E. Franklin Frazier writes that the Garvey movement is in a sense the black Ku Klux Klan. And he’s not saying that perjoratively.
The Garvey movement is a crowd movement essentially different from any other social phenomenon among Negroes. For the most part American Negroes have sought self-magnification in fraternal orders and the church. But these organizations have failed to give that support to the Negro’s ego-consciousness which the white masses find in membership in a political community, or on a smaller scale in Kiwanis clubs and the Ku Klux Klan. In a certain sense Garvey’s followers form the black Klan of America.
The reason for Garvey’s success in welding the Negroes into a crowd movement becomes apparent when we compare his methods and aims with those of other leaders. Take, for example, the leadership of Booker Washington. Washington could not be considered a leader of the masses of Negroes, for his program commended itself chiefly to white people and those Negroes who prided themselves on their opportunism. There was nothing popularly heroic or inspiring in his program to captivate the imagination of the average Negro. In fact the Negro was admonished to play an inglorious role. Certain other outstanding efforts among Negroes have failed to attract the masses because they have lacked the characteristics which have distinguished the Garvey movement. It is only necessary to mention such an organization as the National Urban League and its leadership to realize that so reasoned a program of social adjustment is lacking in everything that appeals to the crowd. The leadership of Dr. DuBois has been too intellectual to satisfy the mob. Even his glorification of the Negro has been in terms which escape the black masses. The PanAfrican Congress which he has promoted, while supporting to some extent the boasted aims of Garvey, has failed to stir any considerable number of American Negroes. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which has fought uncompromisingly for equality for the Negro, has never secured, except locally and occasionally, the support of the masses. It has lacked the dramatic element.
The status of Negroes in American life makes it easy for a crowd movement to be initiated among them. In America the Negro is repressed and an outcast. Some people are inclined to feel that this repression is only felt by cultured Negroes. As a matter of fact many of them can find satisfaction in the intellectual and spiritual things of life and do not need the support to their personalities that the average man requires. The average Negro, like other mediocre people, must be fed upon empty and silly fictions in order that life may be bearable. In the South the most insignificant white man is made of supreme worth simply by the fact of his color, not to mention the added support he receives from the Kiwanis or the Klan.
Garvey came to America at a time when all groups were asserting themselves. Many American Negroes have belittled his influence on the ground that he is a West Indian. It has been said that Garvey was only able to attract the support of his fellow-countrymen. The truth is that Garvey aroused the Negroes of Georgia as much as those of New York, except where the black preacher discouraged anything that threatened his income, or where white domination smothered every earthly hope. Moreover, this prejudice against the West Indian Negro loses sight of the contribution of the West Indian to the American Negro. The West Indian who has been ruled by a small minority instead of being oppressed by the majority, is more worldly in his outlook. He has been successful in business. He does not need the lodge, with its promise of an imposing funeral, or the church, with its hope of a heavenly abode as an escape from a sense of inferiority. By his example he has given the American Negro an earthly goal.
Garvey went even further. He not only promised the despised Negro a paradise on earth, but he made the Negro an important person in his immediate environment. He invented honors and social distinctions and converted every social invention to his use in his effort to make his followers feel important. While everyone was not a “Knight” or “Sir” all his followers were “Fellow-men of the Negro Race.” Even more concrete distinctions were open to all. The women were organized into Black Cross Nurses, and the men became uniformed members of the vanguard of the Great African Army. A uniformed member of a Negro lodge paled in significance beside a soldier of the Army of Africa. A Negro might be a porter during the day, taking his orders from white men but he was an officer in the black army when it assembled at night in Liberty Hall. Many a Negro went about his work singing in his heart that he was a member of the great army marching to “heights of achievements.” And even in basing his program upon fantastic claims of empire, Garvey always impressed his followers that his promise was more realistic than that of those who wereconstantly arguing for the theoretical rights of the Negro. In the Negro World for October 18, 1924, he warned his followers that
Those who try to ridicule the idea that America is a white man’s country are going to find themselves sadly disappointed one of these days, homeless, shelterless, and unprovided for. Some of us do harp on our constitutional rights, which sounds reasonable in the righteous interpretation thereof, but we are forgetting that righteousness is alien to the world and that sin and materialism now triumph, and for material glory and honor and selfishness man will slay his brother. And in the knowledge of this, is the Negro still so foolish as to believe that the majority of other races are going to be so unfair and unjust to themselves as to yield to weaker peoples that which they themselves desire?
