Rupert Lewis | Life, times, and legacies of Marcus Garvey
In this edition of Reparation Conversations, a collaborative initiative between The Gleaner and the Centre for Reparation Research (CRR), The University of the West Indies (The UWI), guest writer, Professor Rupert Lewis, places in the spotlight the extraordinary life of Marcus Mosiah Garvey. This exploration of his life and the legacies of his teachings on Black Diasporic thought, racism, and discrimination brings into focus the influence that Garvey continues to have on today’s society and our global response to hate and bigotry.
Throughout Garvey’s life (1887-1940), controversy about his ideals and his leadership meant that he functioned in perpetual ideological, cultural, political, and economic minefields as he sought to challenge the racial subordination and economic exploitation being experienced by black people.
The Bureau of Investigation (the precursor to the FBI) dubbed Garvey “An Undesirable and Indeed a Very Dangerous Alien” because of the rapid growth of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) and African Communities League. Evidence of this growth was seen in the publication of the Negro World newspaper, the development of the Black Star Line, and the Convention of the UNIA held in Madison Square Gardens, New York City, in August 1920, which brought together delegates from many parts of the world. At this convention, they developed the Declaration of Rights of the Negro Peoples, a pioneering document for racial justice and human rights. In the years following the First World War (1914-1918), the organisation garnered the support of the black population throughout the United States and elsewhere. By the early 1920s, the UNIA and African Communities League were functioning in 40 countries.
The year 2022 marks one hundred years since Marcus Garvey was unjustly charged for mail fraud and was later imprisoned and deported from the United States in 1927. The criminal charge of using the mail to defraud was made against four officers of the UNIA, one of whom had lied about the purchase of a ship when negotiations had broken down. The trial by an all-white jury reflected the systemic racial bias of the justice system and followed a pattern of punitive measures against him.
The resistance to Garvey’s message and advocacy came in many forms. Garvey was the target of an assassination attempt in 1919. In 1921, before his return to the United States, after a successful trip throughout Central America and the Caribbean on a Black Star Line ship, he was denied a visa to re-enter the US. A case was made against Garvey for breaking an immorality statute while travelling with his secretary, Amy Jacques, to whom he was not yet married. He was also charged, unsuccessfully, with income tax violation. It was in promoting shares for one of the Black Star Line ships, the purchase of which had not yet been finalised, that in 1922, Garvey alone was charged with mail fraud. He was sentenced to five years in prison in 1925, and his sentence was commuted by President Calvin Coolidge in 1927 on the advice of Attorney General John Sargent, who was critical of J. Edgar Hoover’s investigative tactics.
Garvey faced betrayal from many opponents to his message, even from within the black community. Hoover was assisted by black agents such as Dr Arthur Ulysses Craig, who, like Dr W.E.B. DuBois, came from the intellectual section of the middle class. According to historian Theodore Kornweibel Jr, after Dr Craig attended two UNIA mass meetings, “his middle-class sensibilities were shaken by the fervour of the working-class (and heavily West Indian) crowds which widely applauded every call for racial change. As a member of the race’s educated, upwardly mobile, and assimilationist Talented Tenth, Craig concluded that the ‘spirit of these meetings is decidedly unAmerican’. (Kornweibel, Seeing Red, 103) Craig became technical adviser to the Black Star Line’s Capt Joshua Cockburn, helping him inspect the leaky boilers on an old steamer that was purchased”. Craig and others systematically sabotaged the Black Star Line.
But it was a Jamaican who got close to Garvey and developed a personal relationship. His name was Herbert S. Boulin, special confidential informant P-138. Garvey developed confidence in Boulin as a fellow Jamaican, and Boulin exploited this relationship to provide Hoover with considerable intelligence on Garvey’s activities.
J. Edgar Hoover, who built the case for mail fraud, should concern us, but so should the role of African-Americans, Jamaicans, and other West Indians in supporting the racist status quo in the United States. While we make the case for Garvey’s exoneration because it was deliberate and premeditated, the fact of the willingness of these collaborators to unreservedly help Hoover needs to be seriously reflected on with respect to current struggles. Black American and Jamaican agents were tools who did not control the justice system. The FBI spied on, imprisoned, and harassed generations of black activists – from Garvey through to Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Stokely Carmichael, Angela Davis, the Black Panthers, as well as activists in the Black Lives Matter movement and thousands of others. Hence, the campaign for Garvey’s exoneration is a challenge to the racist institutions that have continued for over a century.
AMERICANS NOT ALONE
We should remember also that the Americans were not alone. The British had agents in the UNIA, and so did the French in the Garvey movement in Senegal where the Negro World newspaper was banned as it was in the British colonies in West Africa and the West Indies. The South African police intelligence in Johannesburg and Cape Town, and in what was then known as South West Africa, now Namibia, also acted against supporters of the Garvey movement. In Garvey’s time and well into the mid-twentieth century most of Africa was under colonial rule, and Jim Crow segregation and lynching were the order of the day in the United States. The right to vote was denied to black people throughout the world.
Garvey influenced the political movements in Africa, the Caribbean, and in the United States that won the right to vote and independence. The colonial powers redesigned international financial institutions and developed military and political instruments, which ensured that economic might remained primarily with the Western Alliance led by the United States. Neo-colonialism was therefore perpetuated while political independence was granted. Kwame Nkrumah, Garvey’s pupil and Ghana’s first president, explained this process in his book on neo-colonialism. What the Garvey movement stood for and why it is relevant today is its demand for a radical redistribution of power in the world, which involved not only the end of colonial rule, but the development of the capabilities and resources of Africans and those in the diaspora to realise the social, economic, and cultural goals we set ourselves.
Garvey’s philosophy and teachings continue to inspire in the United States and elsewhere. The red, black, and green flag of the UNIA was to be seen in demonstrations of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020, particularly after the televised murder of George Floyd.
Prison weakened Garvey’s health, worsened his asthmatic condition, and Amy Jacques Garvey became the central person he relied on in his campaign for justice. From the time of her husband’s death in 1940, to her own death in 1973, Amy Jacques Garvey ensured through her writings that the legacies of the movement would live on, and their two sons, the late Marcus Garvey Jnr and now Dr Julius Garvey, have continued the struggle, along with many others. It is part of a broader struggle against global racism, for reparative justice, and against the concentration of power in a few global capitalist conglomerates.
- Rupert Lewis is professor emeritus of political thought at The University of the West Indies, Mona, Jamaica. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.