'Black Moses' Lives On: How Marcus Garvey's Vision Still Resonates : Throughline Decades before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey attracted millions with a simple, uncompromising message: Black people deserved nothing less than everything, and if that couldn't happen in the United States, they should return to Africa. This week, the seismic influence and complicated legacy of Marcus Garvey.

'Black Moses' Lives On: How Marcus Garvey's Vision Still Resonates

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/965503687/1200556861" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

RUND ABDELFATAH, HOST:

Hey - just dropping in before we start to remind you that THROUGHLINE trivia is tonight. We're celebrating Black History Month with three rounds of trivia inspired by some of our favorite THROUGHLINE episodes.

RAMTIN ARABLOUEI, HOST:

Come throw down with us and our trusty co-host Terri Simon tonight at 8 p.m. Eastern Standard Time. RSVP and find all the information you need at nprpresents.org.

ABDELFATAH: Thanks to the History Channel's "The Food That Built America" for their support of this event. OK - on with the show.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRDS CHIRPING)

ABDELFATAH: In the late spring of 1921, Josie Gatlin, a resident of Okmulgee, Okla., saw a note come through the crack beneath her door.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR KNOCKING)

ABDELFATAH: She picked it up.

(SOUNDBITE OF PAPER RUSTLING)

ABDELFATAH: She read it and immediately realized that she was in danger, just like the other 3,000 Black residents in her town.

(SOUNDBITE OF HORSES GALLOPING)

COLIN GRANT: When notes came through your door saying, leave now or suffer the consequences...

ABDELFATAH: The warning was clear, and so was the choice.

GRANT: What are you going to do? You're going to pack up and leave.

(SOUNDBITE OF HORSES GALLOPING)

GRANT: Josie Gatlin, like many people, feared for her life, feared the Ku Klux Klan and had to get out.

ARABLOUEI: The threat was delivered on cards commanding Black residents to leave the state or suffer the consequences. Even a local newspaper allegedly published a similar warning. For a Black citizen of Oklahoma, this threat was real, terrifyingly real.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOGHORN BLOWING)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Josie Gatlin) Help us to help you help yourself and the Negro race in general. Do your full share in helping to provide a direct line of steamships owned, controlled and manned by Negroes to reach the Negro peoples of the world.

ABDELFATAH: Josie Gatlin was determined to escape the terror. And she, like many others, knew where to go - the Black Star Line.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Josie Gatlin) Advantageous investments should go to purchasing shares in the Black Star Line and reap the reward that is bound to follow.

ABDELFATAH: The Black Star Line company was a fleet of passenger ships Josie assumed she'd board in New York City that would take her to safety and real freedom in Liberia, West Africa.

OUSMANE POWER-GREENE: The Black Star Line becomes somewhat of an embodiment of the possibility of Black independence.

GRANT: So people like Josie Gatlin believed that the Black Star Line and Liberia offered an opportunity for their salvation.

POWER-GREENE: African Americans were very proud if they had these certificates that made them a part of this joint stock company, the shipping line that would stream people and goods from the continent of Africa directly to Black communities.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Marcus Garvey) Babylon did it. Syria did it. France under Napoleon did it. Germany under Prince von Bismarck did it. America under George Washington did it. Africa, with 400 million Black people, can do it.

(APPLAUSE)

ABDELFATAH: These are the words of Marcus Garvey. He's the man who came up with the idea for the Black Star Line. His pitch was simple. The only way for Black people to survive is to liberate themselves from white society.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Marcus Garvey) If you cannot do it, if you are not prepared to do it, you will die.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOGHORN BLOWING)

ARABLOUEI: Put yourself in the shoes of Josie Gatlin for a second. You live in a racist state in a racist country, and your life is in danger. And here's Marcus Garvey with a real, tangible promise of liberation - not just something symbolic, an actual escape, a ticket on a steamship heading for Africa. For people like Josie, real hope was alive in the voice of Marcus Garvey.

GRANT: She, like many people, would turn up to the offices of the Black Star Line agents with her shares in the Black Star Line in her hand, believing that it was the equivalent of a ticket for passage to Liberia.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOGHORN BLOWING)

ARABLOUEI: I'm Ramtin Arablouei.

ABDELFATAH: I'm Rund Abdelfatah. And you're listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.

ARABLOUEI: On this episode, the visions of Marcus Garvey.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARABLOUEI: For 400 years, the descendants of Africans in the Western Hemisphere have been made to live in nations built upon the wealth garnered from their oppression. It's a mass injustice that existed across centuries and vast distances. But this history is not only one of suffering and injustice. It's also a history of profound transformation, the blending of cultures and languages that would change the entire world. The descendants of Africans in the Americas birthed new art, innovations and stunning visions of the future.

ABDELFATAH: Over the next three weeks, THROUGHLINE is dedicating our show to profiling three visionaries - Marcus Garvey, Octavia Butler and Bayard Rustin - Black Americans whose ideas, actions and imaginations have shaped the world we live in. Their complicated stories, full of tragedies and victories minor and major, give us a glimpse into the richness of Black history and why it's especially important for those of us who don't share that heritage to understand that it's only through our actions and imaginations that we, as the famed poet Sonia Sanchez said, can finally be.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ABDELFATAH: This is Mariela (ph) from Rockville, Md. You're listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR - greatest show. Love you guys.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON, BYLINE: Part 1 - Let's Get Free.

SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, BYLINE: Every time you see another nation on the African continent become independent, you know that Marcus Garvey is alive. All the freedom movements that are taking place here in America are initiated by the work and teachings of Marcus Garvey. Malcolm X.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ASTRONOMY (8TH LIGHT)")

BLACK STAR: (Rapping) Against the canvas of the night appears a curious celestial phenomena - Black people unite, and let's all get down - called Black Star. We got to have what? We got to have that love. What is the Black Star?

