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Fourth International, Fall 1955


George Lavan

Marcus Garvey – The “Black Moses”


From Fourth International, Vol. 16 No. 4, Fall 1955, pp. 140–141.
Transcribed by Daniel Gaido.
Marked up Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Black Moses: The Story of Marcus Garvey and the Universal Negro Improvement Association
by Edmund D. Cronon

University of Wisconsin Press, Madison. 1955. 278 pp. $5.

In the years following the end of World War I the largest mass movement of the Negro people this country has yet seen was built and led by Marcus Garvey, who had but recently arrived from Jamaica. It held parades and conventions in Harlem and in the Negro communities of other cities which stirred the people as nothing before had. The world convention of the Garveyite organization, the Universal Negro Improvement Association, in 1920 sent tremors through the colonial offices of the imperialist nations. It brought the attention of the US State Department and the witch-hunters of the Department of Justice, for whom the movement was just another of communism’s hydra heads.

Little is left of this once great movement and little was ever known of it except by hearsay. Garveyism has been described as everything from Negro chauvinism to a stock-swindling scheme. Now a major gap in US social and political history and the history of the Negro struggle has been remedied by Mr. Cronon’s excellent book, the first full-length study of Garvey and his movement.

The author well portrays the social position of the Negroes in the North at the end of World War I and their political mood. He also traces the evolution of Garvey’s program for redemption of the Negro people in all countries of the world where they are exploited. It was the arrival of the Jamaican agitator in the US at the right time which resulted in the post-war explosion of the Negro masses in the particular direction of Garveyism.

In 1916-1918 about a half-million Negroes migrated from the South to the cities of the North. With minor interruptions this movement, started by employment opportunities in war production, continued through the early 1820’s. These Negro workers rapidly discovered that though Jim Crow was less total in the North than down South, they were still second-class citizens. Moreover, the factories wanted them only as unskilled labor for the dirtiest, poorest-paying jobs and the end of war production and the minor depression of the period hit them hardest with unemployment.

Politically their hopes had been aroused by the wartime propaganda of the US government, abetted by Negro leaders, about the rights of oppressed minorities. They hoped this applied to themselves, although the US war-makers intended it mostly for the restive minority nationalities of the Austro-Hungarian empire and as an idealistic war facade for home consumption. Nearly 400,000 Negro soldiers served in the US army. Their relatives at home thought this deserved some reward in political might after the armistice; as for the soldiers, those who had served in France had first-hand experience with a white population devoid of racism.

Instead of improvement in their position, the Negro people were treated to increased lynchings as the “war for democracy” drew to its close. Then came the “Red Summer” of 1919. From June to the end of the year there were 26 race riots. The riots were often the result of competition between Negro and white workers for the completely inadequate housing in cities and towns overcrowded with war workers. The influx of Negro migrants jammed to overflowing the ghettoes designated for them. As they spitted over the boundaries of the ghetto from sheer physical pressure, they were met by hostile whites, regarding them as invaders. Continuous friction resulted in the explosion of race riots when bigots put their matches to such tinder.

Racist bigotry was on the upsurge as a result of the “war for democracy.” The newly revived Ku Klux Klan became powerful all over the South – and what was more alarming spread throughout the North where it had never before existed.

A notable fact about the race riots was that the Negroes fought back with a courage that terrified and infuriated their persecutors. Indeed throughout the Negro population – not merely among the returned troops – there was evident a new spirit

Cronon writes:

“Up to this time no Negro organization had either seriously attempted or succeeded in the organization of the Negro masses. None of the racial improvement groups such as the National Urban League or the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, had directed much attention to lower-class Negroes, but had instead depended upon the upper classes, both white and Negro, for intellectual and financial support. This was a basic weakness that tended to separate the bulk of the colored population from its leadership, and the unfortunate result was that Negroes were denied any very effective racial organization.”

But the social struggle, no less than nature, abhors a vacuum, and the great mass of urban Negroes in the North, though but a few years from a peasant status, uneducated and politically unsophisticated, would find leadership even though the “talented tenth” denied them it.

Who offered to lead the great mass of super-exploited, discriminated-against Negro workers eager to fight for freedom? On the one hand there was a small group of Negro radicals who pointed the way to unions, socialism and alliance with the white workers. (A defect of this book is the scant treatment of the Negro socialists.) But the Negro masses saw little tangible in the direction these far-sighted men were pointing. The evidence seemed to contradict them. The AFL and the railroad brotherhoods then comprised almost the whole of the union movement. Were they not Jim Crow? Were not the white workers the ones who so bitterly opposed their moving into new neighborhoods? Were they not competing against white workers for jobs in the factories? Moreover, hundreds of thousands of these Negro workers were but shortly in the plants and had not yet become proletarianized – had not begun to think in class terms.

The other leader who presented himself to the Negro masses was Marcus Garvey, who saw the Negro struggle in international terms, who had developed a program based on the experience with Negro workers in the West Indies and Central America. His program in no way derived from the situation in the US; it misunderstood it in several respects – but it had not an ounce of Uncle Tomism or gradualism in it. It was his leadership which the Negro masses of the US chose at that particular moment in history.

Garvey’s great accomplishment was to be the first to unite the Negro masses and thus demonstrate to themselves and to the rest of the world their potential power. In addition his propaganda emphasis upon the achievements and glories of the Negro people in the past succeeded in giving millions what they wanted – a positive pride in their color. Finally, his Negro internationalism struck the responsive chord of solidarity with similarly oppressed people of their own race.

Indeed, in a period when the Negro amasses despaired of finding an ally among the classes of the white majority in the US, Garvey pointed to the millions of allies they had in the Negro peoples of Africa, the West Indies, Central and South America.

In this connection, Cronon’s estimate of the American Negroes’ attitude toward the “back to Africa” slogan of Garvey seems to be just. Negroes in the country, who followed Garvey, read his newspaper, bought stock in the Black Star Line, attended his meetings and mourned his deportation, did not, save for a tiny handful, have any intention or desire to go to Africa. They regarded this aspect of Garveyism much as American Jews, who support Zionism, regard going to Israel. An African homeland, they thought, would help Negroes in other countries and they had no objection to any from this country going, but they had no intention of going themselves. In addition to helping the people of Africa throw off the yoke of imperialism, a Negro nation in Africa, many thought, would help them in their battle for first-class citizenship in the US by giving the Negro people a new prestige in the world.

Garvey’s utopia led him into terrible disasters, as with the unbelievable financial chaos and mismanagement of the Black Star Line. His experience in the West Indies, where the light-skinned Negroes had been corrupted into a tool of the tiny white ruling class, led him to attempt a division of the American Negro people into Negroes and Mulattoes. Stubbornness or prejudice prevented him from realizing that the white ruling class had not needed to accord light-skinned Negroes a privileged caste position in this country. Discrimination blighted the lives of all. Criminal in its blindness was Garvey’s maneuvering with the Ku Klux Klan, which also urged sending the Negroes “back” to Africa.

For those interested in the struggle of the Negro people, this thoroughly documented, well-written and engrossing book about a significant movement in US and Negro history is required reading.

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