Image for Facebook Image for Twitter Image for ASC Multimedia Logo

American Series Introduction

Volume IV: September 1921--September 1922

The period between the second and third UNIA conventions marks the beginning of the UNIA's political decline and the corresponding erosion of its economic base. By the end of the 1922 convention, the morale of the membership would plummet from the notable height it had achieved just one year earlier. Likewise, the movement's spectacular advance over the previous two years was now slowed: at the 1921 convention, 480 divisions were chartered, whereas at the 1922 convention there were 230 divisions added.

During 1921 Garvey continued to base his strategy for African redemption on the prospect of imminent revolutionary upheaval in Europe; but he, like many others of the day, did not realize that the bourgeois political order in Europe had become restabilized. At the end of 1921, therefore, Garvey was still predicting Africa's emancipation on the basis of a political collapse in Europe. He also found renewed hope in the growth of India's noncooperation movement, which reached its height in 1921, as well as in the establishment of the Irish Free State in early 1922.

By October 1921, however, Garvey's own movement was beset by a deepening crisis. Circulation of the Negro World had fallen off, a reflection of the gradual loss of UNIA membership. After September 1921, UNIA officers received little, if any, salary, and in January 1921, the entire executive council met and unanimously agreed to a 40 percent to 50 percent retrenchment of their salaries. Moreover, by December, a series of open revolts erupted within major divisions in Philadelphia, Chicago, and Los Angeles. The winter of 1921--1922 found the UNIA confronting these crises with no prospect for relief. By then the $144,000 raised through the sale of bonds in the Liberian Construction Loan scheme had been expended.

Underlying this decline, however, was the failure of the Black Star Line. Its demise was assured when negotiations with the United States Shipping Board for purchase of the BSL's long-proposed African ship collapsed in March 1922. There were numerous delays in these negotiations while the USSB pondered the sale of the S.S. Orion to the BSL, and they may have been partly the result of pressure from the Department of Justice. During the interval, embarrassing attacks against Garvey appeared in the press. When negotiations finally failed, the BSL sought to recover its $22,500 deposit from the USSB, and a welter of claims arose over the legal ownership of the deposit.

On the political front, Garvey found that his African program had to compete for official recognition and press coverage with W. E. B. Du Bois's Second Pan-African Congress, which opened during the final week of the UNIA's August 1921 convention. In Garvey's view, the Pan-African Congress was the creation of "an admixture of white and colored people," and his attacks against it consequently stressed the theme of racial purity.

Garvey's speeches during this period also reflected a desire to placate the United States government while simultaneously assailing his black critics and denouncing European colonizers of Africa. He went to great lengths to praise President Harding's controversial speech on black-white relations delivered in Birmingham, Alabama, in October 1921. Since his return to America from his Caribbean tour in July 1921, Garvey had been anxious to disavow his association with radicalism, a fact that his black critics on the left, particularly the leader of the African Blood Brotherhood, Cyril V. Briggs, delighted in denouncing. By a strange irony, considering his communist leanings, Briggs became the first person to supply federal investigators with evidence that led to Garvey's eventual indictment on charges of mail fraud. By January 1922 the government was ready to act, and on 15 February 1922 Garvey was indicted on twelve counts of mail fraud along with Elie Garcia, George Tobias, and Orlando Thompson, all officials of the insolvent BSL, which shortly afterward suspended all business.

Garvey's arrest and indictment destroyed any remaining hope that the BSL would raise the performance bond that the USSB had made a condition for the sale of the Orion. At the very moment that the BSL was about to reach an agreement for the necessary bond, news of Garvey's arrest appeared in the newspapers, and the prospective bondholders immediately withdrew from all further negotiations.

By prosecuting Garvey, however, the Department of Justice made him the object of even greater international attention. In fact, Garvey observed that the government's prosecution had made "the cause more saintly to the people." Nevertheless, Garvey viewed the United States government as the unwitting instrument of a conspiracy organized by his black opponents and European governments.

Immediately following his arrest, Garvey launched a legal defense fund that drew strong support from UNIA members worldwide. His faith in the loyalty of the membership was further reinforced by the results of his membership drive in February 1922 through Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, and Kansas. The federal indictment, therefore, did not discredit Garvey in the eyes of his followers; rather, it temporarily strengthened his hold over the movement by arousing its members to new heights of devotion and bringing in a new infusion of contributions.

Garvey lost favor among many of his followers, however, when he disclosed that he had met secretly in Atlanta with the acting imperial wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, Edward Young Clarke, on 25 June 1922. What Garvey thought was a diplomatic triumph proved instead to be anathema to most black people. This act was curiously reminiscent of the "Southernizing" strategy that conservative black politicians advocated after Reconstruction, in the late 1870s, when confronted with the problem of political violence and disfranchisement. The advocates of this strategy called for an alliance to placate their former enemies, namely, conservative southern Democrats, rather than continuing to depend on the Republican party for protection. Yet whereas this earlier policy had been presented as a tactic adopted for expediency, Garvey in 1922 was propounding something more than a tactical retreat: he presented a perspective based on the notion of a national separation of the races ("the development of the two races in their own way to a common standard"). Indeed, Garvey's capitulation to the doctrine of white supremacy ("this is going to be a 'white man's country,' sooner or later, and the best thing possibly we could do is to find a black man's country") occurred well before his Atlanta meeting with the KKK chieftain.

