"Marcus Garvey and the Politics of Revitalization" by Lawrence W. Levine

The Garvey Phenomenom:

  • In 1916 Garvey arrived in the United States from Jamiaica, and by the early 1920's he had built the largest and most influential African-American movement in American history.
  • By the end of the 1920's Garvey's organization (the United Negro Improvement Association) had collapsed.

Formative Influences: Black Experience in British Empire

  • b. 1887 in British West Indies
  • age 16: formal education: learns printing trade in Kingston and also sets out to train himself as an orator
  • by age 23, Garvey had traveled throughout South America: Costa Rica, Panama, Nicaragua, Spanish Honduras, Colombia and Venezuela
  • In his travels Garvey wrote about the exploitation of blacks in fields, mines, and cities throughout the British colonies.
  • age 25-27, Garvey lives in London.
  • age 27, Garvey returns to Jamaica and founds the UNIA which seeks:
  • to establish industrial colleges for blacks
  • to promote black commerce and industry
  • to promote bonds of unity and brotherhood among blacks throughout the world
  • to create an international pan-African political movement in opposition to European colonialism
  • age 29 (1916), Garvey arrives in the United States and establishes the New York Division of UNIA in Harlem

Receptivity to Garvey's Black Nationalist message:

  • disillusionment with Washington's brand of accommodationism and with DuBois call for assimilation with whites: neither strategy had induced whites to accept blacks
  • rebuff of black soldiers despite their service in WWI
  • 1919: lynchings continue in the South, race riots in Northern cities
  • Blacks had played by the rules and discovered that the rules did not apply to them
  • Blacks were therefore receptive to the new militancy Garvey preached against white oppression and to his call for blacks to look within their own community for protection, understanding and sustenance.

Garvey's Black Revitalization Movement:

  • Blacks should stop emulating whites and instead look to their own people for heroes, martyrs and saints.
  • Blacks should celebrate their own ancient African roots and be great again.
  • Blacks should celebrate the beauty of black women, should give their children black dolls to play with. Blacks should celebrate their kinky hair and 'take the kinks out of their minds instead'.
  • Garvey criticized the black leadership in the United States for being beholden to white philanthropists' money. He visited the NAACP's New York offices and noted that it seemed like everyone there was trying to pass as white.
  • Garvey urged black soldiers returning from Europe and WWI to never be exploited again: "We will only shed our blood to make ourselves free."

Garvey's Mastery of Political Spectacle:

  • Garvey preached black revitalization in a style which could be understood and embraced by the black masses (farmers and workers).
  • He made use of spectacle in political rallies, parades and ceremonies with military uniforms, banners, song, and speeches.
  • Garvey's speeches took on a quasi-religious tone: he evoked conversion experieinces similar to those in black churches; he presented himself as a new Moses, even likened himself to Jesus; he described blacks as a chosen people and urged his followers to conceive of God as black.

Garvey's Economic Program:

  • Garvey envisioned black businesses uniting in a vast conglomerate that would end the people's dependence on whites: self contained production, distribution and consumption.
  • He founded the Black Star Lines: a fleet of ocean liners that would eventually carry the blacks of the New World home to a new nation in Africa
  • Effective propaganda but a business failure: purely symbolic and not pragmatic

Garvey's Racial Policies Tread Close to Fascism:

  • Garvey's Call for Black Separatism
  • He hoped to build an independent African nation which would be powerful enough to unite Black people throughout the world and oppose European imperialism.
  • Garvey was pessimistic about whites and blacks ever being able to live together in harmony.
  • Garvey even reached out to the Ku Klux Klan's platform of racial separatism.
  • Garvey expressed respect for the fascist movement led by Mussolini that had taken power in Italy during the early 1920's


  • ultra-nationalist program reaching back to folk roots and a heroic past
  • racist/ social-Darwinistist platform
  • anti-liberal
  • anti-rational
  • anti-communist