By Dr Mark Ledwidge
This op-ed was originally published in International History & Politics 3(1): 14-16, Newsletter Summer 2017, An Organised Section of the American Political Science Association
This essay will not provide a historical legitimisation of the race first philosophy advocated by Marcus Garvey, nor will it attempt to legitimise the Pan- Africanist and Black Nationalist philosophies advocated by Garvey.1 The essay situates Garvey as the forerunner of the Black Nationalist leaders that came to prominence in Africa and the African diaspora during the mid-20th Century. That is, Garvey unleashed an African world view which challenged global white supremacy. In short, Garvey’s ideological thrust laid the basis for the trans-national liberation movement for Africans at home and abroad;2 Garvey influenced leaders such as Nkrumah, Jomo Kenyatta, Malcolm X and a cadre of Nationalists, reformists and revolutionaries.3 A key facet of Garvey’s leadership was countering the negative racial propaganda that Europeans and Euro- Americans had fastened onto the image of black people.4
As often occurs regarding counter hegemonic movements, mainstream historians have generally focused on Garvey’s failure to liberate Africa and people of African descent. Nonetheless it is not wrong to suggest that the Universal Improvement Association (UNIA) and the African Communities League (Founded July 15th 1914) did not fulfil Garvey’s aims. 5 Examined from a materialist perspective, the failings of the Black Star Line and the UNIA’s other business ventures, and the collapse of the UNIA could negate the assertion that Garvey possessed leadership credentials, accepting of course the external factors that caused the UNIA’s downfall.6 On reflection, Garvey’s leadership was best exemplified in his efforts to decolonize the minds of African people as he reached down into the fractured consciousness of a people whose self-image had been ravaged by centuries of racist and pseudo-scientific propaganda, and told them that they were heirs to a hidden history and stolen legacy.7 Indeed, Garvey concurred with the racial philosophy of Arthur A. Shomburg who exalted black pride in his seminal essay ‘The Negro Digs up his Past’ in the book The New Negro.
Unlike Du Bois, and the elite faction of the African American talented tenth, Garvey spoke to lay persons and the black masses across the globe by articulating his message of liberation in the Negro World and later the Black Man magazine.8 Garvey’s conflict with some members of the African American elite included issues related to colour, class9 and the double consciousness that Du Bois had identified in The Souls of Black Folk. Garvey theorised that centuries of racial oppression and colonialism had encouraged disunity among black people and deep suspicions regarding the legitimacy of black leadership. Ultimately Garvey’s activism forced black people to confront the externally induced self- loathing that hindered their efforts to meet their collective interests.10 Significantly Garvey argued that black liberation was dependent on self- knowledge bolstered by an appreciation of African peoples’ historical achievements. 11 Henceforth Garvey played a pivotal role in intellectualizing and internationalising Pan-Africanism, along with Du Bois and George Padmore12 but prior to Nkrumah, Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael and others. In short, Garvey understood that the principal battlefield exists within the mind of both the oppressed and the oppressor, and that liberation or behaviour modification requires the restructuring of a group's political and intellectual consciousness.
The under-acknowledgement of Garvey’s leadership credentials pertaining to international relations and black liberation are derived from three factors:
1. The successful covert counter-intelligence operations of British and American government intelligence apparatus.13
2. Garvey’s quest for African liberation was antithetical to the racial politics and interests of state actors in America and in the colonies.14
3. Despite exceptions, the academy’s tendency to construct, maintain, or perpetuate the Euro-centric and racial mores of Western society has created tensions in evaluating black freedom fighters like Garvey, whose activities threatened to destabilise the dominant social order.15
The fact that the UNIA was destabilised by British, American and colonial governments is indicative of the threat Garvey’s movement posed to Western interests. In America J. Edgar Hoover’s General Intelligence Division (the forerunner of the FBI) and other organs of the American State, willingly bypassed their own racism and utilised black informants and agent provocateurs to disrupt Garvey’s business and political ventures.16 Hoover, the US State Department, and the US Justice Department pursued Garvey with a vengeance. Hoover ordered his subordinates to find or manufacture illegal activities in order to destroy Garvey.17
“...Garvey understood that the principal battlefield exists within the mind of both the oppressed and the oppressor, and that liberation or behaviour modification requires the restructuring of a group's political and intellectual consciousness.”
