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Grassroots GarveyismThe Universal Negro Improvement Association in the Rural South, 1920-1927$

Mary G. Rolinson

Print publication date: 2007

Print ISBN-13: 9780807830925

Published to North Carolina Scholarship Online: September 2014

DOI: 10.5149/9780807872789_rolinson

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(p.192) Epilogue
Grassroots Garveyism

Mary G. Rolinson

University of North Carolina Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter examines the Garvey movement's direct intellectual legacy with respect to the discourse of black nationalism and the integrationist tendencies of the modern civil rights movement. It considers the ties of activists at the local, state, regional, and national levels to the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) as well as the presence of the core tenets of Garveyism—black pride and self-determination—in black thought and popular culture. The formative influence of Garveyism has been acknowledged by some of the most influential African Americans of the twentieth century, particularly Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad and iconic black nationalist Malcolm X. Marcus Garvey reemerged as an icon courtesy of black popular culture, even as most historians have not acknowledged the pervasiveness of grassroots Garveyism in virtually every African American cultural, political, and intellectual movement since the 1930s.

Keywords:   nationalism, civil rights movement, Universal Negro Improvement Association, Garveyism, black pride, self-determination, African Americans, Nation of Islam, Elijah Muhammad, Marcus Garvey

The Garvey movement's direct intellectual legacy appears more discreetly in the integrationist tendencies of the modern civil rights movement than in the discourse of black nationalism, yet its influences are an important part of both. Activists at the local, state, regional, and national levels have had direct personal and community ties to the unia, while the core tenets of Garveyism, black pride and self-determination, weave through the fabric of black popular culture and thought. The roots of these ideas are harder to identify because throughout American history, separatist agendas originated with the people and were adopted by their spokesmen, not the other way around.

While black nationalism runs vigorously among ordinary and anonymous black people, from rural Georgia to Michigan and from New York to California, some of the twentieth century's most influential African Americans have acknowledged the formative influence of Garveyism. Elijah Muhammad, leader of the Nation of Islam during its greatest period of growth in the 1950s and 1960s, was a product of rural Georgia during the UNIA's heyday. Born Elijah Poole in Washington County, he spent his third through his twenty-first year (1900–1919) in Cordele, within a few miles of Worth County, the center of Garveyism in Georgia. His father, Willie Poole, was an itinerant minister, and Elijah often traveled with him as he offered the surrounding communities graphic sermons that included frightening portrayals of white people.1 Elijah Poole moved to Macon, where he lived during the height of the Garvey movement. He married a Cordele woman named Clara, had two sons, and moved to Detroit during the period of Garvey's incarceration.2 According to one of his biographers, Elijah Muhammad denied having been a UNIA member, but he acknowledged Garvey's strong influence.3 Many of Muhammad's followers at the Nation of Islam's Temple No. 2 in Chicago in 1950 had a background similar to that of their leader, whom they called “the Messenger.” They also had migrated to Chicago from the rural South and had endured life at the bottom rungs of society in both places.4 Many were quick to believe that whites were evil and that blacks needed to exist separately from a polluted and decadent white society. The UNIA message framed (p.193) the same notion more positively. In Garveyism, antimiscegenation and antiassimilation beliefs and practices were demonstrations of love for one's own race. Under Elijah Muhammad and his predecessor, Wallace Fard Muhammad, pride in blackness seemed as much an abhorrence of whiteness as anything else.