There were to be other major strategic shifts in Garvey's political line during this period. In May 1922 he reversed his position on the Liberian loan that had been provisionally negotiated with the American government: in 1920 and 1921 he had opposed the loan as an unacceptable constraint upon the independence of Liberia, but he now took the view that America was coming to the rescue of Liberia "to put her house in order, thereby making a new start toward the goal of national security." Another shift was his invitation to the American authorities and European colonial governments to send representatives to the 1922 UNIA convention. Then, in his petition to the League of Nations of July 1922, Garvey also modified his previous stand in announcing that the UNIA was not seeking to establish a government over the whole of Africa; instead, he asked only that "certain sections of Africa" be turned over. In a similar vein, he offered the League of Nations his assistance "in enforcing its civilized program for the good of the entire human family," a stance that contrasted with his earlier view of the league as the enforcer of the European partition of Africa, a role he had condemned in 1919 and 1920.

The third convention was dominated at the outset by debates over the selection of delegates to be sent to the League of Nations. It became clear as the convention proceeded that bitter factional disputes had been brewing. In his speech opening the convention, the potentate, Gabriel M. Johnson, found it necessary to call for "better understanding" between Garvey and the members of the UNIA Executive Council, pointing to its absence as "one of the greatest drawbacks to the movement." But this advice failed to prevent Garvey from using his official convention report to repudiate the entire executive council, save two members, as disloyal and dishonest. He also initiated impeachment proceedings against J. D. Gibson, the UNIA surgeon general, and Adrian Johnson, the speaker in convention, with the result that both men were removed from office. Garvey, who had expressed his anger over "plots" against him from within the leadership of the organization, even startled delegates by tendering his resignation, although on the following day they returned him to office with a unanimous vote of confidence, one of the three such votes that he received during the convention.

Among the disputes that arose during the sessions of the convention, the most dramatic was the confrontation that pitted Garvey against the organization's "leader of American Negroes," the prominent black American clergyman Rev. James W. H. Eason. Hints of the impending showdown appeared early in the convention, when Eason demanded the opportunity to deliver a report of his activities directly to the convention rather than to Garvey and the UNIA Executive Council. One significant consequence of the clash between Garvey and Eason was the rift that developed between African-American and West Indian delegates, though Negro World reports of the convention only hinted at it. Eason, who was determined to salvage his reputation in the face of accusations of malfeasance, reacted violently to Garvey's implications about the behavior of UNIA leaders, taking several of Garvey's general remarks personally. Some American delegates also chafed under harsh remarks by fellow delegates about the voting habits of black Americans. As the convention proceeded, some suggested that the "American leader" be chosen only by the American delegates and that the "West Indian leaders" be chosen only by West Indian delegates. Despite the loyal support that Garvey received from Dr. Leroy Bundy, Rev. J. C. Austin, and Rev. J. R. L. Diggs, prominent American-born converts to the UNIA, the dimensions of the rift cannot be underestimated.

With Eason's impeachment and conviction, Garvey was finally rid of an important rival for the movement's allegiance. Loyalty to Garvey became a more important issue than ever before. Now Garvey requested and obtained approval to form a privy council of his appointees to replace most of the previously elected members of the UNIA Executive Council; thereafter, all the council members below the rank of fourth assistant president general, by far the majority, were to be appointees of the president general.

If once again Garvey had silenced his critics within the UNIA's leadership, the price was a badly fractured and demoralized movement. At the same time, his political adversaries outside the UNIA were gaining ground. A. Philip Randolph and Chandler Owen, the black Socialist editors of the Messenger, with the help of Robert Bagnall and William Pickens of the NAACP, felt confident enough to challenge Garvey publicly in August 1922 with a blistering series of speeches delivered to well-attended "Marcus Garvey Must Go!" meetings, which they held at a nearby hotel during the UNIA convention.

A sign of the exhaustion within the ranks of the UNIA during the convention's final days was the noticeable decrease in attendance. Apart from the fact that the month-long convention proved a financial strain for out-of-town delegates, the constant discord and lengthy trials, discussions, and reports had by then begun to wear the interest of the delegates thin. When Garvey delivered his closing speech, calling for a loyal opposition within the UNIA, it was clear that most of those who dissented from his policies had long since left the convention.

One important group at the convention chose the occasion to express its grievances. Female delegates led a challenge to male dominance of the proceedings and also to the UNIA overall as a male-run organization. Their challenge raised the question of the role of women within the movement in a bold and original manner. The convention also featured discussions of various economic and commercial proposals for nation building in Africa, which clearly reveal an early appreciation by UNIA members of the issues that many years later were to inform the North-South dialogue and the New International Economic Order. The convention also mooted the novel idea of an international political party for black people.

Finally, the present volume provides the first extended record of Garvey's emergent social philosophy, particularly as it related to his conception of the metaphysical and racial bases of the human condition: as Garvey stated on 5 June 1922, "The Universal Negro Improvement Association is engaged in the development of a new education, a new culture.

Copyright © 1995-2014 The Marcus Garvey and UNIA Papers Project, UCLA