Marcus Garvey

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Why did many black leaders reject Marcus Garvey?

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Marcus Garvey (1887–1940) was rejected by many black leaders because of his extreme views and his incarceration. He was a flawed—but important—black figure in the early twentieth century.

He had sympathy for a goal of the Ku Klux Klan. The KKK, a nemesis to the black people, wanted racial segregation. Garvey shared that view.

Garvey's main idea was to move blacks back to Africa. In Africa, they could be free. In America, whites would continue to stymie blacks. Garvey stressed that blacks on different continents should unite. He established the Black Star Line, a shipping company, to facilitate links between geographically disparate black communities.

Other black leaders did not embrace the radical solution of moving their race back to its ancestral homeland. W. E. B. Du Bois, leader of the NAACP, referred to Garvey as "the most dangerous enemy of the Negro race in America." A. Philip Randolph, an important black labor leader, also opposed Garvey. These men wanted to improve the lot of blacks in the United States, and they rejected Garvey's more global and extreme views.

In 1925, Garvey was sent to prison for mail fraud carried out in connection with the Black Star Line. After serving several years, he was released, but he never regained his stature as a black leader.

A decade later, Garvey worked with white supremacist Senator Theodore Bilbo of Mississippi. The plan was for the government to ship millions of blacks to Africa to help them escape the unemployment that accompanied the Great Depression. The plan was not approved, and Garvey fell further into obscurity.

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Most black leaders at the time followed the example of Booker T. Washington in advocating hard work and education as the "high road" to improving the condition of African Americans. Only then, it was argued, would they be able to take their rightful place alongside the majority-white population in a genuinely equal society.

Marcus Garvey, however, utterly rejected this prognosis for change and the assumptions on which it was founded. Instead of trying to assimilate into white society, he argued that black Americans should separate from it, asserting their distinct racial and cultural identity.

Garvey's radical ideas alienated him from mainstream black leaders of the time, who accused him of undermining the struggle for civil rights by indulging in obscurantist notions of Pan-Africanism instead of dealing with the day-to-day practical issues that affected the lives of African Americans. They saw Garvey as nothing but a charlatan—a fraud with a gigantic ego and a dangerous messiah complex, a shameless demagogue whose spell-binding oratory masked a paucity of workable ideas.

Black intellectuals such as W.E.B. Du Bois were particularly critical of Garvey, seeing him as a jumped-up Napoleon figure with delusions of grandeur. Their estimations of his character appeared confirmed by the tawdry spectacle of Garvey declaring himself "president of Africa" in an overblown ceremony in which he was clad with scarlet robes and a gold-tasseled turban.

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I think that there can be a handful of reasons why Garvey was rejected by Black leaders.  One immediate reason was the Garvey's position was the polar opposite of leading Black leaders at the time.  Garvey made it clear that there can be no reconciliation, no sense of collaboration, between Blacks and Whites.  There really was no middle ground in Garvey's thinking.  In his thinking, it was clear that racism had tainted the relationship between both races and that Black needed to spiritually, if not physically, leave America.  For many Black leaders that were trying to establish some semblance of an equal relationship between Blacks and Whites, Garvey's position really challenged any and all such articulations.  Consider that the schism between Washington and DuBois was healed through their believers' mutual disdain for Garvey's position.  At the same time, I think that Garvey saw the authenticity and certainty in his own position and did not see any potential room for compromise.  This made Garvey on the outside of other established leaders in the Black community.  Given how Garvey embraced the role of "messiah" and how there were financial questions raised about his organization with the Black Star Line debacle, these antagonisms between he and other Black leaders magnified.

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