ARABLOUEI: This is the song "Astronomy (8th Light)" by Black Star, a rap group composed of the legendary emcees Mos Def and Talib Kweli.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ASTRONOMY (8TH LIGHT)")

BLACK STAR: (Rapping) Black like my baby girl's stare, Black like the veil that the muslimina wear, Black like the planet that they fear - why they scared? Black like the slave ship that later brought us here.

ARABLOUEI: The title and the concept of the album were a tribute to the Black Star Line. It came out in 1998, over 80 years after Josie Gatlin showed up to board that steamship. The song was just one piece of a larger cultural celebration of Blackness that reemerged again in the 1990s. Think about the clothing line Cross Colours or Spike Lee's movies or Sister Souljah. It was the continuation of a notion of unity across and between Africa and its diaspora, an idea called Pan-Africanism.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ASTRONOMY (8TH LIGHT)")

BLACK STAR: (Rapping) ...When the moon shine newly. You know who else is a Black Star? Who? Me. You know who else is a Black Star? Who? Me. You know who else is a Black Star? Who? We.

POWER-GREENE: You know, the Black Star Line is going to be, you know - it's going to end up being, even as a metaphor for musicians later, as this idea of a global Pan-Africanism.

ARABLOUEI: This is Ousmane Power-Greene. He's a professor of history at Clark University.

POWER-GREENE: That's what it comes back to because it's concrete. It situates Pan-Africanism into objects, a ship that you could actually see pull into the harbor.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARABLOUEI: This idea is the legacy of Marcus Garvey. Pan-Africanism has lasted for over a century. How does that happen? To understand, we have to go back to the beginning of Marcus Garvey's story in Jamaica.

(SOUNDBITE OF WAVES CRASHING)

ARABLOUEI: Marcus Mosiah Garvey Jr. was born in Saint Ann's Bay, Jamaica, in 1887. His family was near the bottom of the social ladder for one reason - skin color.

GRANT: Jamaica is a pigmentocracy. The darker skin you had, the worse things were for you.

ARABLOUEI: This is Colin Grant.

GRANT: I'm the author of "Negro with A Hat: The Rise And Fall Of Marcus Garvey."

ARABLOUEI: Colin is also the son of Jamaican immigrants to the U.K.

GRANT: Marcus Garvey was a very Black man. And so during his youth, he would have been at the footstool of society. His father was a mason, and his mother cleaned and did ancillary jobs for people.

ARABLOUEI: Despite their place in society, Garvey's parents were able to send him to school.

GRANT: He was an extraordinary young boy who'd always had a fascination for words. It was said that he would learn two or three words a day and factor them into a conversation that he had at night.

ARABLOUEI: He wanted to write, to be a journalist. As a teenager, he took a job as a printer's apprentice.

GRANT: That job, that apprenticeship, was a rather remarkable job in that it brought him into contact with words in a way that he could only dream of.

ARABLOUEI: He read. He wrote. He imagined. And he did something that would set the tone for the rest of his life. He rebelled.

GRANT: He became a manager on the lower rungs of management with a printing firm at a time when there was a strike with the workforce. And he was a manager, so he should have sided with the management. But, in fact, he didn't. He sided with the workers, went on strike.

ARABLOUEI: The company eventually broke the strike and fired many of the staff, including Marcus Garvey.

GRANT: So now he was without work. He was without the means to support himself or his mother and his sister. And so, like many young Jamaicans, he decided to leave to go to Costa Rica. So he went there almost as a seasonal worker to be a timekeeper on a banana plantation.

ARABLOUEI: This was the era of the banana republics. Massive companies ran industrial farms that basically controlled the countries they operated in. In this oppressive environment, it didn't take long for Marcus Garvey to rebel again.

GRANT: There was trouble there as well. There was strikes. There was conflicts between the managers and the workers. And again, Marcus Garvey sided with the workers rather than with the managers.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GRANT: The important thing to say about Jamaicans is that the word respect is very important to them, and that respect comes out of the disrespect of slavery. At the end of slavery, the first thing that people did was to start to call themselves Mr. and Mrs. They paid each other huge amounts of respect. As a very vibrant, very headstrong young man, I think Garvey was offended by the attitude and the treatment of his compatriots.

ARABLOUEI: And he didn't hold back from criticizing his bosses and their bosses.

GRANT: In a very intemperate way sometimes, chastised the plantation owners and the authorities much to their disapproval - and it led to his eventual expulsion.

ARABLOUEI: Garvey would only last about two years in Costa Rica. Out of work again, he looked for a better life on the other side of the Atlantic. He arrived in London in 1912, where he got a job working for a man...

GRANT: ...Called Duse Mohamed Ali, who was this wonderful theater impresario. He was an entrepreneur, and he also had begun and ran a Black newspaper called the African Times and Orient Review.

ARABLOUEI: Technically, Garvey was hired as a...

GRANT: ...Messenger and a handyman. But he was also a very ambitious young man, and he'd already begun to think of himself as a writer. And within a fairly short space of time, he managed to convince Duse Mohamed Ali to allow him to write an essay about the history of the British in Jamaica.

ARABLOUEI: And to do that, he would need a way to do the necessary research.

GRANT: He persuaded Duse Mohamed Ali to write a letter of support for him to become a member of the library of the British Museum. And it was in the library of the British Museum that Garvey first came across people like Booker T. Washington.

SAM SANDERS, BYLINE: (Reading) Any man, regardless of color, will be recognized and rewarded just in proportion as he learns to do something well, learns to do it better than someone else, however humble the thing may be.

GRANT: And that changed his life fundamentally.

