The last years of Marcus Garvey

Submitted by AWL on 8 December, 2020 - 2:51 Author: Stephen Wood
Report of Garvey's death

Stephen Wood concludes his account of the pioneer black nationalist leader Marcus Garvey. Parts 1 and 2 of the story were in Solidarity 573, here, and 574, here.

The last years of Garvey’s life, 1935-40, sitting in Kensington, London, with declining influence and declining funds, were in marked contrast to the high point of his Universal Negro Improvement Association [UNIA] in the 1920s. His arrest for mail fraud in 1922 and his deportation from the United States to Jamaica in 1927 marked the end of his high influence.

For all their increasing political differences at the time of his deportation, Garvey might have hoped he could draw on support from the left. Mistakenly in this writer’s view, the black left in Harlem actually supported his deportation. Garvey had given them good ammunition to do so in 1922 when he went to Atlanta to speak to the assistant Grand Wizard of the Klu Klux Klan, which like UNIA was growing fast.

Garvey defended that action partly as tactics to defend the position of UNIA branches in the South, but he was also forthright in saying that black nationalists and white supremacists had something in common, and that he looked to whomever could help achieve that something in common.

He had asked the Iranian delegation to the League of Nations to appeal on the UNIA’s behalf for him to be given control of the German colonies in Africa, surrendered to the League at the end of World War 1. He got the Southern racist and segregationist Senator Bilbo to sponsor a bill to repatriate blacks to Africa.

The left rightly opposed Garvey for acting as if he was important and clever enough that he could gain benefit from collaboration with those who wanted black people dead or at best kept as second class citizens. They also argued that Garvey was an obstacle to civil rights in the USA. If Garvey could persuade American public opinion and the state that black people just wanted to return to Africa, then why would they need legal equality?

To the derision for his plans for repatriation to Africa, Garvey replied: “It does not mean that all Negroes must leave America and the West Indies, and go to Africa to establish a government. It did not take all the white people of Europe to come over to America to lay the foundation of the great republic... The UNIA is not teaching Negroes to discard and throw away opportunities that may be beneficial to them locally…

“To the contrary, we say... seize all opportunities that come to you, but remember that our success, educationally, industrially and politically, is ultimately based upon the protection of a nation formed by ourselves. And that nation can be nowhere else but in Africa.”

The closest Garvey got to repatriation was his deal in 1924 with the President of Liberia for 500 square miles of land for him to colonise with UNIA supporters. The deal never came to fruition. He was beaten by the Firestone Tyre Corporation in the competition for that patch of land. Firestone intended to extract rubber from it.

The Messenger, the publication of A Philip Randolph, allied with the Socialist Party, and The Crusader of Cyril Briggs and the African Blood Brotherhood, both criticised Garvey, but in different terms

Briggs had tried to work within the UNIA. He wanted to change the course of the movement and get its members to see that the anti-imperialist worldview the UNIA said it embraced could best be sustained by allying with Bolshevik Russia. The Crusader’s appraisal was driven more by a criticism of Garvey’s pomposity, hectoring, and pageantry than of his movement, or even of the fact that he was a black capitalist.

Critiquing aims

Randolph and the Socialist Party were more wary of Garvey from the beginning. Their critique was more of the UNIA’s stated aims. Randolph wrote in The Messenger “If we find, upon examination, that the Garvey Movement is opposed to the interests, or that it does not advance the interests of working people, and that 98 percent of Negroes are working people, it is certainly beyond the realm of debate that the said movement is not a promise but a definite menace to Negroes”.

Garvey felt he provided for the membership of the UNIA. It had its own welfare services, it employed at least a thousand people through its businesses. It briefly had its own militia. And at its top was the Black Star Line. It always struggled. That it was black-owned and managed made the venture more difficult. The weight of opposition to it would eventually lead to its collapse, financial and political.

At the time of Garvey’s downfall in the USA, 35,000 people had bought stock in his venture. It was over supposed “mail fraud” — offering for sale shares in a ship which the Black Star Line did not actually own — that Garvey would end up jailed. Whether or not there was some dodgy trading is somewhat beside the point. Garvey was almost certainly stitched up. The FBI of J. Edgar Hoover had been after him for some time.

He had a growing conflict with the left, but it was the bourgeois media and the mainstream political leadership that really tore into him as “the most dangerous man in America”. His opponents in the Socialist Party, the African Blood Brotherhood and the Communist Party, themselves all feeling the heat of the FBI, chose not to protest his arrest. Instead they joined in with the condemnation of Garvey as the megalomaniac fraudster who was a danger to organised labour and black civil rights.