Today, the Nation of Islam owns a large farm in Bronwood, Terrell County, Georgia. Louis Farrakhan, the Nation of Islam's current leader, repurchased 1,500 of nearly 5,000 acres that were formerly owned by Elijah Muhammad in the 1960s (then called the Temple Farms complex), which had been sold after his death in 1975. By coincidence, in the 1920s the UNIA's busiest organizer, O. C. Kelly, owned a farm within ten miles of the Nation of Islam's current Terrell County farm. Brother A1 Muhammad, originally from Mississippi, is an adviser to the Muhammad Farms who acknowledges Garvey's movement as a crucial predecessor to the organization to which he has devoted his life.5 Ridgely Muhammad, the farm's manager, has a Ph.D. from Michigan State University and M.A. and B.A. degrees from historically black North Carolina Agricultural and Technical University, a leading institution for students involved in the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Brother William Muhammad, who is over one hundred years old, sells vegetables grown on the farm locally, while the rest is trucked to the Nation of Islam's restaurants in Chicago and Detroit or is available for purchase by black families and small business owners at distribution centers.6 Ridgely operates a website and edits The Farmer, which provides a network for black farmers who want to participate in race-conscious cooperatives. The distrust of whites and the U.S. government, similarly but less openly expressed in Garvey's heyday, is a theme of the newsletter.7 Terrell County remains majority-black, yet the Nation of Islam seeks and receives little publicity there, similar to the habits of the UNIAdivisions of the rural South in the 1920s.

Another direct descendant of the UNIA, the Nation of Islam, and their mutual commitment to racial pride and self-determination was Malcolm X. The iconic black nationalist and Muslim was a first-generation northerner, born to Earl and Louisa Little. Malcolm described his father as a “Georgia Negro,” which seemed to imply great strength and a firsthand knowledge of the worst kind of racial oppression. Earl Little was born and reared in rural Taylor County in the southwestern quadrant of Georgia, then moved to Omaha and became an itinerant preacher and a UNIA division president. He encountered much harassment and intimidation by whites, and in time he moved to Wisconsin and later Michigan, all the way organizing UNIA divisions. Although the facts are disputed, Malcolm recounted that his father had (p.194) been murdered by the Klan in Lansing in 1931.8 Although Malcolm X's notoriety came during his association with the Nation of Islam, we must not neglect the formative influences of his childhood and the fact that his rhetoric was taking him in a new direction when he was killed in 1965. Malcolm X's best-selling autobiography, which paid tribute to his father's Garveyite ideology, piqued many a black youth's interest in the movement and led to the UNIAleader's popular “rediscovery” in the 1960s.9

The tenets of Garveyism flowed into intellectual as well as political realms. In rural Virginia in 1926, the UNIA purchased Smallwood-Corey Industrial Institute in Clarendon. The college survived for only three years under the new name Liberty University. The school's fortunes declined with those of the organization as a whole, but not before a group of young trainees learned how to organize in local black communities and were drilled in UNIA ideology. Liberty University's vice president, the Reverend John Gibbs St. Clair Drake, made an indelible mark.10 Not only did he excel in community leadership, migrating with his rural Virginia flocks to Pittsburgh's steel jobs, but while in Suffolk, Virginia, a hotbed of Garveyism, he became the father of St. Clair Drake. Later in life the younger Drake, an eminent anthropologist and sociologist, launched African American studies at Stanford University and wrote several classic works, including Black Metropolis (1943) and The Black Diaspora (1972). At Stanford and elsewhere, the younger Drake mentored dozens of influential PanAfrican thinkers.11 One of his students was an influential ideologue of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) named Bill Ware, who, along with other Atlanta members of SNCC's Vine City Project, advocated race consciousness, separatism, revolutionary struggle, and black leadership for the masses. Ware, who was born and reared in rural Mississippi, and Ivanhoe Donaldson, who recalled that his father had endorsed the tenets of Garveyism, shifted their faction of the civil rights organization away from interracial democracy and toward nationalism and resistance after 1966.12

Another example of SNCC's leaders' rifts over tactics occurred in the mid-1960s in Lowndes County, Alabama. Stokely Carmichael led a movement to empower black voters in this Black Belt county where they had the potential for political control at the county level. He was a native of Trinidad, born to a father who had openly revered Garvey. Carmichael had moved to Harlem at age eleven, but as a young man he found his true inspiration working among rural blacks of the Deep South. He came to articulate their agenda as a prominent black power advocate during the modern civil rights movement.13 The (p.195) Black Panther Party of Lowndes County inspired the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense of Oakland, California, and many lesser-known local organizations for black community solidarity.14