SANDERS: (Reading) As I have said, I believe that my race will succeed in proportion as it learns to do a common thing in an uncommon manner, learns to do a thing so thoroughly that no one can improve upon what it has done, learns to make its services of indispensable value.

GRANT: The big idea that Booker T. Washington gave Marcus Garvey was one of Black self-sufficiency, the idea that you should not rely upon anybody other than yourself to advance your own life, the idea that the white man could not be trusted to provide any kind of help for the Black man was something that Garvey breathed in. Stay and build for yourself and try to find like-minded people to build something that will sustain you through life.

ARABLOUEI: But Garvey also came across a more radical idea, an idea that pushed against everything he'd ever been taught in school as a child, an idea that would consume him for the rest of his life.

GRANT: So there were people in Jamaica who were embarrassed by the notion of Africa. Africa was only a place you thought of when the collection plate came round on Sunday for the poor, starving Africans. It was not a place you wanted to be associated with.

ARABLOUEI: Garvey read the works of Black scholars who raged against this shame. They pointed to the cultural and scientific achievements of African civilizations. They insisted that salvation could only be found in the continent that so many Black people were taught to hate.

GRANT: So in a way, this is a new idea for him, the idea of Africa being a place that could be something of a salvation for Black people. And those ideas began to blossom very strongly in London between 1912 and '14.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARABLOUEI: A fire was growing in Garvey. He was filled with new discoveries. He became energized by all the knowledge he gained combing through the books in London's best libraries. In 1914, he returned to Jamaica. He had a plan to put his voice to use. He very quickly founded a fraternal organization called the Universal Negro Improvement Association.

GRANT: And that was an association that was largely built around the idea of debate. There were debating societies to which Garvey belonged in Jamaica. And Garvey was born in St. Ann's Bay. He was born in the countryside. He was born with a country accent, and he came to the capital, Kingston. And as is the case in many countries around the world, the chances for you to improve yourself are wedded to how you sound, so Garvey did not want to sound like a country bumpkin. He Wanted To sound like a metropolitan aesthete. He took elocution lessons, and he entered elocution competitions, which were widely attended in Jamaica at the beginning of the 20th century. It became very, very good.

POWER-GREENE: So Garvey understood pretty quickly the importance of oratory, understood that ordinary Black people in the United States and other parts of the world wanted vision.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARABLOUEI: But just as he did before, he grew restless and went looking for opportunity. This time, he made his move to the historic center of Black American culture, Harlem, New York City.

GRANT: He came to Harlem in 1916, and it was rather fortuitous that he came at a time when there was this burgeoning of the street orators, the ebony sages, as they called them.

(CROSSTALK)

GRANT: And these orators would gather as Speakers' Corner, 135th Street and Lenox Avenue.

(CROSSTALK)

GRANT: And they would come with their ladders and their boxes. And they would stand, and they would deliver their sermons. And Garvey was rather intrigued and drawn automatically towards them.

(CROSSTALK)

GRANT: And at that time - it has been said that of the population of Harlem round about that time, 1916, one-fifth of the people in Harlem were from the Caribbean. And so in a way, Garvey had a ready-made audience.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GRANT: The people who already were drawn to his sound, to the Caribbean lilt of his standard Caribbean voice...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Marcus Garvey) We are men, human beings capable of the same acts as any other race, possessing the same circumstances, the same intelligence as any other race.

GRANT: People were just amazed by the great silver-tongued orator in their midst. I mean, Garvey had a voice like thunder.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Marcus Garvey) Now, Africa's been sleeping, not dead, only sleeping. Today Africa is walking about not only on our feet, but on our brains.

GRANT: Without amplification, Garvey could be heard 10 blocks away from 135th Street to 125th Street.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Marcus Garvey) You can enslave for 300 years the bodies of men. You can shackle the hands of men. You can shackle the feet of men. You can imprison the bodies of men. But you cannot shackle or imprisoned the minds of men.

GRANT: But it wasn't just the power of his voice. It was what he was saying that really drew people in 'cause he was speaking their thoughts.

POWER-GREENE: He really embodies the sort of spirit, you know, of sort of a proud Black man. So that's sort of his trajectory, his emergence on the international stage. And arriving in New York - you know, the late teens, it has a very strong tradition of African American intellectuals and leaders - right? - and then pretty quickly eclipsed, actually, with his movement that includes thinking about working-class Black people and thinking specifically about charisma - right? - being charismatic and being bombastic and over the top.

GRANT: He was a great romancer and dreamer, and he articulated in a way that people thought they were hearing themselves. Within a few months, he became the person that anybody with any kind of feeling about wanting to tap into the zeitgeist, that person had to hear Marcus Garvey.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARABLOUEI: Marcus Garvey had become a well-known figure among Black activists and leaders in America. He would travel all over the country to spread his message of Black empowerment. But he wouldn't have to go far to find detractors. Coming up, another Black leader in New York City becomes Garvey's greatest critic.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

JEFF ANDERSON: Hi. My name is Jeff Anderson. I'm a professional long-haul truck driver, and you're listening to THROUGHLINE on NPR. I love listening to THROUGHLINE every week while driving the roads of America.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Part 2 - The President Of Africa.

MERAJI: Marcus Garvey was the first man of color to lead and develop a mass movement. Garvey was the first man on a mass scale and level to give millions of Negroes a sense of dignity and destiny" - Martin Luther King Jr.

ABDELFATAH: Marcus Garvey arrived in Harlem with a bang. There he was, this broad-shouldered Black man, who would wear regal, military-style dress. He was proud and full of bravado, and his message was equally fierce; Black people should be brash about their pride for their culture, their skin color, their history and that the only path to liberation was for all African people of the world to unite.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Marcus Garvey) Fellow citizens of Africa, I greet you in the name of the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League of the World. You may ask, what organization is that? It is for me to inform you that the Universal Negro Improvement Association is an organization that seeks to unite into one solid body the 400 million Negroes in the world, to link up the 50 million Negroes in the United States of America with the 20 million Negroes of the West Indies, the 40 million Negroes of South and Central America with the 280 million Negroes of Africa for the purpose of bettering our industrial, commercial, educational, social and political conditions.

