Originally published in Who Built America? From the Great War of 1914 to the Dawn of the Atomic Age in 1946, a multimedia CD-ROM, Worth Publishers, 2001.
Black Nationalist Marcus Garvey early recognized that his Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) would find its most enthusiastic audience in the United States, despite the organization’s worldwide mission. After fighting a world war ostensibly to defend democracy and their right of self-determination, thousands of African Americans returned home expecting traditional racial prejudices to have diminished. Instead, they encountered intensified discrimination and segregation, racial violence, and hostile relations with white Americans.
At least twenty-five race riots erupted in 1919 alone, the year the war ended, culminating in what black writer James Weldon Johnson called the “Red Summer.” Garvey, sensing growing frustration among black Americans in the war’s aftermath, used his considerable charismatic power to attract thousands of disillusioned black working-class and lower middle-class followers to the UNIA cause. In the process, Garvey became the most popular black leader in America in the early 1920s.
The UNIA, committed to notions of racial purity and separatism, insisted that salvation for African Americans meant building an autonomous, black-led nation in Africa. To this end, the movement offered in its “Back to Africa” campaign a powerful message of black pride and economic self-sufficiency. “What other men have done, Negroes can do,” Garvey proclaimed, but “it must be done through unity.” In Garvey’s 1921 speech “If You Believe the Negro Has a Soul,” he explains that the UNIA “calls upon every Negro in the United States to rally to this standard. We want to unite the Negro race in this country. We want every Negro to work for one common object. That is building a nation of his own on the continent of Africa.”
After moving from his native Jamaica and opening a UNIA office in Harlem in 1917, Garvey devoted the next few years to a campaign of traveling and proselytizing. Casting his mission in religious language, he earned the Back to Africa movement a loyal following in black communities across the country. His speeches often drew huge audiences, and stories of Garvey’s stubborn resistance in the face of white hostility proliferated among his supporters. In an oral history interview, devotee Audley Moore remembers that the Jamaican’s defiant behavior at a rally in New Orleans caused “the [white] police [to] file out … like little puppy dogs with their tails behind them.”
By the mid-1920s the UNIA boasted more than seven hundred branches in thirty-eight states and more than two hundred offices outside the United States. It could also point to the existence of the Black Star Line, an all-black shipping company chartered by the UNIA that seemed a necessary first step toward a sovereign black nation in Africa. The Black Star Line was the movement’s boldest and most important project. To many of Garvey’s supporters, it represented both the promise of economic autonomy—a means of escape from prejudice and discrimination in America—and a conspicuous example of black achievement. The UNIA vigorously promoted the sale of stock in the shipping company in the 1920s, circulating advertisements and colorful certificates in Garvey’s popular newspaper, the Negro World, and celebrating the shipping line’s aspirations in poems and songs, such as “The Black Star Line.”
The Black Star Line held its first business meeting in August 1920 in Harlem’s Liberty Hall. Bringing together twenty-five thousand African Americans and UNIA delegates from around the world, the gathering occasioned an important statement of principles, the “Declaration of Rights of the Negro Peoples of the World.” For all its grandeur and promise, however, the Black Star Line was soon beset by financial and legal problems, the result, in large part, of Garvey’s mismanagement; the company folded only a few years after its founding. The company’s collapse is detailed in an essay by black intellectual W.E.B. DuBois, who casts doubt on Garvey’s trustworthiness and suspicion on UNIA’s overall program.
Indeed, as Garvey’s influence grew in the black community in the 1920s, so too did the voices of his many critics. Integrationists such as DuBois and Robert Bagnall, both of the NAACP, worried that the UNIA leader was exploiting black disillusionment for his own personal gain. Moreover, they objected to the Garvey movement’s call for racial separatism. Bagnall’s article in the Messenger in March 1923, attributes nothing less than “madness” to Garvey, who argued that African Americans could never expect progress in a nation dominated by whites. “The Ku Klux Klan is going to make this a white man’s country,” Garvey once contended. “They are perfectly honest and frank about it. Fighting them is not going to get you anywhere.” The UNIA leader, of course, rejected the Klan’s claim to intrinsic white superiority, but supported its strident efforts to maintain racial purity. To the outrage of its critics, the UNIA sustained an alliance with the KKK throughout much of Garvey’s career.
The combined weight of legal difficulties and the unsparing opposition of those black leaders who rejected his ideas eventually frustrated Garvey’s efforts in the United States. Although large numbers of African Americans remained loyal to the UNIA cause throughout the 1920s, Garvey’s 1923 conviction and prison sentence for mail fraud made continued organizing impossible for a movement that relied so heavily upon the charisma of its leader. In the wake of Marcus Garvey’s conviction for mail fraud, A. Philip Randolph and Chandler Owen, editors of a radical black magazine, the Messenger, waged a bitter campaign to have the UNIA leader deported. Garvey was deported from the United States in 1927, and the UNIA soon became irreparably splintered. Garvey, who continued to travel and organize in Europe and Central America during the 1930s—but who never did visit Africa—died in exile and obscurity in 1940.
The significance of the Back to Africa movement is not to be found in its tangible accomplishments—few of Garvey’s followers actually planned to migrate to Africa. Rather, the widespread appeal of the campaign stood as a telling commentary on the deplorable state of American race relations in the 1920s. Although the UNIA’s program recalled a long tradition of black self-help efforts going back to Booker T. Washington, its uncompromising strategy, ambitious vision for the future, and unapologetic racial chauvinism went far beyond earlier approaches. Black nationalism responded to the challenge of American racism with a militant spirit of self-assertion. In organizing African Americans into one of the largest and most important mass movements in United States’ history, Marcus Garvey helped revive a sense of optimism and black pride, important achievements in a society that offered precious little of each.