is usually identified as the leader of a back-to-Africa movement while the latter presents himself as a symbol of blacks’ entry into mainstream politics. Yet the simplistic notion that there is a vast historical and ideological gulf between them is based on a misreading of the historical significance of both Garvey’s movement and Jackson’s campaign.

Black nationalism is usually seen as a recurrent, extreme departure from the political mainstream rather than as a continuing manifestation of cultural distinctiveness. In part, that mistaken view is a product of the racial controversies of the 1960s and the adoption during that decade of black nationalist ideas by militant activists. During the late 1960s and early 1970s. however, it became apparent that black nationalism was a complex tradition with conservative as well as radical undercurrents.

Misconceptions about black nationalism have been especially evident in the literature on Marcus Garvey, a gifted orator and organizer whose meteoric career displayed many facets of the black nationalist tradition. Arriving in New York City in 1916 with the modest goal of raising money for an industrial school in his native Jamaica, Garvey was caught up in the militancy of the years after World War I, when many blacks refused to endure the widespread racial violence that culminated in the riots of 1919. Other leaders, such as A. Philip Randolph in The Messenger and W.E.B. Du Bois In The Crisis, spoke out against racial injustice, but none attracted as much organized support. By the early 1920s, Garvey would later boast, his Universal Negro Improvement Association (U.N.I.A.) had “enrolled more members throughout the world than almost all other Negro organizations put together.”

In recent years, Garvey has been at the center of a debate between historians who see black nationalism as a militant tradition and those who argue that its rhetoric conceals accommodationist or conservative attitudes. The case for Garvey’s militancy, and his contemporary relevance, was presented most forcefully in Theodore Vincent’s Black Power and the Garvey Movement and Tony Martin’s Race First. In contrast, Wilson Moses’ The Golden Age of Black Nationalism, 1850-1925 portrayed Garvey’s movement as the culmination of a nationalist tradition stressing racial uplift through the adoption of the Protestant work ethic and Victorian moral virtues rather than the rejection of dominant white values.

The new literature about black nationalism has been provocative, but until the publication of The Marcus Garvey and Universal Negro Improvement Association Papers, many of the documents necessary for a full assessment of Garvey’s thought or of his movement’s significance have not been easily accessible. Robert A. Hill and his staff, which includes Garvey scholar Emory Tolbert, have gathered over 30,000 documents from libraries and other sources in many countries. More than a collection of Garvey’s writings, these two volumes (to be followed by eight more) redefine the prevailing, narrowly biographlcal conception of historical editing by including annotations on many now obscure individuals and organizations. The Garvey papers will reshape our understanding of the history of black nationalism and perhaps increase our understanding of contemporary black politics.

Hill’s introduction provides an incisive and original analysis of the sources of Garvey’s thought. Some will question his decision to use the introduction as a forum for his own controversial Interpretation of the Garvey movement, but he should be applauded for avoiding the tendency, common among those who study Great Men, to engage In hagiography rather than critical analysis. His essay sets a high standard of clarity and balance for those who will challenge his conclusions.

For the most part, Hill supports those who stress the conservative side of nationalism, although he argues that Garvey’s views changed and that he adopted a militant stance from 1919 to the summer of 1921. Hill’s explanation for Garvey.’s Ideological shifts is not entirely persuasive, but at the very least, his essay and the documents he has collected should lay to rest the notion that Garvey’s primary goal was to transport black Americans “back” to Africa. “We are not preaching any doctrines to ask all the Negroes of Harlem and of the United States to pick up their trunks and to leave for Africa,” Garvey said “We are not crazy, because we have to Walt until we get a Lenox Avenue and a Seventh Avenue before we could get the Negroes of Harlem to leave for Africa ” The more immediate objective was the creation of an independent Africa that would strengthen the position of blacks all over the world.

