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Garvey Rang Clarion for Racial Justice


In the late 1800s, Marcus Garvey, a native Jamaican, created an organization called the Universal Negro Improvement Association that eventually grew to tens of thousands of members.

"His organization is one of the first that really celebrated black pride," says Lonnie, Bunch director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington. "It was a beauty that comes out of African culture. He says it's crucially important for blacks to be doctors and lawyers and business people. He's arguing that you have to depend upon yourself first. And when you can do that, then equality would follow."

Marcus Garvey delivered many speeches at Liberty Hall in the Harlem section of New York City. In July of 1921, he recorded one of them into a studio microphone, which somewhat dampened the fiery emotion of his live oratory.

"There are 400 million Africans in the world who have Negro blood coursing through their veins," Garvey noted. "And we believe that the time has come to unite these 400 million people for the purpose of bettering their conditions. We want every Negro to work for one, common object -- that of building a nation of his own on the great continent of Africa."

Africa -- from which many American blacks had come in chains.

Marcus Garvey continued, "If you believe that the Negro has a soul, if you believe that the Negro is a man, if you believe that the Negro was endowed with the senses commonly given to other men by the Creator, then you must acknowledge that what other men have done, Negroes can do. We want to build up cities, nations, governments, industries of our own in Africa, so that we'll be able to have the chance to rise from the lowest to the highest positions in the African commonwealth."

"We sometimes capture Garvey by saying it was a 'Back to Africa' movement," Lonnie Bunch observes. "He recognized that equality would be hard to obtain. But if you had a strong nation in Africa, a nation that was equal to the United States or Great Britain or France, he felt that could exert influence to make sure people were treated fairly, wherever black people were."

Wasn't this, though, surrendering?

Not at all, says Lonnie Bunch. "Garvey didn't want everybody to leave, but rather he wanted to use different pressure points to try to achieve equality in the United States. He felt one of those would be a strong African nation."

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