ABDELFATAH: Now, remember; this is the mid-1910s. Think about what the world looked like at that time. World War I had started. America was still in the darkest days of Jim Crow. Woodrow Wilson was screening the racist film "The Birth Of A Nation" at the White House. Much of Africa was still under the rule of colonial European powers. Yet, out of nowhere comes this stocky Jamaican man traveling the United States and the world, preaching Pan-Africanism. Imagine what that would've sounded like. His boldness captured the imagination of millions.

POWER-GREENE: For those who are mired in realities of poverty in the urban North, you know, and for those, as he travels to the Deep South, who are searching for, you know, some sort of leadership in this low time period, Garvey is able to really rally people.

ABDELFATAH: But there's a pattern in history where a quick rise is met with quick pushback.

POWER-GREENE: It is a vision that some of his contemporaries saw as over the top and as not realistic.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As Robert Bagnall) We may ask seriously, is not Marcus Garvey a paranoiac? He certainly manifests many of the characteristic symptoms of this form of insanity. It is hard to understand many of the man's actions except on the assumption that he's insane, that he is a paranoiac. Let us examine the symptoms of paranoia and see how Garvey manifests them.

ABDELFATAH: These are the words of Robert Bagnall, a Black activist and NAACP leader and a contemporary of Marcus Garvey.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As Robert Bagnall) Garvey's speeches are shot through with statements showing that the above is his frame of mind. He's continuously talking of conspiracies and plots. His delusion is that he is the victim of persecution. Listen to these utterances of his, and see if they are not the characteristic utterances of a paranoiac.

ABDELFATAH: This sentiment reflects the deep suspicion many established Black leaders had towards Garvey. And it was one of those leaders, a founder of the NAACP, who eventually became one of Garvey's fiercest and most effective critics - W. E. B. Du Bois.

GRANT: The NAACP had started at the beginning of the 20th century and presided over by W. E. B. Du Bois, who also was the editor of Crisis magazine.

ABDELFATAH: Du Bois, whose voice you'll hear in a moment, was the first Black man to receive a doctorate from Harvard. He was a linguist, a sociologist, a historian, a writer, an editor and a man of profound vision.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

W E B DU BOIS: What is life but the attempt of human beings to be happy and contented in a world which, with all its ill, has a mass of sun and waters, of trees and flowers, of beauty and love?

GRANT: The NAACP - the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People - was a interracial organization. There were Black and white people involved. In fact, most of the readers of Crisis magazine and many of the sponsors of the NAACP were white.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DU BOIS: We want to know what this world is, how its wonderful laws act, who its peoples are and how they think and act and how what they have done in years and ages past may guide us today.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOTS)

ABDELFATAH: When Garvey arrived on the scene in Harlem, World War I was already underway. President Woodrow Wilson claimed the U.S. had to get involved to ensure the world was safe for democracy.

GRANT: And at that critical moment, W. E. B. Du Bois and the NAACP were calling for Black people to put aside their grievances, to put their shoulders to the wheel with their fellow white compatriots in the great fight against Germany. And if they could show that they were just as courageous, just as tenacious as their white compatriots, just as patriotic, then this might be a sea change in the political landscape of America.

ABDELFATAH: As you can probably imagine, this ran against everything Marcus Garvey stood for.

GRANT: People like Garvey were saying from their soapboxes, OK, yes, make the world safe for democracy, Woodrow Wilson. But how about making Georgia safe for the Black man first? At the end of the war, Black people find themselves just where they were at the beginning of the war, and that is at the bottom of society.

ABDELFATAH: What does that mean, the bottom of society? Well, remember Jose Gatlin from Oklahoma? Her story was indicative of the rash of violence and terror happening against Black people in the early 20th century - in fact, the very year Black leaders were debating World War I.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLICE SIRENS)

GRANT: In 1917, there was the East St. Louis riots, where scores of Black people were killed, Black businesses, Black homes were burned to the ground, where Black people were hung from lampposts like rabbits.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DU BOIS: We marched down Fifth Avenue, a silent march with placards. We spent, I think, some $20,000 in running advertisements in the great papers of the United States. We took a whole page in The New York Times. And we had a meeting here in New York City with a number of the leading citizens of the country.

GRANT: The NAACP's response was to lead a silent march protest through New York. Garvey's approach was far more violent. If they kill a Black man in the South, we will kill a white man in the north. Garvey was arguing, in private, in front of his audience, for revenge, an eye for an eye. Those kinds of sentiments found an audience, a willing audience, among many fiery, upset, angered Black people.

ABDELFATAH: Now, let's be clear. We're not trying to stir up an old beef here. Du Bois and Garvey were both clearly dedicated to the liberation of Black people across the world. But World War I revealed a fundamental difference in their views on how to achieve liberation - a difference in imagination.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

POWER-GREENE: When it comes to W. E. B. Du Bois, who is now, you know, by the late 19-teens, is a part of this sort of Pan-African community of intellectuals in Europe, on the continent of Africa and the Caribbean - he doesn't regard Garvey as a person who is a serious sort of organizer towards racial uplift and improvement. And instead, he sees him as a person who is good about rallying masses to, you know, sort of ideas and plans that will never go anywhere.

GRANT: Marcus Garvey is primarily a Pan-Africanist. He's tapping into the - primarily the Booker T. Washington idea of self-sufficiency, of the idea that we must build businesses for ourselves, we must rely on ourselves. What he's not doing is saying there will be a top-down movement. He is not saying that we are going to be led by elites.