Hill’s major contributlon is in demonstrating the extent to which Garvey was influenced by the dominant philosophy of his time. What Garvey offered was a black variant of the success ethic that permeated white society in the early twentieth century. He saw himself as “the idealized self-made man who triumphed over continual dis advantage in a heroic struggle for success and survival.” Rejecting W.E.B. Du Bois’s patrician contempt for American materialism, Garvey encouraged blacks to read success manuals and “to argue their way out to success.” Instead of idealizing African or Afro-American culture as an alternative route to racial advancement, Garvey was a proponent of “positive thinking,” which would enable blacks to prevail in the Darwinian struggle for economic success. He displayed, writes Hill, “the aggressive virtues of self-mastery, mind power, determination, energy, ambition, force of will” that were the “mental attributes imparted by the period of industrialization and by the new era of American economic growth.”

Like his nineteenth-century nationalist precursors, Garvey firmly rejected the idea, popularized by Du Bois, that black Americans should retain and develop their unique culture. Ignoring the intellectual trend toward cultural relativism, Garvey criticized much of the literature of the Harlem renaissance and denounced black musical forms such as spirituals and jazz as inferior. Rather than reject European values (which he believed were ultimately derived from Africa), he called on blacks to emulate Europe’s accomplishments. He appealed to them to support his shipping company, the Black Star Line, not as a means of transporting them back to Africa but as a business venture to exploit untapped African commercial possibilities and to begin civilizing “the backward tribes of Africa.” Like his hero, Booker T. Washington, Garvey believed that blacks and whites would be treated as equals only when blacks acquired wealth and the power that accompanied it. “The thing that counts in this world is money, it is material wealth,” Garvey proclaimed. “Today we are determined to get our portion of the material wealth in this world, and when we get it…there will be no more color line.”

Given this portrait it may be difficult to imagine how Garvey could be viewed as a radical leader, but Hill argues that Garvey became radicalized in response to the racial conflicts of the post-World War I era, when white mobs periodically invaded black communities and started deadly street battles. The evidence that Garvey actually advocated radical social change in the United States is slight, but as in more recent times, nationalist millennialism was mistakenly perceived as threatening the overthrow of the state. Many whites feared–and many black activists hoped–that Garveylsm would merge with the militant unionism of the time. In 1919, after a summer of widespread racial and class warfare, J. Edgar Hoover, then working with the newly formed General Intelligence Division of the Justice Department, described Garvey as active among “radical elements in New York City.” Disappointed that Garvey had “not as yet violated any federal law whereby he could be proceeded against on the grounds of being an undesirable alien,” Hoover proposed that the Justice Department begin its ultimately successful effort to convict Garvey of fraud in connection with his fund-raising for the Black Star Line.

Hill includes many investigative reports on Garvey’s activities, but Hoover’s paranoid delusions do not prove Garvey’s radicalism any more than Hoover’s vicious efforts against Martin Luther King Jr. prove that King was a Communist. Garvey’s followers were ideologically diverse, but the government’s spying revealed that Garvey, though fervent in his calls for race war in Africa (which he never visited), never gave more than vague and ambiguous verbal support to the notion that blacks should struggle aggressively against white racism in the United States. In 1920, a military intelligence report concluded that there was “nothing in [Garvey’s] movement that should give the American Government concern.” As one agent reported, Garvey advised blacks that their conditions would not improve until “the Negro would be able to make War on the white race” but that time would not come until Africa was “returned to the Negro Race.” The report continued: “Garvey spoke against Radicalism and Repudiated those men that have been going through the country causing trouble between the whites and the Negro Race. ”

Instead of moving toward radicalism, Garvey merely attempted–briefly and reluctantly–to bring radical blacks under his organizational umbrella before finally deciding to reaffirm his largely apolitical stance. Hill argues that Garvey’s turning point came in 1921, when he was refused re-entry to the United States after a Caribbean trip until one of his subordinates bribed an immigration official. It was then that Garvey decided, according to Hill, to make a firm break with radicalism and assert his support for racial segregation in order to gain white support and prevent his black opponents from using the Federal government to crush him.

This thesis is compelling, but it underestimates the importance of internal tensions In the U.N.I.A., which sharpened ideological distinctions within the black nationalist community. Garvey’s ability to pose as a radical decreased dramatically during the early 1920s as other black leaders staked out positions to his left. Cyril V. Briggs, a black nationalist communist, had formed the African Blood Brotherhood in 1919. By the time Garvey turned to the right, the Brotherhood had attracted thousands of followers and several leading Garveyites (including the U.N.I.A.’s secretary general, chaplain general, commissioner to Liberia and stenographer, and the former editor of the U.N.I.A. newspaper, Negro World). Confronted with the example of the Bolshevik Revolution, Garvey drew his inspiration From the Irish Sinn Fein, which was more compatible with his racial separatism. Garvey became one of many black nationalist leaders who, when challenged by militant, class-conscious blacks, capitalized on the emotional appeal of racial and even racist rhetoric.