On his release from prison he was deported in 1927. The NAACP under W E B Du Bois helped to lead the charge to deport Garvey. The Messenger joined in. The Crusader never backed deportation (Briggs, after all, was also an immigrant from the Caribbean), but it kept up its attacks on Garvey and did not oppose his imprisonment.

Briggs had now developed a personal feud with Garvey, mostly because of Garvey continuing to accuse Briggs of being a white man, masquerading as black to trick his followers. The Messenger’s critique was more thoroughgoing, but Chandler Owen in particular went all out to champion Garvey’s deportation, contacting black academics and thinkers to try and put together a symposium in The Messenger supporting his deportation.

To arguments that backing Garvey’s removal ran against socialist principles, Owen replied only “deportation for the expression of political and class war opinions” could be flatly opposed. Randolph never directly challenged Owen in print over support for deportation, but instead wrote a four part series “The Only Way to Redeem Africa” laying out a political critique of Garveyism.

The hostility to Garvey from the black left in Harlem was not universal among other socialists and communists.


Communist Party leader Robert Minor wrote this tribute to Garvey in the Daily Worker in 1924. It serves as a response to those supporting his deportation. It is politically weak on Garveyism itself, but makes a valid case as to why chiming in with the US government was a mistake.

“I am obliged to look beyond the details [of DuBois’ criticisms] at the apparent fact that a government that hates and despises the Negro masses, a government that hates the working classes, and which has never been unforgiving to grafting schemes, that such a government does not find: a friend in Garvey.

“And above it all towers the fact that the Universal Negro Improvement Association, the largest organisation of Negroes in the world, is made up almost entirely of the working class. I am waiting for some Negro leader who has organised more Negroes than Marcus Garvey has organised, to criticise Garvey, and I frankly confess that if such a leader is given a longer term in Leavenworth than Garvey received, I will listen to him more attentively.

“The lickspittles of capitalism in Washington do not love Marcus Garvey. This alone ought to make the working class think twice about condemning the man. His enemies say the government condemns Garvey for using questionable financial methods for the purpose of fleecing the masses of uneducated Negro workers. But I don’t think the Teapot Domers at Washington have any objection to fleecing the Negro masses.

“I think their solicitude is based on something else: the fact that Garvey has organised many thousands of Negroes of the class that is destined to take over the earth, and makes a militant demand for a sweeping international liberation of colonial peoples”.

Isolated and unsuccessful in Jamaica after 1927, Garvey moved to London in 1935 and died there in 1940. In an obituary in the heterodox-Trotskyist Labor Action, C L R James would compare Garvey’s demagogicmethods to Hitler (pre-Holocaust), while also insisting on the progressive element in his movement.

“The first thing to note is that he burst into prominence in the post-war period, when revolution was raging in Europe and the workers were on the move everywhere. The Negro masses felt the stir of the period, and it was that which made Garvey... Why? Garvey was a reactionary. He used fierce words but he was opposed to the labor movement and counseled subservience to bosses. One reason for his success was that his movement was strictly a class movement. He appealed to the black Negroes against the mulattoes. Thus at one strike he excluded the Negro middle class, which is very largely of mixed blood. He deliberately aimed at the poorest, most down-trodden and humiliated Negroes.

“The millions who followed him, the devotion and the money they contributed, show where we can find the deepest strength of the working-class movement, the coiled springs of power which lie there waiting for the party which can unloose them.

“Garvey, however, was a race fanatic. His appeal was to black against white. He wanted purity of race. A great part of his propaganda was based on the past achievements of blacks, their present misery, their future greatness.

“With that disregard of facts which characterize the born demagogue, he proclaimed there were 400 million Negroes in the world, when there are certainly not half as many. Who does all this remind us of? Who but Adolf Hitler? The similarity between the two movements does not end there. The Negroes were too few in America for Garvey to give them excitement by means of baiting whites as Hitler baited the Jews. But his program had a nebulousness similar to the the Nazi program.

“Was this the reason that long before Hitler, he anticipated the Nazi leader in his emphasis on uniforms, parades, military guards, in short, the dramatic and the spectacular? Stupid people saw in all this merely the antics of backward Negroes. Recent events should give them an opportunity to revise their judgements...”

To qualify his condemnations, James wrote: “No revolution is ever made except when the masses... see a vision of a new society. That is what Garvey gave [African-Americans]...

“More than in all the theses of the Comintern, a basis for the building of a real mass movement among the Negroes lies in a thorough study of this first great eruption of the Negro people”.

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