Marcus Garvey: The Man School Books Are Too Scared To Mention
Marcus Garvey was one of the most talked about men of his time, traveling the globe and speaking in front of 25,000 at Madison Square Garden. Too bad not many people this side of the Greatest Generation would recognize him, but one look at his collection of hats tells you it wasn't from lack of trying. Historians cannot quite agree whether he was an uncompromising visionary too radical for his own time or a bungling, opportunistic conman who couldn't get out of his own way.
You know the red, green, and black flag that symbolizes African liberty and self-rule? That was Marcus Garvey's idea, a direct rebuke of a racist song, meant to instill pride in people of African descent around the world. The tri-color flag inspired newly liberated African states, civil rights activists, and oblivious, yuppie fashion victims who shop at the Gap alike.
Marcus Garvey broke all the rules, and that's not just hyperbole. He hobnobbed with the rich and famous, dabbled in hauling international cargo on his Black Star Line of steamships, met with the KKK, all while he touted himself the "Sir Provisional President of Africa." (Despite the fact he had never stepped foot in Africa.) The governments of the US and UK both considered him a danger to national security for it. Whatever his humble beginnings, Garvey had worked his way up into a newspaper reporter, founder of the United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), businessman, and spokesman for the cause of liberation of all ethnic minorities. His dream was no less than the unification of the Black diaspora into a continent of free, sufficient citizens. He had swagger, guts, and charisma, but his ambitions seemed to keep getting derailed by baffling errors out of a prolonged slapstick routine.
Yes, you read "KKK." At some point along the way, Garvey took the interesting choice to start a dialogue with anyone willing to help him get the word out on the most ambitious mass-migration plan in history. One of those groups was the KKK. Rather than simply dismiss them as the bigots they were, he viewed them through a grimmer perspective: "I regard the Klan, the Anglo-Saxon clubs and White American societies, as far as the Negro is concerned, as better friends of the race than all other groups of hypocritical whites put together."
Evidentially, he thought they were the only honest white people and the only ones he could deal fairly with. And with the KKK infesting all ranks of American politics in the 1920s and 30s, Garvey fantasized about cultivating influential friends with the leverage to help him, persuading them that the KKK and the UNIA were on the same side and secretly had the same precise end goal. He had devised a shortcut to achieving racial harmony that rival Black leaders had never contemplated. Everyone else played checkers while he was busy with 4-D chess.
How did a Jamaican-born Pan-African leader work with the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s? Awkwardly. Call him a lot of things, but the dude was pragmatic. Enlisting the Klan allowed him to recruit more followers and interest in his back-to-Africa notion, cut red-tape, and maybe tap into a new source of funding. That was the plan on paper, at least. While the talk from mainstream Black leaders was all about integration, Garvey took a sharp turn in the opposite direction. Burning all his bridges with Black leaders in the US, he decided that the only viable option for true freedom was for every Black person to leave the US altogether, embracing the ultimate form of segregation. And who wanted Black people gone more than the KKK? His logic was so far out of the box that you would need binoculars to actually see the box. His followers didn't call him Sir President of Africa for nothing.
It's hard to tell if his plan ever could have worked. While he could talk his way into the good graces of racist hillbillies, he never did figure out the logistics his schemes required. His life was littered with Wile E. Coyote-esque disasters. His entrepreneurial endeavors culminated in a mail fraud trial and jail time in the 20s. His defense went south when he acted as his own attorney and rambled on for three hours. Remember his cargo company? The rum shipment his ship was in charge of stewarding out of the US (in order to beat the Prohibition deadline in 1920) was about as successful as the Titanic. The ship didn't sink – though he certainly did lose a vessel or two – the crew just drank in it while still in port in US waters, the drunken staff too stewed to cast off. The rest of the rum was confiscated.
The Black Star Line was a microcosm of Garvey's life. He preached sufficiency, but his own business was a bust. At his first public speaking engagement in the United States, he fell off the stage, establishing his reputation as the Chris Farley of the civil rights world. Witness to injustice by corporate-run plantations, he would turn around and praise those same plantations when it suited his business ambitions. He earned his place as a leading Black voice, only to throw it all away to talk shit about rival W.E.B. DuBois and denounce Haile Selassie after the Ethiopian ruler snubbed Garvey in London. He promoted the Black messiah trope, only to be completely overlooked. Like any good beef, people took sides. Black spiritualists and intelligentsia respected DuBois, and some considered Selassie god incarnate. At the time, they perceived Garvey as Curly from The Three Stooges. The cosplaying didn't help his image.
To this day, no one truly knows what was going on inside the man's head. Was he an unconventional genius or a run-of-the-mill grifter draping himself in a fashionable cause to get rich? If you've ever heard the name at all, you probably only know him as a piece of trivia, the guy who suffered a heart attack after reading an unflattering premature obituary. He has a statue in his home country, a park in NYC, the occasional street with his name, and that's about it. Popular depictions of him in his lifetime were not kind, but Garvey's influence was unmistakable among future racial equality organizations and leaders like Malcolm X. Quite a legacy, even if people can't fully agree on what that was.
Top Image: Associated Press