The Potentate and the Brotherhood

Submitted by AWL on 1 December, 2020 - 8:09 Author: Stephen Wood

Stephen Wood continues the story of the pioneer black nationalist leader Marcus Garvey. Part 1 of this account was in Solidarity 573 here.

Garvey thought the trade unions in the American Federation of Labor were unreformably racist organisations. Garvey had his own solution to the lack of black workers’ rights; and that was black-owned and black-run businesses.

Such businesses, he claimed, wouldn’t discriminate against black workers because they would be founded on the black nationalist principle espoused by Garvey. Chief among his projects was the Black Star Line. It was initially set up to be a shipping line between the US and the West Indies and Africa, and Garvey hoped it would one day be the fleet of ships that could transport blacks from the USA back to Africa.

Slavery, he argued, had wrenched black people across the world and taken them away from their historic home. By organising the return to Africa, black people could fulfil their destiny and build their own African empire. “Africa for the Africans” was one of the core principles of the “Declaration of the Rights of the Negro Peoples of the World” adopted by the UNIA in 1920.

For Garvey, “Africa for the Africans” also meant “Africa for Garvey”. His organisation, the UNIA, bestowed on him the title of the Provisional President of Africa at its 1920 convention. His attitude to Africa, as passively waiting to welcome himself as leader although he had never been to any part of Africa, was not lost on his detractors.

Garvey would hold big parades, with himself as Supreme Potentate, dressed in imperial regalia and with his tricorn hat or mortar board, and surrounded by his Potentates. In part that was about showing black people that they had every right to the pomp and regalia flaunted by white people. And it ruffled the feathers of a white establishment who reckoned that no jumped-up black man had a right to such displays of opulence and flair. The press laughed at Garvey in a way it didn’t at the balls and lavish dinners of New York’s super-rich.

Garvey’s chief appeal was not to organised workers but to a more amorphous and downtrodden black “underclass” in Harlem and across the UNIA’s chapters. In that, his movement had strong parallels with the Black Panthers later on, which also went for grandiloquent titles.

Malcolm X remembered the UNIA of his father’s time like this. “My father was a Baptist minister, a dedicated organiser for Marcus Garvey’s UNIA. With the help of such disciples as my father, Garvey, from his headquarters in New York City’s Harlem, was raising the banner of black-race purity and exhorting the Negro masses to return to their ancestral African homeland, a cause which made Garvey the most controversial black man on earth…

“The teaching of Marcus Garvey stressed becoming independent of the white man…[At the UNIA meetings] held quietly in different people’s homes, there were never more than a few people at any time, twenty at most. But it was a lot packed into someone’s living room. I noticed how differently they all acted, although sometimes they were the same people that jumped and shouted in church.

“In these meetings my father was more intelligent and down to earth. It made me feel the same way. And my father would talk about how it would not be much longer before Africa would be completely run by Negroes, by black men was the phrase he always used. ‘No one knows when the hour of Africa’s redemption cometh, It is in the wind. It is coming. One day, like a storm, it will be there’.

“I remember seeing the big, shiny photographs of Marcus Garvey that were passed from hand to hand. My father had a big envelope of them that he always took to these meetings. The pictures showed what seemed to me millions of Negroes thronged in [UNIA rallies].”

Black pride

Garvey certainly thought the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), led by sometime revolutionary integrationists, intellectuals and reformers, did not embody the kind of black pride he was imparting via the UNIA. That fostering of pride played an important role in bringing many thousands into political activity.

At the same time, Garvey’s plans to civilise Africa’s “native tribes” did not sound that different from those of the European colonialists who were his apparent enemy. In that, and not for the only time, Garvey’s high-and-mighty attitude would cause increasing tension among his more radical black sometime allies and collaborators.

Despite all that, and despite a spate of capitalist enterprise in which he set up the Black Star Line and the associated Negro Factories Corporation, which included a chain of grocery stores, a restaurant, a steam laundry, a tailor and dressmaking shop, a millinery store and a publishing house, he was on good terms with the radical left in Harlem.

