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Reflecting on Garvey, the Garvey Movement (Part 3)

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In 1937, Garvey visited a number of Caribbean countries, including St Vincent. While the reaction to his speech was very positive in St Vincent, in St Lucia it seemed to have got a different reception, according to an editorial in the West Indian Crusader of October 20, 1937. I quote from that editorial: “Mr. Marcus Garvey did his cause no good last Sunday by his reference to the Italo-Ethiopian War and his bitter comments on His Imperial Majesty, Haile Selassie.{{more}} It was the most unkindest cut of all for anyone, and more especially coming from one who claims to espouse the cause of Negro freedom, to call so noble and so brave a man a coward and a traitor of his people. What man, if he were a coward, placed in similar circumstances to Emperor Selassie, would have exposed himself to the dangers of the battlefield in supreme command of his forces, manning his gun like an ordinary soldier? What King, leave alone an emperor, in modern warfare, would have taken the risks of even a casual visit to the front line trenches?

It is charged against Selassie that he betrayed his people by taking flight, but not an ill word was said against England and France, or against the arch-traitor, the League of Nations, who betrayed the Ethiopians, and incidentally, Selassie, into a false sense of collective security … We have followed the activities of the Garvey movement, since its inception and we are fully competent to pass an opinion on what it has achieved, but we cannot help saying that Mr. Garvey takes himself too seriously when he compares himself as head of the U.N.I.A Organisation, having had to take what he calls “his medicine” with the ruler of a large country of over 15,000,000 people embracing one of the oldest civilisations of the ancient and modern world. To insinuate that Selassie despised Negroes and considered himself white is merely an echo of Italian propaganda broadcast from Rome…

Nothing that we have said is intended to alienate the sympathies of anyone for Mr. Garvey or from the U.N.I.A. We appreciate the fact that we are living through a very anxious period in the world’s history and it behoves us to close ranks. Similarly, if Mr. Garvey was the victim this paper would have defended him, as we often have done, because, with all his faults, he, too, is not without merit…”

“Garvey had criticised Selassie…referring to him as a coward and traitor…He then went on with the usual Italian propaganda that Selassie despised Negroes but these gratuitous insults did not find favour with his audience and seemed to have spoiled an otherwise brilliant address. We regret that space does not permit a fuller report.” (That was the text of the editorial in the West Indian Crusader newspaper.)

The lecture delivered in St Lucia was not the only occasion on which Garvey took issue with Selassie. His Blackman newspaper, which he started in 1929 when he had returned to Jamaica, carried frequent attacks on Selassie. This astounded Garveyites. The Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1935 had drawn strong criticisms from people throughout the Caribbean, including the Garveyites, who along with other Caribbean people volunteered to go and fight against the Italians. In St Vincent, the Italian invasion of Ethiopia generated a lot of interest and anger. Vincentians followed developments in that war by daily reading the cable boards which provided regular updates. Garvey’s wife Amy Jacques Garvey had addressed at least one pro-Ethiopian rally. Garvey himself strongly supported the Ethiopians, but took issue with Selassie.

Tony Martin, in his Marcus Garvey, Hero, A First Biography quotes Garvey talking about Haile Selassie: “ No one desires to be unfair to Haile Selassie. The only sad thing is that he has been unfair to himself…whilst other nations and rulers are building up armaments of the most destructive kind, as the only means of securing peace and protection, he relied on the peculiar policy of leaving everything to the Almighty Wisdom of the Universal Creator. Who in all history, has never yet taken political sides between two rival human political forces and powers…When Ethiopia again stretches forth her hand to God, it will have to be a hand of progress.”

Martin, in his comment on this, after indicating that Garvey had lent all his support to the Ethiopians, states, “Coming in the midst of all the widespread support for the Ethiopians, Garvey’s criticisms seemed strange and confusing to many. Some of his former followers in Jamaica, the United States and elsewhere now attacked him on this score. To them it must have seemed as though Garvey was withdrawing support from the Ethiopian cause, though such was not in fact the case.”

(To be continued)

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian.

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