POWER-GREENE: Garvey's view about Du Bois is a view of a - you know, sort of, he's a moderate. Their ideas are under the thumb of white people. Unless you get out from under the thumb of sort of white progressive types, you will not be able to have a sort of dignified idea of Africa or Black manhood.

GRANT: Du Bois and the NAACP are a top-down movement. They're an elite movement. They're tertiarily educated. And Du Bois' big idea is that they're going to be the vanguard. They're going to make life great for everybody, but they're going to make life great for themselves first through their intelligence, through their brilliance. They're going to draw 90% of other Black people into the mainstream. Garvey is leading a bottom-up movement. Garvey is leading a mainstream movement that is far more democratic. He's drawing people into his movement initially who are rather like him. They're aware that there is a division, even in America, between Black people, that there is a kind of pigmentocracy, even in America.

POWER-GREENE: You know, why is it that so many light-skinned African Americans are sort of in these positions in organizations like the NAACP, for example?

GRANT: They even have these terrible names. Garvey's followers would call the NAACP the National Association for the Advancement of Certain People. And the NAACP supporters would call the UNIA not the Universal Negro Improvement Association, but rather, the Ugliest Negroes in America.

POWER-GREENE: This is the sort of rancor that Garvey's going to sort of bring up and dredge up that is very sensitive for Black Americans. And it's something that's going to make many really hate and despise Garvey.

GRANT: Garvey, some people would say, accentuates that division, primarily because he feels locked out. But also, I think there's a sense amongst people like Du Bois who rather had the feel to themself, here comes some Johnny-Come-Lately, not even university-educated, not even American, stealing their audience.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: Read the Negro World. See how its pages are thick with the words I, Marcus Garvey, in every issue. See the self-laudation and egoism manifested there. Listen to Marcus Garvey as he speaks. Then you will think that the description I gave above of a paranoiac is one of Garvey. No sane man would be so gross in self-laudation as Garvey.

GRANT: Du Bois said that Garvey was a buffoon, a charlatan dressed in Victorian regalia, prancing up and down streets in New York, bringing Black people into disrepute.

ABDELFATAH: And Garvey said that Du Bois was, quote, "a little Dutch, a little French, a little Negro, a mulatto, a monstrosity."

GRANT: And those things are difficult to come back from. And one of the great tragedies of Marcus Garvey and W. E. B. Du Bois is that they should have been on the same side.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ABDELFATAH: Du Bois and Garvey both saw immense potential in the future of Africa. They were dedicated to supporting the African countries that were fighting for their independence from European imperialists. But Garvey took this dedication to another level. He had a vision of a unified African confederation, sort of a United Nations for Africa. And after World War I, he saw an opportunity to make it happen.

GRANT: Garvey thought that this is a moment where there could be a huge change in the political structure of the world that Africa should be for the Africans, those at home and those abroad. He was a man who saw that there was still possibility to start something huge in Africa, at least in a free part of Africa. And at that time, there are only two nations in Africa which were independent - one was Ethiopia, and the other was Liberia.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ABDELFATAH: Liberia started as a settlement in West Africa that was designed by a group of white American leaders in the early 1800s. They thought Black Americans would be better off living in Africa. As you can imagine, it was very controversial. Many Black leaders like Frederick Douglass rejected it. Still, thousands opted to go, settling a new country. It was more or less a disaster. The people already living in Liberia were not OK with Black Americans just starting a state there. And by the early 20th century, the American dream of Liberia had largely been abandoned. Garvey saw the end of World War I as an opportunity to recast the idea. But this time, instead of a white-led experiment of repatriation, this would be a Black-led symbol of empowerment and self-determination.

GRANT: Garvey knew that the Liberians needed money. Garvey knew that there was land in Liberia. I mean, Liberia had only started in the beginning of the 19th century, colonized by African Americans, and so it was still a rather young state needing money but also needing people if it was going to grow. And Garvey was primarily a great promoter. Garvey knew how to agitate and to get people excited about projects, whether it be a project to start a shipping line, like the Black Star Line, or a project to find their own place in the sun, for Black people to start a new African empire. And that empire he saw, quite clearly and actually quite possibly, could be started in Liberia.

One of the things that Garvey recognized was that, in a place like Jamaica, Africa might be a place that was despised. But in Harlem, in America, there was a great romance about the idea of Africa. There'd been this great breach, obviously, with slavery, but there was a sense that there was always the possibility for a Black Moses to lead Black people to a promised land in Africa.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ABDELFATAH: By the end of the 1910s, he was ready to back up his ideas with action. He began to make serious moves towards Pan-Africanist liberation.

GRANT: In 1920, Garvey organized the International Conference for the Negro Peoples of the World. And at this conference, which is going to be held in Madison Square Garden, he would invite all the representatives of Africans, both in Africa and in the diaspora, to send delegates to begin to write in a kind of bill of rights for Africa and for Africans. And it was a very exciting moment. Twenty-five thousand of his followers from Harlem marched, some in full uniform, to Madison Square Garden, where there would be this great racial sacrament, where there would be the coronation of an African president.

ABDELFATAH: Imagine what this would have looked like to someone walking down the street - thousands of people, many of them in uniform, marching towards the center of Manhattan. Marcus Garvey dressed for a coronation, wearing an elaborate military costume with epaulets, large gold braids and a tall hat plumed with feathers.

GRANT: And at that conference, Garvey was elected the provisional president of Africa.

ABDELFATAH: You heard that right - of all of Africa.

GRANT: Of all of Africa - I mean, there's a slight problem with that because I don't think he'd asked any Africans whether they wanted him to assume this role. But he did invite African delegates, and one of the Africans he invited was a relative of president king of Liberia, a man called Gabriel Johnson. He became a senior figure in Garvey's movement with a healthy stipend.

