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Celebrations Today Will Mark 100th Birthday of Marcus Garvey : Black Leader Stirred Inspiration, Controversy

August 17, 1987|RON HARRIS | Times Staff Writer

In the early 1900s, when Harlem, with its artists and writers and poets and intellectuals, was the political and cultural center of the black world, 7th Avenue and 132nd Street was the geographical focus.

On that corner stood an elm tree, known to Harlemites as the tree of hope. And if you were a musician or dancer or even a gambler or a new employee heading off to work, legend has it, you would pass that tree and touch it.

Tree of Hope

It was under that tree in January, 1918, that a short, squat Jamaican mounted a soapbox and launched one of the largest mass movements of blacks ever, and, in a sense, became that tree of hope for black people on four continents--and eventually for four generations to come.

Marcus Mosiah Garvey, preaching black pride, black nationalism and black separatism, struck a resounding chord among black masses around the world.

Garvey's slogan: "Up you mighty race. You can accomplish what you will."

And from it sprang the Universal Negro Improvement Assn., which boasted an assortment of black-owned businesses, an internationally circulated newspaper and nearly 1,000 chapters in the Uni1952801824America, Europe and all over sub-Saharan Africa.

'Took Wishbone Out of Us'

"It was in the breeze, almost," recalled Charles L. James of Chicago, an eventual Garvey lieutenant who was 17 when he came to Harlem from Antigua in 1923 in search of the movement. "You could almost breathe it. He was the psychological exponent of black people's aspirations. He took the wishbone out of us and put in a backbone."

Through the UNIA, Garvey pounded out his message of self-sufficiency with the Negro Factories Corp. The UNIA's Liberty Grocery Stores, Liberty Tailors and Liberty Restaurants began popping up across the country. The Black Star Lines, a shipping fleet, was established to promote trade and eventually return blacks to Africa. Its stock could be sold only to blacks.

The UNIA employed about 1,000 workers. The Black Cross Nurses, the UNIA equivalent of the Red Cross, helped flood victims in New Orleans and earthquake victims in Costa Rica. Garvey's newspaper, the Negro World, carried his messages of a proud African heritage so forcefully that it was banned in some countries.

But as quickly as Garvey's movement rose, it crumbled.

Hounded in America by his detractors and ultimately deported after a mail fraud conviction in 1924, Garvey died ignominiously in London on June 10, 1940. His final indignity was to read his own widely published obituary a month before his death.

Seen as a Black Moses

Today, on the 100th anniversary of his birth, the controversial Garvey is being hailed worldwide as a black Moses, a visionary whose ideology has fueled freedom struggles by blacks in America, helped spark the liberation movements that led to the eventual decolonization of Africa and continues to serve as an inspiration.

Celebrations heralding "The Tiger," as he was called by his followers, and his ideology are scheduled in London, Ghana, Montreal, Jamaica and all over the United States. In Washington, all 32 ambassadors of the Organization of American States will meet today in special commemorative session, and Congress is even considering a resolution to exonerate him of his conviction for mail fraud.

Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.), whose district includes Harlem, has introduced House Concurrent Resolution 84 to "express the sense of the Congress that the mail fraud charges brought against Marcus Garvey by the federal government were not substantiated and that his conviction was unjust and unwarranted."

The House subcommittee on criminal justice, headed by Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), heard testimony last month from historians, Garvey's two sons and those familiar with his organization that the mail fraud charges were phony, primarily the workings of a young J. Edgar Hoover, who headed the investigation.

Rodino Gives Backing

Rep. Don Edwards (D-San Jose), a member of the subcommittee, agrees. Edwards said that he expects the resolution to move quickly on to the House Judiciary Committee, where Chairman Peter W. Rodino Jr. (D-N.J.) has already announced his support for the legislation. If approved by that committee, it would go to the full House for a vote.

"I hadn't heard of (Garvey) before," Edwards said. "I was very much impressed by what I heard. If you look at the mail fraud charges, they wouldn't receive any attention today.

"What Hoover was doing, and I'm using his words, was 'getting rid of a Negro agitator.' He intercepted mail, followed him around and infiltrated this very decent organization that Mr. Garvey had. I'm sure that it rankles . . . black Americans to think that one of their great leaders was prosecuted wrongfully, and we should apologize for it."

Meanwhile, in New York, an exhaustive exhibit of Garvey's papers and memorabilia is being featured for six months at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.

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