And after all this is essentially what most Negroes believe in spite of the celebrated faith of the Negro in America.
A closer examination of the ideals and symbols which Garvey always held up before his followers shows his mastery of the technique of creating and holding crowds. The Negro group becomes idealized. Therefore he declares he is as strongly against race-intermixture as a Ku Kluxer. He believes in a “pure black race just as all self-respecting whites believe in a pure white race.” According to Garvey, civilization is about to fall and the Negro is called upon “to evolve a national ideal, based upon freedom, human liberty, and true democracy.” The “redemption of Africa” is the regaining of a lost paradise. It is always almost at hand.
This belief has served the same purpose as does the myth of the general strike in the syndicalist movement. Garvey, who is dealing with people imbued with religious feeling, endows the redemption of Africa with the mystery of the regeneration of mankind. He said on one occasion: “No one knows when the hour of Africa’s redemption cometh. It is in the wind. It is coming one day like a storm. It will be here. When that day comes, all Africa will stand together.”
Garvey gave the crowd that followed him victims to vent their hatred upon, just as the evangelist turns the hatred of his followers upon the Devil. Every rabble must find someone to blame for its woes. The Negro who is poor, ignorant, and weak naturally wants to place the blame on anything except his own incapacity. Therefore Garvey was always attributing the misfortunes of the Negro group to traitors and enemies. Although the identity of these “traitors” and “enemies” was often obscure, as a rule they turned out to be Negro intellectuals. The cause for such animosity against this class of Negroes is apparent when we remember that Garvey himself lacks formal education.
Garvey who was well acquainted with the tremendous influence of religion in the life of the Negro, proved himself matchless in assimilating his own program to the religious experience of the Negro. Christmas, with its association of the lowly birth of Jesus, became symbolic of the Negro’s birth among the nations of the world. Easter became the symbol of the resurrection of an oppressed and crucified race. Such naive symbolism easily kindled enthusiasm among his followers. At other times Garvey made his own situation appear similar to that of Jesus. Just as the Jews incited the Roman authorities against Jesus, other Negro leaders were making the United States authorities persecute him.
Most discussions of the Garvey movement have been concerned with the feasibility of his schemes and the legal aspects of the charge which brought him finally to the Atlanta Federal Prison. It is idle to attempt to apply to the schemes that attract crowds the test of reasonableness. Even experience fails to teach a crowd anything, for the crowd satisfies its vanity and longing in the beliefs it holds.. Nor is it surprising to find Garvey’s followers regarding his imprisonment at present as martyrdom for the cause he, represents, although the technical charge on which he was convicted is only indirectly related to his program. But Garvey has not failed to exploit his imprisonment. He knows that the average man is impressed if anyone suffers. Upon his arrest he gave out the- following statement: “There has never been a movement where the Leader has not suffered for the Cause, and not received the ingratitude of the people. I, like the rest, am prepared for the consequence.” As he entered the prison in Atlanta he sent a message to his followers which appeared in his paper, the Negro World, for February 14, 1925. He paints himself as a sufferer for his group and blames his lot on a group of plotters. In commending his wife to the care of his followers he says: “All I have, I have given to you. I have sacrificed my home and my loving wife for you. I intrust her to your charge, to protect and defend in my absence. She is the bravest little woman I know.” Such pathos he knew the mob could not resist, and the final word he sent to his supporters under the caption, “If I Die in Atlanta,” with its apocalyptic message, raises him above mortals. He bade them “Look for me in the whirlwind or the storm, look for me all around you, for, with God’s grace, I shall come and bring with me the countless millions of black slaves who have died in America and the West Indies and the millions in Africa to aid you in the fight for liberty, freedom, and life.”
Since his imprisonment Gafvey has continued to send his weekly message on the front of his paper to his followers warning them against their enemies and exhorting them to remain faithful to him in his suffering. It is uncritical to regard Garvey as a common swindler who has sought simply to enrich himself, when the evidence seems to place him among those so-called cranks who refuse to deal realistically with life. He has the distinction of initiating the first real mass movement among American Negroes.