Here’s a trivia question: what was the largest African American organization in history? Hint: It wasn’t the NAACP, not SNCC or CORE or the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, not even the Nation of Islam with its 1995 Million Man March. Instead, it was the Universal Negro Improvement Association, a curious and short-lived movement that was only incidentally about civil rights or black equality. Run from a Harlem office by the charismatic Afro-Jamaican immigrant Marcus Garvey, the UNIA enrolled four million American members by the mid-1920s and published a newspaper, the Negro World, with an international circulation in the hundreds of thousands. The UNIA, however, was plagued by corruption and mismanagement; Garvey was convicted of mail fraud in 1925 and deported to Jamaica two years later. His movement quickly collapsed.
Garvey’s movement, while wildly popular at the time, doesn’t line up well with modern views on racial justice. Rather than supporting racial equality, Garvey adopted the ideology of pan-Africanism — essentially arguing that people of African descent were a superior race who were destined to reclaim Africa from European imperialists and rule it as a black empire. This approach led to some successful community-building activities, including encouragement of black-owned businesses in Harlem and elsewhere, but it also inspired Garvey to make some odd choices. He purchased a small fleet of leaky ships, dubbed them the “Black Star Line,” and proclaimed that they would carry African Americans to Liberia as an avenging army to drive out white overlords. He even issued a bizarre endorsement of the Ku Klux Klan, arguing that they were only seeking to do for their race what he was trying to do for his.
As a result, many leading African American intellectuals of the 1920s attacked Garvey as a dangerous and self-defeating figure. Chandler Owen and A. Philip Randolph ridiculed him as “a blustering West Indian demagogue who preys upon the ignorant, unsuspecting poor West Indian working men and women who believe Garvey is some sort of Moses.”1 Garvey, wrote W. E. B. Du Bois, “is, without doubt, the most dangerous enemy of the Negro race in America and in the world. He is either a lunatic or a traitor … [who] should be locked up or sent home.”2
Nevertheless, Garvey’s critics couldn’t explain the sheer popularity of the UNIA among rank-and-file African Americans. While Du Bois’s own Niagara Movement failed to attract significant support beyond a few black middle-class intellectuals, millions of African Americans rallied to Garvey’s standard.3
Garvey’s international impact was even greater. In the early 1920s, Anglo-Irish writer Joyce Cary, then in West Africa, was surprised to hear local villagers describe Garvey as “a black king … coming, with a great iron ship full of black soldiers, to drive all the whites out of Africa.”4 Postcolonial African politicians such as Kwame Nkrumah and Jomo Kenyatta saw Garvey as a key philosophical forerunner.5 Garvey may have been a blustering demagogue, but his bluster arguably had more political impact than did Du Bois’s close reasoning and high-minded rhetoric. As Americans prepare to welcome another blustering demagogue into the White House, Garvey can help us understand both why Donald Trump’s movement succeeded and how progressives can fight back effectively against his policies.
As head of the UNIA, Garvey offered his followers two things that were in short supply among Jim Crow-era African Americans. First, his charismatic oratory inspired a strong emotional bond with his listeners. Emotional public speaking was nothing new in African American circles; William G. Allen memorably argued in 1852 that persuasive black oratory would lead to racial equality, and leaders such as Booker T. Washington had been delivering inspirational speeches ever since.6
Garvey’s intense charisma, though, exerted a unique influence on his followers, who responded to Garvey’s speeches as if they were revival sermons.7 “I stood there like one in a trance,” remembered William Lander Sherrill, “every sentence ringing in my ears, and finding an echo in my heart. When I walked out of that church, I was a different man.”8
“When he spoke,” Virginia Collins agreed, “It was as if you were speaking yourself. It was not like somebody speaking to you, but like he was you, or you was he, and it just was a connected link and it was something like fire, like lightning, like something that went through everybody at the same time.”9 (I’d encourage you to click through to that link; you’ll hear the nearly 100-year-old Collins recalling her experiences with Garvey eighty-one years earlier.)