If the portrait that emerges from the Garvey papers is not that of a black radical hero, it is also not that of a charlatan without historical importance. Despite his flamboyant military dress and irascible manner, Garvey was an astute observer of world affairs and a shrewd analyst of human behavior. He can best be seen as a transitional figure in the development of black political thought, for he moved beyond the ideas of earlier nationalists, who were often elitist in their relations with the masses, and mobilized a large segment of the black populace. Some aspects of his message seem mundane and his public pomposity invites ridicule, but Garvey’s apparent lack of sophistication contributed to his appeal: He communicated with the black masses in terms they understood rather than in the refined and borrowed vocabulary of the college-educated elite.

The black leaders who unsuccessfully competed with Garvey were often more highly educated and sometimes more aware of the complexity of the problems confronting black people, but the source of their awareness, and often of their prestige, was the white world. Du Bois was the pioneering figure in the Pan-Africanist tradition (which holds that black people everywhere have a common destiny), and his appreciation of Afro-American culture was greater than the foreign-born Garvey’s. Yet it was Garvey who received the adulation that black people reserve for those leaders who achieve prominence, even for a time, without white assistance. Du Bois and Garvey are towering figures in twentieth-century black politics, but tragically, they were bitter enemies during their lifetimes and left behind a divided intellectual legacy that has never been completely unified.

Even in Jesse Jackson’s campaign there are muted echoes not only of Du Bois’s militancy for social change but also of Garvey’s visionary racial politics. Although Garvey once asserted that the “vain assumption” that a black man might become President was as futile as “waiting on the devil and his angels” to “direct the affairs of Paradise,” he nevertheless called on blacks to “take advantage of every opportunity.” Jackson is by no means a black nationalist, but his campaign demonstrates the extent to which nationalist and integrationist themes have become entwined. As President General of the U.N.I.A. and the African Communities’ League, Garvey saw Pan-African unity rather than a “rambow coalition” as his route to power, but it would be a mistake to overlook the similarities between Garvey’s calls for racial uplift and Jackson’s “I Am Somebody” refrain. Both men came from humble origins and, through strength of will and character, vaulted into leadership over established black leaders from more privileged backgrounds. Both,provide powerless blacks with a model of confidence, assertiveness and independence.

If Garvey were alive today, he would doubtless recognize the common elements in his uplift ethic and Jackson’s brash, daring political style, his calls for black educational achievement and his use of self-promotion to create an appealing image of success. He would probably appreciate Jackson’s effort to create black business opportunities by organizing boycotts. He would sympathize with Jackson’s difficulty in gaining the support of the cosmopolitan black elite, while glorying in the fact that both were far more able than their black critics to reach the masses. Garvey would not see Jackson as a fellow nationalist, but he would recognize a leader who, perhaps unconsciously, uses a political vocabulary that reflects the unique experiences and aspirations of black people. Jackson does not have Garvey’s organized support, and he may not possess a comparable sense of historical purpose. But he may represent a historical departure that is, in the long term, more significant than Garvey’s was.

Once one moves beyond the simplistic notion that black nationalism is merely antiwhite, escapist and violent, it becomes possible to see how its underlying cultural themes have enriched and will continue to enrich American life. The most important outcome of the Jackson campaign may be to introduce racially distinctive political styles into the moribund political system. That Jackson has been able to attract the support of black Baptists and Black Muslims, rural blacks and urban blacks, the politically active and the politically inert, may matter more in the long run than the fact that he has failed to garner the unanimous backing of the black elite, which has historically placed its faith in white liberalism.