ABDELFATAH: Garvey hoped Johnson could use his connections to help him buy land in Liberia. That land would be vital to convincing African Americans to make the trip back to Africa to help build up the entire continent. It was an incredibly radical idea. Many called it impossible. But as far as we know...

GRANT: Garvey felt that he had a good chance. But also, there had been this notion and tension in America for quite some time about the wisdom of repatriation, as it were, to Liberia, to Africa. I mean, Liberia began as a kind of repatriation scheme. So there had already been this idea of African Americans going to Africa - starting again, helping to build both Sierra Leone and Liberia.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Marcus Garvey) Pioneers have been sent by this organization to Liberia, and they are now laying the foundation upon which the 400 million Negroes of the world will build. If you believe that the Negro has a soul, if you believe that the Negro is a man, if you believe 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.

ABDELFATAH: Garvey was determined to reignite the idea of Liberia as the new homeland for Black people in the Americas. The idea was bold and seductive. And Garvey came up with another idea that would embody the entire movement - a shipping company that would allow anyone to invest in Black empowerment. He called it...

GRANT: The Black Star Line.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOAT HORN)

GRANT: And that idea really caught on. It was an idea that excited, enthralled Black people, no matter their station, from the poorest to the wealthiest, actually. It was something that even Du Bois recognized was a fantastic idea. I think he was rather jealous of the excitement which it garnered.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GRANT: And the Black Star Line was going to be a shipping line that would trade between America, Europe and Africa. But it also would be the shipping line that would lead to the repatriation of African Americans to Africa. People would purchase tickets to go on board Black Star Line-owned ships to get to Liberia. That was the great idea, and that idea really took off.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) I done put my last dime down on this great, big ship.

GRANT: Any Black person who could muster the $5 to buy a share in Black Star Line could become a shareholder, and pretty soon thousands of them did.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) Get your boat. Leave the dock. Get your boat - sailing on the Black Star Line (ph).

GRANT: And Garvey recognized that this moment in history, if you wanted to show your value as a state, you did it through ownership of ships. You had to have your own fleets. That was the mark that you were serious about yourselves. So that notion excited Black people throughout the world, actually. And when that first ship was bought, the Yarmouth, it was like a dream deferred that had now come true.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Marcus Garvey) We want to build up cities, nations, governments, industries of our own in Africa so that we will be able to have the chance to rise from the lowest to the highest positions in the African Commonwealth.

GRANT: And in a way, Garvey was saying, with the purchase of that ship, with the beginning of the Black Star Line, yes, you can, whereas for decades, for centuries, people have said about Black people, no, you can't.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ABDELFATAH: Investment in the Black Star Line was historic.

GRANT: So much so that at every meeting that Garvey spoke, there would be these huge drums, beer barrel-sized drums, and they would be packed full of dollar notes. Even if people didn't want necessarily to go to Africa, they wanted to show their support for this exciting idea.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GRANT: One of the people I interviewed for my book, Marianne Samad, her father was a member of Garvey's movement. He was, in fact, one of Garvey's bodyguards. And at the time when Garvey started the Black Star Line, Marianne Samad's family were not doing very well. Her father would be sent to buy the groceries because their beds were knocking on their backbones, but he wouldn't return with groceries; he'd return with shares in the Black Star Line. That was the level of enthusiasm and excitement generated by this Star Line.

ABDELFATAH: He was one of thousands of Black people who were inspired by Garvey's vision. The Black Star Line embodied everything he'd preached in Harlem about self-defense, self-confidence and self-sufficiency.

GRANT: These are poor people, and they bought into the idea. They bought into the romance and the dream of it. And it made them feel important. It made them feel part of something larger than themselves. And it also felt possible.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ABDELFATAH: The thing with such epic radical dreams is that sometimes they're so big they collapse in on themselves. Garvey's vision gave hope to millions, but with historical hindsight, it appears it was a false hope. Remember Josie Gatlin from Oklahoma?

GRANT: She, sadly, like many people, suffered for that because that was not going to come to pass.

ABDELFATAH: The historical record of Josie Gatlin's life stops the day she arrived in New York City with her shares of the Black Star Line company in hand. We don't know where she went or how her life panned out. We only know that she never got on the Black Star Line. No one did.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GRANT: So I feel fundamentally that she represents the most poignant personal tales of what happens to a person without funds, without much support other than their dream, if that dream is taken away. And so Garvey's failure is one that impacts terribly on people like Josie Gatlin. But his failure was not willful; his failure was the result of the myriad forces railing against him, which were never going to stop until he was defeated.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ABDELFATAH: Months after Josie left Oklahoma, Tulsa, the beacon of Black excellence and independence in the United States, would burn at the hands of a white mob. It remains one of the most deadly acts of racist terror in American history.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ABDELFATAH: Coming up, Marcus Garvey makes a new enemy - the U.S. federal government.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

AUSTIN: Hi. This is Austin (ph), from Charlotte, N.C. And you're listening to THROUGHLINE on NPR. I just want to say from all of us that have been working out here for the last year and a half, you've been inspiring us and keeping us going. So from all of us, thank you and keep up the great work.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Part 3 - Catching Fire, Then Smoke.

ABDELFATAH: There are those here in this country who are asking, where is the contemporary Martin Luther King? Where is the new Malcolm X? Where is the next Marcus Garvey? And of course, when they think about leaders, they think about Black male, charismatic leaders. But the more radical organizing among young people, which has been a feminist kind of organizing, has emphasized collective leadership - Angela Davis.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARABLOUEI: By the early 1920s, Garvey had a thriving organization, a shipping line, a potential settlement in Africa, along with a growing following. But it was all built on shaky ground. And he stumbled.