While Garvey’s emotional delivery served as an energizing force for African Americans, the content of his speeches was equally important. Garvey rejected strategies of uplift through education or even of practical politics. Instead, he spun for his followers a bold fantasy of future power, promising them an empire in Africa and a future as imperial overlords. Critics attacked this pan-African approach as reckless and unrealistic, but it was exactly what African Americans wanted to hear. Relegated to second-class citizenship by Jim Crow segregation, abandoned by liberals and terrorized by white racists, and having no power with which to fight back, many black Americans found their plight overwhelming — a great gulf of hopelessness opening before them. For these Garveyites, it wasn’t particularly important whether the pan-African future was realistic; it was a useful fiction that enabled them to get up every day and work to improve their status in American society.
Today, there’s a surprising analogue for Garvey’s use of emotion and fantasy as movement-building techniques: Donald Trump, of all people, based much of his 2016 campaign on the same two strategies. To watch a Trump rally was to see political emotion in action; the energy and fervor of Trump’s followers was palpable. Like Garvey, too, Trump wasn’t particularly concerned with the possible or practical when outlining his political platform; he promised millions of manufacturing jobs, trillions in tax cuts, and Mexican financing for a border wall, none of which seem likely to happen in the way Trump laid them out. It’s easy to attack Trump for lying to his followers, but his fantasies served a political purpose: Trump’s promises so energized the white working class that they voted for him in unprecedented numbers and elected him president. By promising them the impossible, Trump motivated them to work toward and achieve the politically possible.
Trump’s presidency, of course, is likely to benefit the privileged more than anyone else. Garvey’s example, however, shows us that the same techniques can be used to motivate the powerless. Progressive protest movements, and progressive politicians, should learn from Garvey that emotion and fantasy are essential components of any successful social movement. Progressives won’t regain power if they argue, as Hillary Clinton did, that “try[ing] to stir up the passions of people” is merely “what a demagogue does.” They can’t offer Americans merely hard-nosed realism, dismissing solutions such as the $15 minimum wage, single-payer healthcare, and free in-state college tuition as impractical and impossible — even if such goals really can’t be achieved. People won’t respond to advocacy unless they’re being offered inspiration and hope, emotion and fantasy. Garvey and Trump both understood this, though in different ways; now it’s up to American progressives to learn the same lesson.
- Chandler Owen and A. Philip Randolph, editorial in The Messenger, Vol. 4 (July 1922), 437, quoted in Leon Fink, Progressive Intellectuals and the Dilemmas of Democratic Containment (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997), 192. Return to text.
- W. E. B. Du Bois, “A Lunatic or a Traitor,” The Crisis, Vol. 28, No. 1 (May 1924), 8-9. Return to text.
- Mary G. Rolinson, Grassroots Garveyism: The Universal Negro Improvement Association in the Rural South, 1920-1927 (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2007), 17, 103, 107; Claudrena N. Harold, The Rise and Fall of the Garvey Movement in the Urban South, 1918-1942 (New York: Routledge, 2007), 32-35. Return to text.
- Joyce Cary, The Case for African Freedom (London: Secker & Warburg, 1944), 20; Adam Ewing, The Age of Garvey: How a Jamaican Activist Created a Mass Movement and Changed Global Black Politics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014), 76. Return to text.
- Theodore G. Vincent, Black Power and the Garvey Movement (Berkeley, CA: Ramparts Press, 1971), 244-246. Return to text.
- William G. Allen, “Orators and Oratory,” speech delivered June 22, 1852, in Philip S. Foner and Robert James Branham, eds., Lift Every Voice: African American Oratory, 1787-1900 (Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 1998), 246. Return to text.
- Randall K. Burkett, Garveyism as a Religious Movement: The Institutionalization of a Black Civil Religion (Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press and American Theological Library Association, 1978), 7-9, 17. Return to text.
- Quoted in Amy Jacques Garvey, Garvey and Garveyism (Kingston, Jamaica: United Printers, 1963), 251. Return to text.
- Interview with Virginia Collins in Marcus Garvey: Look for Me in the Whirlwind, dir. Stanley Nelson (Arlington, VA: PBS Home Video, 2001); Erica R. Edwards, Charisma and the Fictions of Black Leadership (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2012), 31. Return to text.