In brief, persecution from the State coupled with the collaboration of African American leaders like Du Bois and members of the NAACP led to Garvey’s imprisonment and deportation from America.18 Suffice to say Garvey’s plans stimulated the significant opposition he faced.
The fact that Garvey travelled widely in the Caribbean, parts of South and North America and London provided him with insight into the international dimensions of white hegemony. 19 Ironically European Americans rejected Garvey’s revolutionary spirit despite their reverence of the American Revolution and Patrick Henry’s cry of “give me liberty or give me death”. Here racism, self- interest, and cognitive dissonance prevented the white collective from supporting the UNIA’s global agenda. It is conceivable that whites rejected the UNIA and its so-called militant tendencies. However historiographers must recognise that the brutality of racial oppression and colonialism undoubtedly fuelled the rise of Marcus Garvey.
Marcus Mosiah Garvey was born in St Ann’s Bay on August 17th 1887, on the island of Jamaica in the Caribbean.20 The history of the Caribbean was rudely interrupted by the rise of Europe, particularly Spain as a result of the expulsion of the Moors from Spain in 1492.21 The emergence of Spain and Portugal and the V oyages of Christopher Columbus stimulated European expansionism and had a cataclysmic impact on Europe, Africa, the Americas, and the world.22
European expansionism and the profiteering of commissioned and semi-commissioned adventurers like Sir Francis Drake and his cousin Sir John Hawkins,23 who was financed by the Virgin Queen to enslave, commoditise and sell Africans,24 helped fund the (so called) triangular trade, which Eric Williams maintains in the book, Capitalism and Slavery, assisted in financing Britain’s imperialist thrust into the Caribbean islands and America. 25 The profiteering of European Nation States led to the legalised enslavement of millions of Africans and the genocide of millions of the indigenous people of the Caribbean. Note the Catholic cleric Bartholomeo de las Casas estimated that 12 to 15 million Caribs were wiped out as a result of European imperialism.26 In addition, Europe’s conquests caused the construction of a hegemonic racial power paradigm.27
Garvey recognised that for centuries racism had impoverished the lives of Africans across the globe from a material, psychological, spiritual, cultural, and historical perspective.28 Clearly the descendants of enslaved Africans and Africans in general had inherited notions of inferiority that had damaged the African psyche.
Garvey realised before Franz Fanon, Amilcar Cabral, and Joy Leary that white supremacy had left a legacy of psycho-cultural trauma which had distorted the political consciousness of Africans. In retrospect an unlettered man born in Jamaica pierced the veil of centuries of mis-education by identifying the so- called Negro’s African heritage. It is noteworthy that when Garvey was born there were no major texts that identified the existence of ancient African civilisations or an abundance of literary texts that exalted the virtues of an African identity, as Africans in Africa were viewed as savages and the descendants of enslaved Africans in the diaspora had been taught to reject Africa and their blackness. Consider also that in Garvey’s lifetime only Haiti, Ethiopia and Liberia had any semblance of political sovereignty.29
To conclude, Garvey made errors but became a leader of international stature because he spoke in a bold manner that began to address the damage that centuries of racial propaganda had wrought on the minds of Africans at home and abroad. Garvey recognised that his constituency had been taught to despise their features and made to believe that they had no legitimate history or corresponding culture.30 Marcus Garvey was an international leader, the intellectual black Moses, who reconstructed race relations internationally by spawning a greater awareness of Africa, African identity, and Africa’s role in politics, economics, and history. Finally, Garvey inspired generations of black and African people even beyond the grave. Clearly Garvey was one of the Fathers of Black Nationalism and Pan- Africanism in addition to despite the odds becoming a leader in both international and intellectual power politics.
Dr Mark Ledwidge is the Subject Lead and Senior Lecturer in American Studies in the School of Humanities. He has emerged as one of the UK’s leading scholars on the presidency of Barack Obama. His publications include: Obama and the World, 2nd edition (co-editor), Barack Obama and the Myth of Post-Racial America (co-editor) and Race and US Foreign Policy, all available from the University Bookshop.
To find out more about the American Studies courses at Christ Church, visit:
1 Maulana Karenga, Introduction to Black Studies (Los Angeles: University of Sankore Press, 2002); Tony Martin., Race First: The Ideological and Organizational Struggles of Marcus Garvey and the Universal Negro Improvement Association (Massachusetts: Majority Press, 1986).
