Politics Mondays: Marcus Garvey's Electoral Journey by Karl F. Watts

Marcus Mosiah Garvey, Jamaica's first national hero by acclamation, has been recognised for his significant contribution to a wide range of social activities geared to the liberation of a people oppressed by colonialism characterised by the most insidious from of racism.

It is imperative that we be constantly reminded that Garvey was the first black man to start a mass movement in the United States as authenticated by Martin Luther King Jr.

Garvey was a major inspirational figure in artistic movements, such as the literary Harlem Renaissance in Harlem, New York, and at Edelweiss Park in Kingston, which became a Mecca for the performing arts among the masses. In this era of the first black, he remains the only black man who ever owned and operated a shipping company. Further, in an era of limited communication technology, he displayed unparalleled skills in disseminating his radical ideas, which would liberate millions from colonialism throughout the world.

It is therefore not surprising that these prodigious achievements and a basic misunderstanding of his work has overshadowed Garvey's considerable preoccupation with state power.

Garvey and state power

Garvey's first attempt at gaining state power was bound up with his Back to Africa platform when he tried to establish a presence in Liberia which was scuttled by colonial authorities who considered it to be a real threat, unlike the views of his less sophisticated detractors, who thought of it as a pipe dream or ridiculous adventure. The Liberian project would have seen the establishment of a progressive, free, independent state, largely controlled and directed by the ideas of African redemption and racial pride that Garvey espoused and which was to be a model for African liberation, at a time when Africa lay prostrate under colonial rule.

The Back To Africa Programme owes its genesis to Garvey's early recognition of the limitation of civil rights for black people in North America, which prevented them from exercising any meaningful impact on the political process there. Nevertheless, while he was still in America, he founded the National Political Union which acted as a pressure group to support, where possible, candidates of any race who were sympathetic to the cause of black liberation. It is therefore erroneous to suggest that Garvey ignored the importance of the political kingdom.

People's Political Party manifesto

It is now well recorded that Garvey ran afoul of the authorities in the United States where he had established the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) as a significant force among disgruntled, alienated black people in 1917.

He was imprisoned in 1925 in the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary and deported two and a half years later to Jamaica, where he received an unprecedented welcome by the masses. For many, this era was to be the most significant direct political involvement of Garvey's career, as he soon founded the People's Political Party in 1929 to contest the 1930 legislative council elections.

The PPP's manifesto must be seen as one of the most progressive political documents in the history of Jamaican politics, coming as it did at a time when there was no concept of party politics and the business of the country was conducted by a few influential people, largely reflecting the interest of the plantocracy.

Garvey did not have the plethora of well-fed professors and sundry experts to produce forgettable, glossy, long-winded manifestos. Nevertheless, the programme of the party was significant, in that historically almost all that it advocated was achieved. It is there that we see the first demand for universal adult suffrage, as Garvey demanded dominion status in 1926 for Jamaica, which was given to the white settler colonies such as Canada, Australia and New Zealand. The manifesto advocated a minimum wage, parish libraries, a Jamaican university, the development of local business, greater recognition of workers' rights, the creation of city status for places like Montego Bay, the development of a national opera house and a reform of the justice system to eradicate corruption.

It was on the latter point of advocating greater accountability by the justice system that Garvey was accused of sedition and imprisoned in the St Catherine District prison. No other political leader has paid such a heavy price for his political manifesto.

Ironically, while he was in prison, Garvey was elected to the Allman Town division of the Kingston and St Andrew Parish Council where he was to serve for four years, after successfully resisting attempts to deprive him of his seat.

Garvey's PPP did not succeed in the 1930 elections. In retrospect, the PPP did not have a realistic chance, although Garvey was undoubtedly a popular figure. In large measure this was due to the fact that only 12 per cent of the population could vote and Garvey's programme was deemed to be detrimental to these privileged voters. In less than a decade, the masses would move to establish the current political parties - the PNP in 1938 and the JLP in 1943, and the first election under Universal Adult Suffrage was held in 1944.

Legacy and its importance

Garvey's career is a significant illustration of the relationship between civil society and public (government) authority. For those who fought the colonial status quo, the attainment of independence was almost viewed as an end in itself, with the advent of the political kingdom. The experience of states in Latin America, Africa and indeed the Caribbean has shown the limitations of this view, since flags, anthems and hand-me-down policies have often failed to address the fundamental needs of those who historically have been deprived of any significant benefits in these societies. Marcus Garvey, in a way, superseded this view, as he always tried to back his political views with concrete, material interventions.

For many, this earned him the reputation of a swindler and a hopeless dreamer, but history has affirmed this approach that people cannot truly be independent without a solid material basis.

Garvey's approach to independence and development may be one of his most enduring legacies, as he saw political gains as simply an engine to promote and effect the real social transformation, based on sound policies, in tune with the course of history, as illustrated by the visionary planks of the PPP manifesto.

This article first appeared in The Jamaica Observer.

Monday, August 20, 2007