Garvey was the Black Lives Matter forerunner

Garvey was the Black Lives Matter forerunner

Sunday, June 28, 2020

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The civil rights movement that took place across the United States in the 1950s and 1960s was a monumental struggle to gain social justice and end discrimination against black people in America.

Now, in my schooldays, I don't recall that Jamaican students had much of American history on our curriculum. We had, of course, long boring hours of English history and a background to Jamaican history lionising Columbus's 'discoveries' and the English battles fought and won in the Caribbean. In civics classes we compared the English Constitution to the American, and were pointed to the US Constitution preamble and US President Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg address as pearls of English literature. And rightly so.

We knew little, if anything about the American Civil War, and probably would have been very surprised that a great country like the US could have so divided itself to fight a four-year war that raged 1861 to 1865.

The Civil War was fought between the states in the northern part of America and some of the states in the south. The two main objectives of the northern states, led by Lincoln, were to preserve the Union as the United States of America — the southern states wanted to secede and form their own Confederation — and to abolish slavery which was championed by the south.

The war effectively ended on April 9, 1865 when Confederate General Robert E Lee surrendered to Union General Ulysses S Grant at the Battle of Appomattox Court House.

President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, which went into effect following the end of the Civil War, was greeted with resentment by the losing southern states and after the war the former slaves continued to endure the debilitating effects of racism, especially in the south.

The infamous Jim Crow laws were established during the late 19th century to marginalise black people and to keep them separate from the whites. Blacks couldn't use the same public facilities as whites, eat in the same restaurants, stay in the same hotels, or go to the same schools.

From our haven in Jamaica we found it preposterous that America was treating its citizens this way. Prejudice existed in our island, yes, but was more in the nature of class prejudice. And, by the 1960s we had broken down the silent class barriers that kept us out of the Myrtle Bank swimming pool and from the bank teller and front desk positions open only to light-skinned fellow Jamaicans.

We were so dismissive of this errant nonsense about black vs white bathrooms and buses that an outspoken friend of mine, Lincoln Gabbidon, on vacation in the USA and on being told somewhere down south that “Sorry, Sir, but the dining room is reserved for whites only,” brushed aside the waiter with a “That's perfectly fine, young man, but that doesn't apply to us, we are Jamaicans,” and led his family group on to the property and insisted on getting served.

Well, by the mid-20th century the American blacks decided they had endured more than enough and, along with many white Americans, started to mobilise and rise up against the prejudice and the violence that was being meted out by law and by custom against their race.

The movement reached a high point on December 1, 1955 when a 42-year-old woman named Rosa Parks found a seat on a Montgomery, Alabama, bus after work. Segregation laws at the time stated black passengers must sit in designated seats at the back of the bus, and Parks had complied. When a white man got on the bus and couldn't find a seat in the white section at the front of the bus, the bus driver instructed Parks and three other black passengers to give up their seats. Parks refused and was arrested. Her resistance brought her heroine status, as the blacks, led by a young Martin Luther King Jr, rallied around her and she was to become known as the “mother of the modern-day civil rights movement”.

The movement grew, and by the early 1960s racial strife had gripped the country, with the non-violent protests met by beatings, brutality, fire hoses, snarling dogs, insults, and jail. Jamaicans at home reacted to this with disbelief and shock.

Then came the famous March on Washington that took place on August 28, 1963, undoubtedly the most celebrated event of the civil rights movement.

Some 250,000 people gathered at the Lincoln Memorial that day and heard for themselves Martin Luther King's “I have a dream” speech which was the highlight of the afternoon and which became a slogan for equality and freedom.

We didn't have live television coverage in Jamaica, as JBC TV had only just begun transmission on August 4 of that year, but certainly our radios were tuned in to the worldwide coverage of the event generated by the 500 cameramen, technicians, and reporters from all major networks.

Well, you know what they say about Jamaicans. We can't be left out of anything spectacular anywhere in this world. While speaker after speaker enunciated black pride, we were conscious that the spirit of Marcus Garvey must have been on that platform, as they were repeating and fulfilling the message of our own son of the soil who had turned the Negro world upside down in the 1920s.

The place that Garvey had earned in the hearts and minds of black people could not be ignored on that day. This was the man who the speakers knew had been the charismatic black leader who organised the first important American black nationalist movement (1919–26), based in New York City's Harlem.

The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) was to credit him as an inspirational figure for later civil rights activists. And Martin Luther King Jr himself was to call Marcus Garvey the first man “to give millions of Negroes a sense of dignity and destiny”. His message of pride and equality that he preached to millions made its mark when it was fused by Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association of the 1920s.

The short, stocky little black man from St Ann's Bay had started a movement in America that was revolutionary in 1920, was an inspiration to the Civil Rights Movement, and still lives on in the present cycle of the Black Lives Matter movement. People must have asked where this little black man with the perfect diction and the unusual Caribbean accent came from. He seemed to be like a Moses coming out of the bulrushes. Not born in the USA, yet he has embraced all the hopes and aspirations of the Negroes of America and taken them on as his own.

But our man Garvey was a born international. As articulated by Edward Seaga in his remembrance at the reinterment at National Heroes' Park on November 22, 1964, Garvey stood on a pedestal of his own which made his influence felt not only in Jamaica, nor in the USA, but across the continents of the world. “His movement,” said Seaga, “grew out of a burning passion to overcome the beliefs, prejudices, distortions, bigotry, half-truths, fears, conceits, and propaganda of vested interests, which had progressively threatened and denied the humanity of people of African descent in this region for some 400 years.”

He hammered home the idea of racial pride by celebrating the African past and encouraging African Americans to be proud of their heritage and proud of the way they looked. Garvey proclaimed “black is beautiful” long before it became popular in the 1960s.

Today the Black Lives Matter movement continues the struggle led by the Civil Rights Movement. It is amazing that 100 years after Garvey, and some 60 years after King left the stage, and US President Lynden Johnson signed the Civil Rights Bill, a movement like this should still be finding cause to take to the streets.

But take a look at a 2013 report published by the Economic Policy Institute around the theme of 'The Unfinished March', which assessed the progress made by the original March on Washington. It echoes the message of civil rights advocates Phillip Randall and Bayard Rustin (and Jamaica's Marcus Garvey, my note) that civil rights cannot transform people's quality of life unless accompanied by economic (and social) justice. They contend that many of the march's primary goals — including housing, integrated education, and widespread employment at living wages — have not been accomplished. They further argued that, although legal advances were made, black people still live in concentrated areas of poverty where they receive inferior education and suffer from widespread unemployment.

And this is where the anguish, the pain, the frustration, and the determination to get it right, this time, is coming from. The cries for justice echoes the calls made by Garvey as he led millions of his people worldwide with the message replayed in song by Max Romeo, “Black man, get up, and stand on yu foot.”

The world, and America, has a huge task ahead to try to achieve the dynamic culture change and thinking that the movement is striving for. Garvey would have relished the opportunity to work with King to lead this charge.

Lance Neita is a public relations consultant, author, and historian. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or lanceneita@hotmail.com.


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