Why was Marcus Garvey controversial in The Autobiography of Malcolm X?

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pohnpei397 | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Marcus Garvey appears in the first chapter of The Autobiography of Malcolm X.  In that chapter, we are told that Malcolm’s father, the Reverend Earl Little, worked as an organizer for Garvey’s UNIA organization.  This was the Universal Negro Improvement Association.  White people in Omaha, where the Littles lived, disliked Garvey because of the black nationalist nature of his teachings. This is why he was controversial.

Marcus Garvey came to the United States from Jamaica in 1916.  This was just before the start of the 1920s, a decade that saw African Americans start to become at least somewhat more assertive in American society.  The 1920s were the time of the “New Negro” and the Harlem Renaissance.  Garvey was a part of this movement.

Garvey is best known for his promotion of the idea that African Americans should aspire to “return” to Africa.  Garvey believed that white Americans would never allow African Americans to have equal rights. He did not believe that African Americans would ever be allowed to live in true equality with whites. Therefore, he believed that African Americans should return to Africa where they could truly be free and could reach their full potential.

Garvey was also a black nationalist.  He did not believe that blacks should be submissive towards whites.  He believed that blacks should band together to help one another get ahead. 

Because Garvey believe these things, he was seen as a danger by many white Americans. They believed that Garvey would stir up trouble among black people, giving them ideas above “their place.” This is why Garvey was controversial among the white people of Omaha who are discussed in The Autobiography of Malcolm X.

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