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Marcus Garvey: Visionary, Orator, And Black Empowerment And Pan-Africanism Champion


This month NPR's history show Throughline is profiling Black visionaries whose ideas, actions and imaginations have shaped the world we live in. Hosts Rund Abdelfatah and Ramtin Arablouei begin the series looking at the life of Marcus Garvey, a radical visionary orator and champion of Black empowerment and Pan-Africanism. Born in Jamaica, Garvey attracted millions with a simple, uncompromising message. Decades before Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, he argued Black people deserve nothing less than everything. And if that couldn't happen in the United States, they should return to Africa.


COLIN GRANT: He came to Harlem in 1916, and it was rather fortuitous that he came at a time when there was this burgeoning of the street orators, the ebony sages, as they called them.


RAMTIN ARABLOUEI: This is Colin Grant.

GRANT: I'm the author of "Negro With A Hat: The Rise And Fall Of Marcus Garvey."

ARABLOUEI: Colin is also the son of Jamaican immigrants to the U.K.

GRANT: And it has been said that of the population of Harlem around about that time, 1916, one-fifth of the people in Harlem were from the Caribbean. And so, in a way, Garvey had a ready-made audience...


GRANT: ...The people who already were drawn to his sound, to the Caribbean lilt of his standard Caribbean voice.

ARABLOUEI: Played here by a voice actor.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Marcus Garvey) We are men, human beings capable of the same acts as any other race, possessing the same circumstances, the same intelligence as any other race.

GRANT: People were just amazed by the great silver-tongued orator in their midst. I mean, Garvey had a voice like thunder.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Marcus Garvey) Now, Africa's been sleeping - not dead, only sleeping. Today, Africa's walking about not only on our feet, but on our brains.

GRANT: Without amplification, Garvey could be heard 10 blocks away from 135th St. to 125th St.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Marcus Garvey) You can enslave for 300 years the bodies of men. You can shackle the hands of men. You can shackle the feet of men. You can imprison the bodies of men. But you cannot shackle or imprison the minds of men.

GRANT: But it wasn't just the power of his voice. It was what he was saying that really drew people in 'cause he was speaking their thoughts. He was a great romancer and dreamer, and he articulated in a way that people thought they were hearing themselves. Within a few months, he became the person that anybody with any kind of feeling about wanting to tap into the zeitgeist - that person had to hear Marcus Garvey.

RUND ABDELFATAH: He was proud and full of bravado, and his message was equally fierce - Black people should be brash about their pride for their culture, their skin color, their history and that the only path to liberation was for all African people of the world to unite.

ARABLOUEI: The idea was bold and seductive, and he came up with another idea that would embody the entire movement - a shipping company that would allow anyone to invest in Black empowerment. He called it...

GRANT: The Black Star Line.


GRANT: And that idea really caught on. It was an idea that excited, enthralled Black people, no matter their station, from the poorest to the wealthiest, actually. And the Black Star Line was going to be a shipping line that would trade between America, Europe and Africa. But it also would be the shipping line that would lead to the repatriation of African Americans to Africa.


UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST: (Singing) Get your boat 'cause (unintelligible) on the Black Star Line.

GRANT: Any Black person who could muster the $5 to buy a share in the Black Star Line could become a shareholder. And pretty soon, thousands of them did.

ABDELFATAH: Investment in the Black Star Line was historic.

GRANT: So much so that at every meeting that Garvey spoke, there would be these huge drums, beer barrel-sized drums, and they would be packed full of dollar notes. Even if people didn't want necessarily to go to Africa, they wanted to show their support for this exciting idea.

ARABLOUEI: The Black Star Line embodied everything Garvey had preached in Harlem about self-sufficiency, self-confidence and self-defense.

GRANT: These were poor people, and they bought into the idea. They bought into the romance and the dream of it. And it made them feel important. It made them feel part of something larger than themselves. And it also felt possible.

ABDELFATAH: The thing with such epic, radical dreams is that sometimes they're so big they collapse in on themselves.

ARABLOUEI: By the 1920s, the authorities, including a young Justice Department staffer named J. Edgar Hoover, were investigating Garvey. The ships he purchased were in disrepair, and his allies began turning against him. Eventually, he was convicted for mail fraud, jailed and then deported back to Jamaica.

ABDELFATAH: With the Black Star Line bankrupted, Marcus Garvey's career was more or less over. What he left behind was a promise, one of the most ambitious visions of emancipation, self-worth and self-determination that Black Americans had ever seen.

GRANT: This is the great conundrum of Marcus Garvey. He was a great promoter. He managed to excite people, but he was a poor businessman. Fundamentally, he was a great starter but not such a great finisher. He was a dreamer and a romancer. And the great thing about Marcus Garvey is that he encouraged people to believe in themselves. I mean, it sounds quite small, but it's a quite big thing. When you're at the footstool of society, you are despised. You are the wretched of the earth. Garvey was saying, fundamentally, you are worthy. His greatest sale was to sell the Black person to themselves.

ABDELFATAH: No matter how you choose to look at his legacy, Marcus Garvey's impact on future generations is undeniable. His ideas have remained a powerful part of our culture. Black empowerment and Pan-Africanism were a part of his vision for the future. And Colin Grant says that Garvey remains alive because his ideas live on through the people who still aspire to live the future he dreamed.

GRANT: When I was researching Marcus Garvey, I came across a speech that he gave in Nova Scotia in the 1930s. I was reading this long speech, and towards the end of the speech, I came across this line, this phrase which looked very familiar. And the line was...


BOB MARLEY: (Singing) Emancipate yourself from mental slavery. None but ourselves can free our mind.

GRANT: We must emancipate ourselves from mental slavery because whilst others might free the body, none but ourselves can free the mind.


MARLEY: (Singing) How long shall they kill our prophets while we stand aside and look? Some say...

GRANT: So when you sway to Bob Marley and the Wailers, you're really dancing to Marcus Garvey.


SHAPIRO: That's historian Colin Grant speaking with Throughline hosts Rund Abdelfatah and Ramtin Arablouei. You can hear the whole episode wherever you listen to podcasts.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rund Abdelfatah is the co-host and producer of Throughline, a podcast that explores the history of current events. In that role, she's responsible for all aspects of the podcast's production, including development of episode concepts, interviewing guests, and sound design.