GRANT: Throughout the early half of the 20th century, there was lynching still in America. As Garvey's movement grew, he recognized that still the vast majority of Black people in America were in the South. He had many branches in the South. And he would send agents to the South, and those agents would sometimes be beaten up. They were catching fire in the South.

ARABLOUEI: That fire was coming from the early version of the FBI and the Ku Klux Klan.

GRANT: When Garvey saw the Ku Klux Klan, he saw the American authorities. And so he recognized that if he could negotiate with the Ku Klux Klan, they would not attack his agents in the South.

ARABLOUEI: You heard that right. Marcus Garvey, a staunch Black nationalist, decided to open up a line of communication and potentially cooperation with America's most infamous white racist group.

GRANT: So Garvey was feeling a lot of heat. And one way to dampen that heat, one way to get the authorities off his back, was to forge an arrangement with the Ku Klux Klan to say we don't want any part of America. Allow our agents to get into the South to drum up support for the Black Star Line, to drum up support for a new African empire with this beachhead in Liberia, and we will leave.

And by doing so, Garvey bought himself some time he felt. But he made a huge mistake. Many, many Black people vehemently despised the Ku Klux Klan. And for them, this was a betrayal which they couldn't quite fathom. And so he lost momentum then, and he lost a huge amount of respect and support.

ARABLOUEI: It was a huge strategic and, many would argue, ethical mistake. And it happened at a moment when Garvey could least afford to stumble.

GRANT: I don't know how Marcus Garvey got out of bed in the mornings because he was feeling the heat from everywhere. He was feeling the heat from a dwindling number of supporters. He was feeling the heat from informants within his organization, the FBI informants.

ARABLOUEI: The authorities were also investigating Garvey for mail fraud. In a memo written by a young Justice Department staffer named J. Edgar Hoover in 1919, Garvey was accused of essentially making false promises to customers, selling them tickets to board a ship he hadn't even bought yet. And on top of that...

GRANT: He was feeling the heat from buying ships that were rusty, leaking wrecks. The money was being funneled into this black hole for no good return.

ABDELFATAH: And while all this pressure is mounting, W. E. B. Du Bois accused Garvey of essentially being a fraud, which led to even more problems.

GRANT: He's feeling the heat from the way that the authorities in Liberia were being turned against him by the whispering of W. E. B. Du Bois, but also by the corruption of the - Liberian authorities were taking his money but not doing anything with it. So Garvey was about to implode.

ABDELFATAH: Finally, Garvey was arrested and formally charged with mail fraud. But then at the trial, Garvey made his situation worse with another bad choice.

GRANT: Marcus Garvey sacked his lawyer and thought he could defend himself. It is often said about trials that the man who defends himself has a fool for a client. Marcus Garvey, this great orator, the man who could move thousands of people with his oration, who spoke to people as if they were hearing themselves, he brought to bear in that court the same kind of approach to oration, to communication that had served him so well for thousands of people.

But now he's in a tiny court. And he's bombastic. He's overbearing. He's annoying people. He's droning on and on. He's not allowing the judge to say two words. He's speaking over everybody. The trial is going on and on and on. And he doesn't recognize that all the people whom he feels will back him, his supporters whom he's given great opportunities in places of importance in the Black Star Line are also going to be the people who turn against him. So his allies turn into his enemies. And the trial ends with him being found guilty and sent to the Atlanta penitentiary for two years.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Marcus Garvey) From the graves of millions of my forebears at this hour, I hear the cry. And I'm going to answer it even though hell is cut loose before Marcus Garvey.

GRANT: He pens the most remarkable letter to his followers.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Marcus Garvey) From the silent grace of millions who went down to make me what I am, I shall make for their memory, this fight shall leave a glaring page in the history of man. And the day when I forsake my people, may God almighty say, there shall be no more life for you.

GRANT: He's beaten but unbowed. And he's saying to his followers, who may have dwindled, but there's still thousands and thousands of followers out there who still believe that he's wrongly been persecuted. He's saying to them, look for me in the whirlwind of the storm. Look about you because I will come back tenfold.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Marcus Garvey) I intend with your help and God's grace, to continue, because my work has only just begun. Future generations shall have in their hands the guide by which they shall know the sins of the 20th century.

GRANT: Hundreds of people wrote to the president saying Garvey is innocent. You must commute his sentence. Let him go. Those thousands of people who had lost money through Garvey in the Black Star Line, they wouldn't have done that if they did not believe that fundamentally Marcus Garvey was a sincere ambassador for Black people. He suffered terribly in that jail. But eventually, he was deported in 1927, a rather beaten and broken man, back to Jamaica.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ABDELFATAH: Marcus Garvey's career was more or less over. What he left behind was a promise, one of the most ambitious visions of emancipation, self-worth and self-determination that Black Americans had ever seen - and a company in ruins.

GRANT: Well, the Black Star Line is bankrupted. Those ships weren't seaworthy. The investors lose terribly. Nobody benefits from the Black Star Line. That dream disappears. And the pity of it is that it had great potential. Garvey famously said that he gave everybody a chance, everybody in his organization who had senior positions, he gave them a chance to get on and do well in the Black Star Line. And every single one of them fleeced him, fleeced Black people and fleeced the Black Star Line. That's what he believed. And largely, I think that was true.

This is the great conundrum of Marcus Garvey. He was a great promoter. He managed to excite people. But he was a poor businessman. Fundamentally, he was a great starter but not such a great finisher. He was a dreamer and a romancer. And the great thing about Marcus Garvey is that he encouraged people to believe in themselves. I mean, it sounds quite small, but it's a quite big thing. When you're at the footstool of society, you are despised. You are the wretched of the earth. Garvey was saying, fundamentally, you are worthy. His greatest sale was to sell the Black person to themselves.

