One of the first references to Marcus Garvey that I ever saw was in a book called "Hustlers and Con Men," which was geared toward young readers and referred to Garvey's "Back to Africa" movement as a scam designed to bilk black folk out of their money.
Years later, I learned that this book was filled with myths that were part of a campaign to discredit Garvey. So today, on the eve of the 100th anniversary of his birth, I pay tribute to a much maligned man.
Now I don't agree with everything Garvey said or did. In his early efforts to point out the unkind treatment of dark-skinned blacks at the hands of their lighter-skinned brothers, Garvey created even more division by venomously lambasting people like W.E.B. DuBois as "hybrid Negroes."
Then there was his peculiar sympathy with the Ku Klux Klan.
"Between the Klan and the NAACP," he said, "give me the Klan for their honesty of purpose towards the Negro. They are better friends to my race, for telling us what they are, and what they mean, thereby giving us a chance to stir for ourselves. I regard the Klan as better friends of the race than all other groups of hypocritical whites put together."
However, it was never the particulars of Garveyism, which were obviously aimed at inflaming the imagination of a downtrodden people, that mattered so much as his general emphasis on black pride, the development of powerful black business organizations and affinity for the African motherland.
"The Negro is dying out and he is going to die faster in the next 50 years than he has in the past 300 years," Garvey said during a speech in 1920. "There is only one thing to save the Negro, and that is an immediate realization of his own responsibilities."
Garvey was born in St. Ann's Bay, Jamaica, on Aug. 17, 1887. He was seeking employment in London in 1912 when he came across a copy of Booker T. Washington's book "Up From Slavery." Washington had built a school called Tuskegee Institute. Garvey wanted to build a nation.
In 1916, Garvey emigrated to New York and soon began publishing a newspaper, The Negro World, which became his platform for advocating black nationalist ideas.
He later started a shipping company, The Black Star Line, which was to be the link between blacks in America and Africa, a continent whose history of black kings and queens was the source of black pride.
But the company failed, and Garvey died without setting foot on African soil. Nevertheless, his predictions that colonial powers would lose their hold on the vast continent came true. The struggle for independence ignited throughout Africa and the Caribbean, largely due to his philosophy of self-assertion.
But his greatest influence was, no doubt, here in America.
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. paid tribute to Garvey, declaring, "He was the first man of color in the history of the United States to lead and develop a mass movement."
Garvey had founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association in 1914 and counted among its members the father of Malcolm X, the most influential of modern black nationalists, and Elijah Poole, who would later become Elijah Muhammad, leader of the Nation of Islam.
Kelly Miller, a leading black intellectual at the time, said of Garvey, "He opened windows in the minds of black people, teaching the poorest of the poor that he, too, had dignity and a place in society."
Even DuBois, whom Garvey criticized relentlessly, would one day write, "Shorn of its bombast and exaggeration, the main lines of the Garvey plan are perfectly feasible."
And so it would seem today, when there is a renewed interest by blacks in economic development and a veritable explosion in black professional organizations that advocate racial unity as they seek to uplift black people.
"Be assured that I planted well the seed of black nationalism that cannot be destroyed," Garvey wrote confidently before he died in June 1940.