2 Imanuel Geiss, The Pan-African Movement (London: Methuen & Co., 1974), p. 274; Liz Mackie, The Great Marcus Garvey (London: Hansib Publications, 2001), p. 63; Adolph Edwards, Early Twentieth-Century America (London: Verso, 2000), p. 136.
4 Amy Jacques Garvey, The Philosophy and Opinions of Marcus Garvey (Massachusetts: Majority Press, 1986); John Henrik Clarke, Notes for an African World Revolution: Africans at the Crossroads (New Jersey: Africa World Press, 1992).
5 David Levering Lewis, W.E.B. Du Bois: The Fight for Equality and the American Century, 1919-1963 (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2000).
6 Richard Gid Powers, Secrecy and Power: The Life of J. Edgar Hoover (London: Hutchinson, 1987); Theodore Kornweibel Jr., “Seeing Red”: Federal Campaigns Against Black Militancy, 1919-1925 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998).
7 Martin, Race First, p. 13; Robert A. Hill, Marcus Garvey: Life and Lessons, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987), p.15.
8 Rupert Lewis and Patrick Bryan, eds., Garvey: His Work and Impact (New Jersey: Africa World Press, 1991); Mark Ledwidge, Race and US Foreign Policy: The African-American Foreign Affairs Network (New York: Routledge, 2012).
9 Lewis, W.E.B. Du Bois, p. 67.
10 Rupert Lewis, Marcus Garvey: Anti-Colonial Champion (London: Karia Press, 1987); Horace Campbell, Rasta and Resistance: From Marcus Garvey to Walter Rodney (London: Hansib Publications, 1985).
11 Hill, Marcus Garvey.
12 Toyin Falola and Kwame Essien, Pan-Africanism, and the Politics of African Citizenship and Identity (London: Routledge, 2015); Ledwidge, The African-American Foreign Affairs Network.
13 Mackie, The Great Marcus Garvey; Clarke, Notes for an African World Revolution, p. 223; Ledwidge, The African- American Foreign Affairs Network, p. 42.
14 Hakim Adi and Marika Sherwood, Pan-African History: Political Figures from Africa and the Diaspora since 1787 (London: Routledge, 2003).
15 Ledwidge, The African-American Foreign Affairs Network.
16 Churchill Ward and Jim Vander Wall, Agents of Repression: The FBI’s Secret Wars Against the Black Panther Party and the American Indian Movement (Cambridge: South End Press, 2002), p. 94; Kornweibel, “Seeing Red,” p. 131.
17 Kornweibel, “Seeing Red,” p. 130; Powers, Secrecy and Power, p. 369.
18 Ledwidge, The African-American Foreign Affairs Network, p. 42.
19 Lewis, Marcus Garvey.
20 Hill, Marcus Garvey, p. lxiii.
21 John Henrik Clarke, Christopher Columbus and the Afrikan Holocaust: Slavery and the Rise of European Capitalism (New York: A&B Publishers Group, 1998); Eric Williams, From Columbus to Castro: The History of the Caribbean 1492-1969 (Suffolk: St Edmundsbury Press, 1993).
22 Clarke, Christopher Columbus and the Afrikan Holocaust.
23 The Captain of the Jesus of Lubeck, the slaving ship given him to Queen Elizabeth the first.
24 Clarke, Christopher Columbus and the Afrikan Holocaust, p. 31; Harry Kelsey, Sir John Hawkins: Queen Elizabeth’s Slave Trader (London: Yale University Press, 2003), p. 18.
25 Eric Williams, Capitalism and Slavery (London: The University of North Carolina Press, 1994).
26 Bartolomé De Las Casas, A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies (London: Penguin Group, 1992).
27 Frank Furedi, The Silent War: Imperialism and the Changing Perception of Race (London: Pluto Press, 1998), p. 1; Thoams McCarthy, Race, Empire and the Idea of Human Development (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), p. 1.
28 John Henrik Clarke, ed., Marcus Garvey and the Vision of Africa (New York: Vintage Books, 1974).
29 Ledwidge, The African-American Foreign Affairs Network. 30 Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks (London: Pluto Press, 1993).
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