ABDELFATAH: No matter how you choose to look at his legacy, Marcus Garvey's impact on future generations is undeniable. His ideas have remained a powerful part of our culture. Black empowerment and Pan-Africanism were a part of his vision for the future. And Colin Grant says that Garvey remains alive because his ideas live on to the people who still aspire to live the future he dreamed.

GRANT: The Black Star Line was a great symbol of Black potential. Black Star Line dignified Black excellence, and that notion of possibility of there being hope through endeavor is something that is remembered even till today. And fundamentally, Marcus Garvey's dreams have been kept alive through people who have cottoned on to that as a symbol of Black potential, of greatness. When I was researching Marcus Garvey, I came across a speech they gave in Nova Scotia in the 1930s. I was reading this long speech and towards the end of the speech came across this line, this phrase which looked very familiar. And the line was...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "REDEMPTION SONG")

BOB MARLEY: (Singing) Emancipate yourself from mental slavery. None but ourselves can free our mind.

GRANT: We must emancipate ourselves from mental slavery because whilst others might free the body, none but ourselves can free the mind.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "REDEMPTION SONG")

MARLEY: (Singing) How long should they kill our prophets while we stand aside and look?

GRANT: If you just pause to think about that, those are the words of Bob Marley in the song "Redemption Song." So Bob Marley, many reggae stars, they read Marcus Garvey, and they weaved the writings and ambitions and dreams of Marcus Garvey into the songs.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GRANT: So when you sway to Bob Marley and the Wailers, you're really dancing to Marcus Garvey.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARABLOUEI: On the next episode of our series, Imagining New Worlds, Octavia Butler.

TERRI SIMON: Octavia Butler was for me one of the first - kind of my intro into sci-fi that was more about like imagined futures, as opposed to a weird, like, fairy past that was vaguely based in, like, European monarchs or something where, like, Black people didn't exist.

ARABLOUEI: And where, therefore, Terri didn't exist. This is Terri, by the way.

SIMON: I'm Terri Simon. I'm a professional nerd.

ARABLOUEI: And a professional educator and trivia writer who happens to be the co-host of our trivia nights. Terri loves Octavia Butler for writing futures that include her. She loves her for writing books about worlds that make her better understand her own. And she loves Octavia Butler for being a really good writer.

SIMON: She wrote so many different types of narratives. And so there's "Kindred," which is historical based and not super sci-fi. But then there's also "Wild Seed" and "Xenogenesis." And, like, this woman goes to sleep one day and the world is over and she wakes up on a spaceship. And there are these aliens who are, like, absolutely appalling and disgusting to humans. But they have a really interesting, like, language and gender and family structure system. And they also have a lot of tentacles. And there's a whole bunch of, like, super hot, very strange sex scenes.

ABDELFATAH: Quite the range. And yet, as out of this world as these stories sound, Terri could always somehow relate.

SIMON: I now deeply associate all those books with my own relationships because I have a relationship with the book and because my relationship with people have been cemented or enriched by the books.

ABDELFATAH: Next week on THROUGHLINE, Octavia Butler's world.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARABLOUEI: That's it for this week's show. I'm Ramtin Arablouei.

ABDELFATAH: I'm Rund Abdelfatah. And you've been listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.

ARABLOUEI: This episode was produced by me...

ABDELFATAH: ...And me and...

JAMIE YORK, BYLINE: Jamie York.

LAWRENCE WU, BYLINE: Lawrence Wu.

LAINE KAPLAN-LEVENSON, BYLINE: Laine Kaplan-Levenson.

JULIE CAINE, BYLINE: Julie Caine.

VICTOR YVELLEZ, BYLINE: Victor Yvellez.

PARTH SHAH, BYLINE: Parth Shah.

ARABLOUEI: Fact-checking for this episode was done by Kevin Volkl.

ABDELFATAH: Thank you to Shereen Marisol Meraji, Sam Sanders, J.C. Howard, Marc Rivers, Rob Bobb-Semple and Yolanda Sangweni for their amazing voiceover work.

ARABLOUEI: Thanks also to Beth Donovan, Yolanda Sangweni and Anya Grundmann.

ABDELFATAH: Our music was composed by Ramtin and his band Drop Electric, which includes...

NAVID MARVI: Navid Marvi.

SHO FUJIWARA: Sho Fujiwara.

ANYA MIZANI: Anya Mizani.

ARABLOUEI: Also, tonight is the night, February 11. THROUGHLINE Trivia is going down at 8:00 p.m. Eastern.

ABDELFATAH: Join us and our trusty co-hosts and Octavia Butler's super fan, Terri Simon, at 8:00 p.m. Eastern. You can RSVP and find all the information you need at nprpresents.org.

ARABLOUEI: Thinks to the History Channel's "The Food That Built America" for their support of this event. See you there.

ABDELFATAH: As always, if you have an idea or like something you heard on the show, email us at throughline@npr.org. Or hit us up on Twitter - @throughlinenpr.

ARABLOUEI: Thanks for listening.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: A special thanks to the estate of Samir Naguib for helping to support this podcast.

ABDELFATAH: Ramtin, why do you sound so tired today?

ARABLOUEI: I was staying up late last night writing music for our episode.

ABDELFATAH: Oh, you know what would help?

ARABLOUEI: It's Brewline. I know. They get it. We've been here before.

ABDELFATAH: I was going to say a good night's sleep.

ARABLOUEI: Oh, my bad. I thought you were just going to start going on about Brewline...

ABDELFATAH: Brewline coffee - so good, Ramtin can't stop talking about it.

ARABLOUEI: Grab a bag at nprcoffeeclub.org, so I don't have to go through this anymore.

Copyright © 2021 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.