Marcus Garvey & A Brief History Of Community Organizing



By Francis White


I remember seeing his image in early 1990's hip hop videos, back in grammar school (some of you may refer to this as Jr. high), when I was a teenager. I'm talking about, like in 1990, 1991. To me, he just looked like a chubby black gentleman with a funny outfit on. It wasn't until I became an adult that I learned the significance of who and what the man was all about.

Who am I talking about? I'm talking about Marcus Mosiah Garvey.

Who is this man, and what is his significance to PUSH Buffalo and our mission? As an organization who prides itself on grass-roots community building, we'd be remiss if we didn't at least take this time in the month of August to give you all a little history lesson.

Often in modern times we forget that that there is nothing new under the sun. We think that what we are doing now has never been done and that we're the first ones doing it. We forget that there are those who've came before us that have laid much ground work. To the initiated, regardless of what your personal view or belief about the man's philosophies may be, history has shown that one thing cannot be denied - Marcus Garvey did much ground work in the history of modern grass roots community organizing.

Relax, close our eyes, take a deep breath and then slowly exhale. I want you to get a picture in your mind. The Civil Rights era hasn't even happened yet. It's the early 1900's in the United States, people of color are still putting the pieces together, and dealing with the aftermath of the civil war and reconstruction. The Civil War officially ends in the late 1860's and what is called the reconstruction period is these years immediately following the war. Throughout the world, black people are dealing with discrimination and marginalization on so many levels.

Booker T. Washington who was in the process of organizing the creation of the world famous Tuskegee Institute has arisen as sort of the official black "race leader" during the reconstruction period. In his famous autobiography he details his adventures of trying to get blacks who were at this time fresh out of official slavery, ready to take a place in the American/world society. He worked to get them ready mentally, socially, and economically. This included dealing with issues such as the lack of an education, the lack of money, and just the lack of dealing with the dominant European society in general.

Garvey who comes along later tries to build on what Washington started and take it to another level. Many scholars say that one of his greatest skills was his ability to get different types of people across socioeconomic lines to work together. Translated another way, this means getting working class, educated, and black people throughout the international community working together on his campaigns. Huge black literary figures at that time like Arthur Schomburg wrote for his "Negro World" newspaper.

Let's take a look at Garvey's accomplishments for the time he was living in. Real people have real power, and they know what they need where they live. He organizes the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) which has millions of members made up of people from the United States, the Caribbean, Europe, Africa, and other places throughout the world. The UNIA prints and distributes the Negro World paper which is distributed in the afore mentioned places. Community control of resources and ownership is the key to a sustainable lifestyle. Although it had one or two successful years, the "Black Star Line" the most well known business started  by Garvey, was an example of what can happen when people take their own economic destiny in their own hands.

When it comes to turning our neighborhoods around we're all in this thing together. In 2014 just like in 1920 you can't take anything for granted. As societies grow or shrink, power and favor changes hands like one dollar bills in circulation. We don't have to repeat the wheel. We as a society have to look at the history of the world in its entirety, and look at what has worked and what has not. We have to study and reflect upon the history of struggles of the world's peoples to become a better, neighborhood, a better community, a better city, a better state, a better nation, and better world.