Civil Rights Near the Turn of the Century

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How can the goals and strategies outlined by Marcus Garvey and W. E. B. Du Bois help us understand some African American visions for a new role in an international community?

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While Marcus Garvey and W.E.B Du Bois were both black activists who struggled for their vision of liberation for black people, their ideas for this liberation often differed, particularly in their earlier years. Marcus Garvey was a radical black nationalist who clearly saw how deeply rooted and systemic anti-black racism was in the United States. Garvey held a Pan-African vision in which he aimed to connect black people around the world in a struggle for liberation against white supremacy and colonialism. Particularly, Garvey did not believe that black people could ever achieve true liberation while living with white people and under a white-controlled government, and as such, advocated for black people to return to Africa. He founded the Black Star Line that offered black people the ability to travel by ship to areas of West Africa to being life anew. While some black people did take the opportunity, many chose to stay due to generations of developing roots in the United States and a sense of disconnect from the ancestral homeland of Africa. Garvey particularly wanted to tap a sense of an international black community in struggle against white supremacy.

W.E.B Du Bois was a scholar who attended prestigious universities in the United States and Europe. Du Bois also sought to liberate black people from the oppression of white supremacy. Rather than advocate for black people to "return" to ancestral Africa, Du Bois advocated for the creation of a black intellectual elite who could advocate for social change for all black people. Du Bois, a man of international education, believed that black people as an international community could benefit from the rise of a black intellectual class who could be well versed in the history and current context of the world and use this knowledge to further the struggle for liberation. As Du Bois grew older and continued to endure the horrific realities of racism, he began to grow more cynical about a future of living among white people and eventually moved to Ghana. He also began to deeply study the intersections of racism and class oppression, and as such, developed a socialist ideology that aligns with many Pan-African socialist ideologies.

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Both Du Bois and Garvey were "pan-Africanists," meaning they connected the concerns of African Americans with those of people of African descent throughout the world. Garvey came to this position somewhat naturally, having been raised in Jamaica before coming to the United States. He advocated a scheme described as the "Back to Africa" movement, even establishing a line of ships known as the "Black Star Line" that would carry African Americans to Africa for settlement. Ideologically, this position was born out of a belief that African Americans could not live alongside whites, due to persistent racism. Du Bois opposed this plan, seeing Garvey as frivolous and an opportunist. He was an intellectual and distrusted Garvey's populist approach to pan-Africanism. Du Bois did not—at least before World War II—advocate for emigration. Rather, he believed in self-help for African Americans, beginning with political activism and education. Like Garvey, he also advocated for African independence from European colonial powers. Over the course of his life, he began to become more pessimistic about race relations in the United States and more strident in promoting African studies and in pushing for decolonization. Unlike Garvey, he also became a socialist, seeing class and race as fundamentally intertwined in the United States and beyond. In the early 1960s, he moved to Ghana—coincidentally one of the destinations of Garvey's Black Star Line—and he died there shortly thereafter.

Both saw colonialism and Jim Crow laws as part of the same system, one that transcended borders. They saw racism as a global problem, not simply an American one, and argued for radical solutions for a deeply rooted problem. It followed that people of African origin could be at the vanguard of a global liberation movement.

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Both Marcus Garvey and W. E. B. Du Bois challenged the accommodationist ideas promoted by the very influential figure Booker T. Washington. Washington advocated for blacks to accept second class status in the U.S. in return for economic gains, arguing that once the black community had an economic base and some wealth, white society would be forced to open up full rights to it.

Both Garvey and Du Bois used visions of the international community to counter Booker's ideas. Garvey forcefully argued that blacks should not give up their dignity by accepting inferiority to whites in U.S. culture, and he told blacks they had another choice to knuckling uder: immigration back to Africa. He was a great proponent of this migration back, although very little actually occurred. Nevertheless, the vision was potent and helped fuel black separatist movements in the US, such as Nation of Islam, and black pride. Interestingly, Malcolm X's father was a disciple of Garvey.

Du Bois was born a free black, unlike Booker, and was educated at Harvard and, notably in Berlin, so that he was a cosmopolitan scholar well versed in other languages and cultures. He used his broader, internationalist perspective to advocate for full equality for US blacks without compromise. In his highly influential book, The Souls of Black Folks, he marshals his knowledge of European history to argue that accepting inferiority has a debilitating effect on an ethnic group, using the present day Greeks as an example. Because of his wide knowledge of the world, could envision educated blacks across the globe spreading ideas of equality.

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Marcus Garvey (1887–1940) and W. E. B. Du Bois (1868–1963) are often used to represent the tactics that civil rights activists used to promote a vision for African Africans during the Progressive Era.

Du Bois, himself educated at Harvard University, envisioned a future of an educated black elite. A founding member of the NAACP, Du Bois wanted nothing less than complete political equality for blacks as citizens. Du Bois's memorable slogan promoted the idea of a "talented tenth" of the African Americans, which would equip themselves by means of education and powerful political positions to lead blacks to this status of full equality.

Marcus Garvey was the most galvanizing contemporary leader of the black nationalist movement. He famously advocated for blacks to return to their ancestral lands in Africa (though few actually did this). Born in Jamaica, he established the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), which eventually earned widespread popular support. Contrary to Du Bois, Garvey did not think the equality was possible on whites' terms, and so promoted the idea of black separatism. Garvey was especially successful in instilling a sense of pride in African Americans.

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