- Historic Sites
The Immigrant Within
The Melting Pot: Its most difficult test
December 1970 | Volume 22, Issue 1
Behind the immediate crisis of Negro poverty lay a question that ran deeper. The newly urbanized Negro raised as a sharecropper faced the same problem as his grandfather fresh out of slavery. How could he take a comfortable and dignified place in a rejecting society? Would the task require that he transform himself If so, what would be the cost, if any, to his sense of identity? These were questions that every immigrant group faced, but the issues were bitterly complicated for the black, not only by the unchangeable fact of his color but also by the passionate intensity of the feelings that race provoked. Could any metamorphosis of black life take place without massive white help, and would that help be encumbered by impossible reservations and conditions? Was it worth it? Would any such improvement really overcome white fears and open the way to a livable common future for both races in America?
Thinking blacks weighed such questions, and their answers took either of two general directions. One was toward black separatism, and in Harlem in the 1920’s separatism raised up a prophet in the stout figure of Marcus Garvey. Born in the West Indies in 1887, he had been trained in youth as a printer, a trade congenial to the upsetters of applecarts long before Benjamin Franklin’s time. There was a steady, economically motivated West Indian migration to the United States, and in 1916 Garvey joined it. In Harlem he founded a paper, the Negro World , to bring redemption to his people.
Garvey was the first to insist to his fellow Negroes that black is beautiful. “Up, you mighty race!” Negro World exhorted. “You can accomplish what you will.” And Garvey also told them: “When Europe was inhabited by a race of cannibals, a race of savages, naked men, heathens and pagans, Africa was peopled with a race of cultured black men … who, it was said, were like the gods.”
By 1919 the black community was more than ready for his message. In that so-called Red Summer, as the pressure of the Negro migration increased and black servicemen returned from France more impatient than ever with the old ways, race riots tore half a dozen cities. In Washington, troops had to be called out. In Chicago, street fighting lasted more than a week, leaving twentytwo blacks and sixteen whites dead and five hundred injured. Black emotions surged high, and Garvey fed some of their needs with pageantry. He decked himself in gaudy uniforms. He devised a flag—a black star on a red and green background: black for the race, red for its blood, green for its hopes. He collected, mostly from the poor, ten million dollars for a “Back to Africa” movement. Negroes who were working toward improving conditions in America, such as the fiery union leader of the Pullman Car Porters, A. Philip Randolph, denounced Garvey as a fool and a fraud, but Garvey stirred a pot that still boils. His organization founded a Black Star Line of ships to carry the pilgrims back to the homeland, as well as a Negro Factories Corporation, an African Orthodox Church and Court of Ethiopia, a Universal Black Cross Nurses association, a Black Eagle Flying Corps, an African Legion. None of these ventures got beyond the paper stage except for the Black Star Line, whose first ship nearly sank off Newport News on her maiden voyage. Yet despite white snickers, this was much more than minstrel-show foolery. National flags and national histories and institutions and insignia were part of the paraphernalia that buttressed white self-confidence. For blacks they had to be rediscovered and even invented.
Garvey distrusted integrationists and mulattos, whom he called “hybrids of the Negro race,” and he was even baited into kind words about Klansmen for their comparative “honesty” about racial feelings. Conservative blacks believed he was milking the community for his own aggrandizement. In time, leading Harlemites took up the slogan “Garvey must go.” Finally, Garvey went — in shackles to a federal penitentiary on a charge of using the mails to defraud. In 1927 he was pardoned and deported to Jamaica: he died in London in 1040.
Was Garvey a charlatan and a false Messiah? Many blacks have now come to believe that he was a ground breaker for the militants of the i goo’s, who demanded black economic self-sufficiency, black control of black institutions, black pride, black power. In any case Garveyism was moribund by 1930. At that point the curtain rose on a period of some thirty-five years during which Negro Americans appeared to take the alternative road, away from black isolation. They used a combination of legal argument, moral suasion, economic pressure, and political influence to quicken white America’s conscience. They walked the path of coalition and integration.