SNCC's position paper on Black Power clearly expressed trepidation about allowing whites to participate in civil rights organizations because their mere presence undermined some black people's confidence and trust. This issue spawned irreconcilable rifts in SNCC and the freedom movement at large. In some cases, liberal whites were frozen out of the process, and in others, militant black leaders who thought like Britt McKinney of the Southern Tenant Farmers Union, Hubert Thomas of the Southwest Georgia Council on Human Relations, or Robert F. Williams of Monroe, North Carolina, made concessions. These black leaders found some whites to be sincere as individuals; moreover, they understood that white political leaders might have something practical to offer and could therefore be allowed a role in the black struggle. But at the same time, and in all of these contexts, self-defense and militant politics rather than nonviolent protest became increasingly useful tools for organization.15

In many urban areas the UNIA survives as an organization with an uninterrupted lineage.16 In the fall of 2004, Mrs. Thelma Lewis died in Atlanta at age ninety-seven, and an African ceremony was held for this woman, also known as Queen Mother Nzinga Akua. Her son, Archbishop John H. Lewis III, of St. Augustine Imani African Orthodox Temple, called her the oldest living member of the Atlanta UNIA. Mrs. Lewis manifested certain traditional elements of the southern nationalist mindset. She had wanted to be a missionary to Africa and was devoted to her church and community. She was well known among folklorists for her knowledge of traditional hymns and Negro spirituals. Three of her five children became ministers, including Archbishop Lewis, who is also president of the Atlanta UNIA. For many years she had been at the center of the Atlanta UNIA division, which still holds annual Garvey Day celebrations at Mosely Park on Atlanta's West Side, an event that displays the popular black nationalism that has evolved over the last forty years.17

Although black popular culture has revived Garvey as an icon, most historians have not acknowledged the prevalence of grassroots Garveyism in almost every African American cultural, political, and intellectual movement since the 1930s. And even though every recent United States history textbook devotes a few paragraphs to the meteoric UNIA and the so-called Garvey “Back to Africa” movement of the urban North, the historical literature thus far ignores the UNIA in the South, reinforcing the perception that it was a short-lived, marginally (p.196) influential, and obscure organization. Another barrier to recognizing the importance of the Garvey movement and its rural ideological origins is that it generally existed outside the purview of white and elite society. By recovering grassroots Garveyism from the fragments of the historical record, we can add a new dimension to our understanding of the enormous challenges and sometimes contradictory aspects of black organizational strategy.


(1) . There is much mystery surrounding the early years of Elijah Poole, and details of his origins are in dispute. Elijah Muhammad's own accounts, however, confirm these details. See Evanzz, Messenger, 21–23, 41–47. See also Clegg, Original Man, 8–13.

(2) . Muhammad, Message to the Black Man in America, 24–25.

(3) . Evanzz, Messenger, 529 n. 15.

(4) . Clegg, Original Man, 100.

(5) . Ibid., 253; Atlanta JournalConstitution, 13 March 1995, C1; author interview with Alonzo Bryant (Brother Al Muhammad), Dawson, Ga., 15 May 2004.

(6) . Author interview with Alonzo Bryant; Albany Herald, 20 September 2002, B1; Atlanta JournalConstitution, 19 March 1995.

(7) . For the website and The Farmer see 〈http://muhammadfarms.com〉 (25 January 2005).

(8) . Malcolm X and Haley, Autobiography of Malcolm X, 1–10; Bruce Perry, Malcolm, 2–14.

(9) . See St. Clair Drake's introduction to Burkett, Garveyism as a Religious Movement, xiv.

(10) . See Tony Martin, Race First, 36–37.

(11) . Salzman, Smith, and West, Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History, 2:788.

(12) . Carson, In Struggle, 193–98, 201; Payne, I've Got the Light of Freedom, 234.

(13) . Hewitt, “Stokely Carmichael,” 71–72, 78.

(14) . John Lewis, Walking with the Wind, 352–53.

(15) . For the text of the SNCC position paper “The Basis of Black Power” see 〈http://www3.iath.virginia.edu/sixties/HTML?docs/Resources/Primary/Manifestos/SNCC?black?power.html〉 (7 July 2006).

(16) . See the UNIA website at 〈http://www.UNIAACL.org〉 (9 June 2006).

(17) . Atlanta JournalConstitution, 17 September 2004, D11.