Jackson’s black critics envy him, much as Du Bois and the educated blacks of the 1920s envied Garvey. With some justification they will claim, as Garvey’s critics did, that Jackson’s motives are suspect, that his appeal is based partly on demagogy, that his programs are not clearly formulated, that he does not possess the intellectual depth or political experience of other black leaders. Like Garvey, however, Jackson can defend himself by pointing to his indisputable successes. As Garvey demonstrated the widespread receptiveness of blacks to the rhetoric of racial uplift, Jackson has demonstrated that a black political figure need not abandon that rhetoric in order to attract significant white support. Indeed, the rhetoric might be perceived by some whites as an asset rather than a liability. Jackson’s success in freeing Lieut. Robert Goodman from Syria certainly depended on luck, but it also demonstrated vividly that black politicians could offer America a difference in cultural perspectives that is useful in a world that is largely nonwhite and non-Western. For better or worse, Jackson may serve as a model for a new generation of black politicians.

The fact that black nationalist themes of racial pride and Pan-Africanist unity can be separated from traditional anti-white animus and racial chauvinism is a measure of the changes that have occurred since Garvey’s heyday. During the period after 1921 Garvey attempted to prove to whites that his nationalism did not threaten the social order, but he did it in an opportunistic way that destroyed his credibility. By publicly advocating racial purity and linking himself with white racists, he tried to win favor with whites while neutralizing his black opponents. In 1922, Garvey voiced support for a Mississippi politician’s plan to establish an American-sponsored black settler nation in Africa. Instead of strengthening Garvey’s position, his meeting with a Ku Klux Klan leader that year narrowed his black support and made him an easier target for J. Edgar Hoover and other government officials. In 1923, Garvey was convicted of illegally using the mails to raise funds for the Black Star Line. After his appeal was turned down in 1925, he entered the Federal penitentiary in Atlanta, where he served almost two years before his sentence was commuted to deportation.

Garvey’s rise and fall reveal the strengths and limitations of the black nationalist tradition. Many of its problems stem from the use of the term “black nationalism” to describe a tradition that involves far more than the establishment of a black nation or the migration of blacks to Africa. The idea of a black nation has been an extreme expression of a widely shared desire for black-controlled institutions and for a positive sense of group identity. Garvey and most other important black nationalists saw Africa rather than America as the site for their ambitions, but they also believed in the development of strong African nations as a necessary precondition for black advancement in America.

Like other black natlonalists, however, Garvey fell victim to the tendency to seek Ideological consistency at the expense of social relevance. He argued that since racism permeates white society, blacks have more to gain from allying themselves with powerful white conservatives than with less powerful white liberals. Similarly, nineteenth-century black nationalist Henry Highland Garnet sought support from the American Colonization Society, which advocated sending free blacks to Africa, and his colleague Martin Delany allied himself with conservative South Carolina Governor Wade Hampton. During the late 1960s the black nationalist leaders who took over the Congress of Racial Equality made their own accommodation with white conservatives in the Nixon Administration.

Yet if black nationalist extremism, like all extremism, has often produced ideologically pure leaders with few followers, it has also been a major source of distinctive political ideas. Unlike the integrationist tradition, which is Ideologically rooted in the unrealized ideals of American democracy, the nationalist tradition has sprung from the unique experiences of–to use Malcolm X’s phrase–the black victims of American democracy. Integrationists have brought blacks closer to the mainstream; nationalists have insured that they will be able to alter its course. At the peak of his influence, Garvey demonstrated the emotional power of nationalist appeals for racial unity and pride. If his message seems less controversial now, it is because so many of his ideas have become the basic assumptions of black politics. Perhaps the most important of those ideas is that the black racial consciousness produced by white racism is not a curse but a valuable legacy.

Dear reader,

I hope you enjoyed the article you just read. It’s just one of the many deeply reported and boundary-pushing stories we publish every day at The Nation. In a time of continued erosion of our fundamental rights and urgent global struggles for peace, independent journalism is now more vital than ever.

As a Nation reader, you are likely an engaged progressive who is passionate about bold ideas. I know I can count on you to help sustain our mission-driven journalism.

This month, we’re kicking off an ambitious Summer Fundraising Campaign with the goal of raising $15,000. With your support, we can continue to produce the hard-hitting journalism you rely on to cut through the noise of conservative, corporate media. Please, donate today.

A better world is out there—and we need your support to reach it.


Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

Ad Policy