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Marcus Garvey and St Vincent (continued from last week)

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celebrated the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s famous “I have a dream” speech. The fact that today there is a black President in the US owes much not only to Dr Martin Luther King, but to those black leaders before who had in their own way contributed to the black struggle for dignity and equality. It is important that we reflect on the contributions of some of those early leaders and undoubtedly Garvey made his contribution in lifting the pride of black people and making them believe in themselves. The fact that 250,000 people of all colours turned out at the Lincoln Memorial was testimony to those long years of struggle.{{more}}

I had indicated last week that the US authorities finally found a way of crushing Garvey and eventually his movement through charges in connection with his Black Star Line. Mulzac, who was a professional seaman, had begun to harbour doubts about the way the Steam Line Company was being run. Despite the enthusiastic welcome everywhere it went, he had seen no reason why the ship should have been to some of those ports, for there was no cargo to be discharged or loaded. On one occasion, on their route to Boston, they passed into Philadelphia, but there were 700 tons of coconuts for New York rotting in the hold. He concluded that Garvey, although a great organiser, was a poor businessman. In any event the authorities were out to get rid of Garvey and seized the opportunity to do so. Lawyer Armin Kohn, who defended Garvey, had the following to say, “…In my twenty-three years of practice at the New York Bar, I have never handled a case in which the defendant has been treated with such manifest unfairness and with such a palpable attempt at persecution as this one.” Garvey was sentenced to five years at the Atlanta Federal Prison and then deported in 1927 after being released.

Garvey still continued to preach his message. Not being able to visit the US, he made trips elsewhere, to the West Indies in 1937 on his return from Canada. It was thus two years after the 1935 riots that he had an opportunity to visit St Vincent. At that time the British authorities still had their doubts about him. The St.Vincent Workingmen’s Association was then very vibrant and members of the Association hosted him and coordinated his visits.

An item in the Times newspaper of October 23, 1937 made reference to a meeting that was called at the request of George McIntosh to discuss the arrangements for Garvey’s visit. At that meeting, it was decided to charge a small fee to cover his expenses. One shilling was charged for front seats and six pence for back seats. Garvey, who was in transit, on his way to British Guiana, arrived on Tuesday, October 19. He visited Government House, where he signed the Visitors’ Book and then went to the Carnegie Library, where he addressed a large audience. The Vincentian newspaper described him as a magnetic speaker “and it is no wonder that he has already swayed millions in the US and elsewhere by the forcefulness of his oratory…” The Times newspaper also quoted from his speech, “…Colour prejudice is the biggest piece of ignorance that ever entered Man’s mind…He respects the white man because god made him so, he respects the yellow man because God made him so, and he expects every man to respect him as a black man because God made him so…”

His second lecture was on Wednesday, October 27 when he was on his northbound trip. The boat arrived late, at about 7:45 p.m. and he was met again by representatives of the Workingmen’s Association and went to the Carnegie Hall, where he again addressed another packed audience. The Times in reporting on that second lecture stated: “Mr. Garvey is no common psychologist…He is a perfect entertainer. He is simple, so simple that even the man on the street appreciates his addresses, with keenest interest and the warmest eulogies…”

The Vincentian public was quite prepared to welcome Garvey because so much had happened since the establishment earlier of branches of his UNIA that helped to develop a sense of black pride. A sense of black consciousness reached a high point at the time of the riots and had been stimulated by the Italian invasion of Abyssinia (Ethiopia). T.Albert Marryshow, who was one of the leading West Indian figures speaking out against that invasion, had visited St Vincent and addressed meetings called to protest the invasion. It is said that it was after one of those meetings that Samuel ‘Sheriff’ Lewis got the nickname ‘Haile Selassie’ when he responded to Marryshow’s call for volunteers to assist the Abyssinians.
 
Shortly after the 1935 riots, there was a rumour circulating that an Italian doctor was to visit the schools and was expected to give out poisoned sweets to the children. A report was carried in the Times newspaper of the visit on November 25 to the Anglican School of a relative of the Headmaster. When the relative, who was of fair complexion, arrived chaos broke out as children began to scramble through the doors and windows and parents turned up to take their children away. Vincentians had been flocking to the Cable Office to follow the developments in Abyssinia and the newspapers had regular updates, not only about this but featured contributions made by black people, as happened earlier with the black Martiniquan, Rane Maran, who had won a top French literary prize.

This was the kind of atmosphere that existed and that preceded Garvey’s two visits. Garvey, of course, through his earlier work had contributed to this.

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian.

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