Each February we reflect upon black history and honor prominent black leaders who have made a positive contribution to American history. However, some prominent black leaders are consistently overlooked during this month of black reflection, despite their significant roles in American history. Marcus Garvey (1867-1940) is one such leader who is too often overlooked.
Garvey was a Pan-Africanist and social activist who believed that black Americans should control their own destiny, be self-reliant, and engage in their own commerce and trade with other countries. The charismatic Garvey mobilized one of the largest black movements and launched a commercial enterprise, the Black Star Line.
With Garvey’s organization growing, he attracted the attention of the government. He was subsequently prosecuted for mail fraud and sentenced to five years in prison. After serving three years in prison, President Calvin Coolidge commuted his sentence and he was deported to his native country Jamaica.
Before his incarceration, Garvey was not only conscious of the plight of black people in America; he took actions to improve their standard of living under his organization, the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). Garvey spoke extensively about race relations, black racial pride, and the Back to Africa movement.
There is no question that blacks have made significant progress since Garvey’s time, but as Garvey foresaw, racism continues to persist in America. Possibly the most visible indication of continued racial tension is the unprecedented disrespect, racial innuendos, propaganda, and conspiracy theories leveled at President Obama. Garvey identified the root causes of President Obama’s plight in 1922 when he wrote:
A terrible mistake was made between 40 and 50 years ago when black men were elected to legislative assemblies all over the country, especially in the southern states and even at the national capital when representatives of this race occupied seats in Congress. The mistake was made as far as the white people were concerned. There was a state of dis-organization in the nation, and in that state certain things happened to mere chance. In the chance, dozens of black men became Senators and Congressmen. This opened up to the eyes of the white nation the possibility of the black man governing the white man in these United States of America – the possibility of the black man making laws to govern the white man? This possibility drove them almost to madness, in suddenly rejecting the spirit of the Constitution and the declaration of Lincoln that “all men are created equal,” hence the determination was arrived at, that never again would it be possible for the race of slaves to govern the race of masters within these United States of America.
The mindset of the GOP and the right-wing media as Garvey alluded to is that President Obama should not have been elected president. They want to ensure that another black man is never again elected president of the United States of America. This explains the GOPs unceasing effort to bring down the president. As Garvey asserts, “the possibility of the black man making laws to govern the white man, drove them almost to madness.” This madness is evident in the GOP shutting down the government, trying to repeal Obamacare, and refusing to extend the unemployment benefits.
The racial conditions Marcus Garvey saw in America did not allow him to be optimistic about the future for blacks in America. He could not have envisioned that a black man could one day be elected president. Despite the fact that Garvey and Obama had far different American experiences, they both experienced racially motivated efforts to bring them down. In Garvey’s case, they succeeded, but with President Obama, they failed in his first term. I believe they will fail again in his second term.