Both the Socialist Party and the newly formed Communist Party sent people to take part in the 1921 UNIA Convention, which ran through a whole month in August. Through Claude McKay and Cyril Briggs of the African Blood Brotherhood for Liberation and Redemption, a communist, Rose Pastor Stokes, became the only white speaker at the convention.

In the aftermath of the convention Garvey would turn against the left. The left would then finally rally against him a year later when he met the Klu Klux Klan, as I will describe in the third of these articles.

Briggs’ African Blood Brotherhood (ABB) would go on to affiliate to the then-revolutionary Communist Party, and Briggs himself joined the CP in 1921. The ABB had its own newspaper, The Crusader, and was at first both black nationalist and increasingly socialistic and defiantly pro-Bolshevik. Briggs was impressed by the Bolsheviks’ anti-imperialist policy and their support for the emancipation of national minorities.


In 1921 Garvey took personal risk to invite Communists to the convention. Both he and the CPUSA attracted considerable FBI attention, and Garvey did not relish the effect on his emerging business empire. He had only recently returned from a speaker tour to the Caribbean and had had great difficulty getting back into the US. (He would eventually be deported from the USA).

Garvey insisted “that the press in the gallery fully understand that his organisation would take the good from all the political ‘isms’ and that by providing a platform for Stokes to expound on the plight of bleeding Russia, he was in no way aligning the UNIA with the Soviets.”

Stokes, the CPUSA, the ABB, and the Socialist Party had been trying to persuade black workers to organise through the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), a revolutionary trade-union organisation clearly opposed to the colour bars in the AFL. Some hoped that Stokes’s speech at the UNIA convention (of which there seems to be no record of the text) would inject a class-conscious stream into the UNIA. The ABB produced a Negro Congress Bulletin arguing for their political line, increasingly critical of the UNIA and Garvey’s leadership.

In Briggs’s report of the event, he defines “Garveyism” as “a shrewd mixture of racialism, religion, and nationalistic fanaticism. It is without doubt an historic product, and has its roots in the past oppression of the negro. It is one of the signs of his awakening, the noisiest, though not the most effective, challenge to the white world — to the entire white world, for Garveyism looks at every white face as per se an enemy.

“Herein lies one of the chief reasons for the bitter opposition it has met from the class-conscious negro worker.

“It is a step in advance of his religious slavery, wherein the negro was completely dominated by his preachers and subserviently subscribed to the philosophy of giving up all the world to his exploiters so long as they would leave him ‘his Jesus’.”

TheNegro Congress Bulletins were tolerated until the third week, when a resolution was passed which kicked out the ABB, apparently with a huge number of abstentions.

Briggs: “The ABB delegates sternly set their faces from the start against the romantic glamour, ‘mock heroics and titled tomfoolery’ which Mr. Garvey was attempting to substitute for real constructive action. The ABB delegation, effectively backed by its organisation which issued a manifesto at the opening of the Congress and followed up with a weekly bulletin and other literature, demanded among other things a constructive program for ‘the guidance of the negro race in the struggle for liberation’, and suggested and agitated before the congress the creation of a federation of existing negro organisations ‘in order to present a united and formidable front to the enemy’, and the adoption of a program calling for means ‘to raise and protect the standard of living of the negro people’, to ‘stop the mob-murder of our people and to protect them against sinister secret societies of cracker whites, and to fight the ever expanding peonage system’. They further demanded that Soviet Russia be endorsed by the congress and the real foes of the negro race denounced”.

Garvey denounced Briggs as “the paid servant of certain destructive white elements which aimed at exploiting Negroes for their own subservient ends”. He accused Briggs of being white (he was light skinned) and only a “Negro for convenience”. UNIA members were told “to keep far away from those Socialistic parasites who are receiving money from the Soviets and Communists to destroy governments everywhere and bring about universal chaos and destruction”.

“If you destroy capital, where are you going to get bread and butter? You cannot destroy capital except you are going to be fed by manna, and we are not living in that age now. To have a square meal you must have money to buy bread, and if you have not got it you must get it from someone who has it. Then if you destroy the person who has it you will starve ultimately.”

Garvey’s anger was compounded when a number of prominent UNIA officials left to join the ABB. His breach with the left was now hardening. Shortly the left would go on the offensive against him.

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