Episode 14, Season 4
Black political ideologies in the early 20th century evolved against a backdrop of derogatory stereotypes and racial terrorism. Starting with Marcus Garvey and the Universal Negro Improvement Agency, historian Minkah Makalani contextualizes an era of Black intellectualism. From common goals of racial unity to fierce debates over methods, he shows how movements of the 1920s and 1930s fed into what became the civil rights and Black Power movements.
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Bethany Jay: As teachers, we divide the narrative of history into discrete topics: a unit plan on the Revolutionary War, another on the Progressive Movement, another on the Depression. This strategy reflects the curriculum standards that we are asked to work with, and our need to craft a narrative that's coherent for our students. But it also puts historical events into different silos, very separate from one another. Then, every so often, a resource comes around that explodes those silos and challenges us to rethink that neat sequence of unit plans.
Bethany Jay: For me, that resource was Mary Dudziak's Cold War Civil Rights. I realize that I'm dating myself here—Dudziak's book is now over 20 years old, but it is still relevant. In Cold War Civil Rights, Dudziak explores the history of the Civil Rights Movement within the international context of the Cold War. She argues that the limits of American democracy at home, with regard to what was commonly known at the time as "The Negro Problem" (but which we know as the violence and structural racism of Jim Crow), constituted an international public relations crisis. A crisis that Cold War adversaries like the Soviet Union seized at every opportunity. Even during World War II, writer Pearl S. Buck noted that America's racial problems were fodder for enemy propaganda. Buck wrote:
Every lynching, every race riot gives joy to Japan. The discriminations of the American army and navy and the air forces against colored soldiers and sailors, the exclusion of colored labor in our defense industries and trade unions, all our social discriminations are of the greatest aid today to our enemy in Asia, Japan. "Look at America," Japan is saying to millions of listening ears. "Will white Americans give you equality?"
Bethany Jay: The discrimination, segregation and violence directed at Black Americans that Buck identified as an ideological problem during World War II only became further amplified by a Cold War context. To respond to international criticisms of the United States—or perhaps to drown them out—various entities in the US government organized counter-narratives. One of the most prominent of these was a State Department publication that emerged in the early 1950s called The Negro in American Life.
Bethany Jay: It may be surprising to those of us living through today's controversies surrounding teaching slavery to learn that this 1950's publication went to great lengths explaining that slavery was the "cardinal cause" of American racism. But as Dudziak points out, their focus on slavery served as a useful origin story. She says, "The reader was asked not to view American race relations in isolation. Rather,"—and here she's quoting the State Department—"'it is against this background that the progress which the Negro has made—and the steps still needed for the full solution of his problems—must be measured.'" In other words, by beginning with the sin of slavery, The Negro in American Life argued that America under Jim Crow represented real racial progress. To accompany narratives like The Negro in American Life, the State Department also recruited prominent Black Americans like Louis Armstrong to serve as cherry-picked examples of Black achievement, as evidence of the nation's great strides towards racial equality.
Bethany Jay: Of course, to maintain this celebratory and progressive narrative of American race relations, the United States government needed to carefully control which messages were available overseas. And so the State Department and FBI became very concerned with the actions of African Americans abroad. In the 1950s, everyone from Josephine Baker to Paul Robeson to W.E.B. Du Bois found themselves the targets of some combination of government surveillance, travel restrictions, blacklisting and smear campaigns. Why? Well, labor and civil rights activist William Patterson ran afoul of the State Department when he placed the plight of African Americans in the context of international anti-colonization movements. In doing so, he had complicated the nation's campaign to sell racial progress as a hallmark of the possibilities of American democracy. And the State Department's justification for revoking Paul Robeson's passport may say it all: Robeson's "Frequent criticism of the treatment of Blacks in the United States should not be aired in foreign countries. It was a family affair."
Bethany Jay: Like Robeson and Patterson, those who found themselves the targets of government surveillance, restrictions and persecution during the Cold War were parts of movements that sought the liberation of Black people no matter where they resided—movements that began well before the Cold War. In the earliest decades of the 20th century, African-American leaders responded both to colonization abroad and the violence and segregation at home by uniting under groups like Marcus Garvey's United Negro Improvement Association, the NAACP or myriad other organizations to effect change. Despite its importance, this history of Black political thought rarely gets much mention in the history curriculum. And when it does, it is often as a sidebar to seemingly more pressing 20th century issues. When, in fact, their work had an impact on much of our modern history, on many of those silos that often define our classrooms: from the interwar years, to World War II, decolonization, the Cold War, the Civil Rights Movement and today.
Bethany Jay: I'm Bethany Jay, and this is Teaching Hard History. We're a production of Learning for Justice—the education arm of the Southern Poverty Law Center. This season, we're offering a detailed look at how to teach the history of Jim Crow, starting with Reconstruction. In each episode, we explore a different topic, walking you through historical concepts, raising questions for discussion, suggesting useful source material and offering practical classroom exercises.
Bethany Jay: Black political ideologies evolved against a backdrop of derogatory stereotypes and racial terrorism. In this episode, my co-host Hasan Kwame Jeffries spoke with historian Minkah Makalani about Black political thought during Jim Crow. They will help us to tell the complex and compelling history of this era in our classrooms by exploring how Black political leaders in the era of Jim Crow understood America's racial problems within an international context. Their work and their ideas influenced much of the 20th century as they actively worked to effect change both at home and abroad.
Bethany Jay: I'm so glad you can join us. Let's get started.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I have been looking forward to this episode and this conversation with this person since before the season began. I want to welcome to the podcast, Dr. Minkah Makalani. Minkah, what's up, brother?
Minkah Makalani: Man, it's all good. Thank you, Hasan, for having me on. Good to talk to you again.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Absolutely. Look, the reason why I've been looking forward to this episode, and to this topic, and to you specifically sharing some knowledge and insights with us is because too often when we look at the Jim Crow era, we don't look at the intellectual side.
Minkah Makalani: Right.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: We don't look at the side of Black folk thinking and acting on these thoughts and making sense of the circumstances that they find themselves in. And I can think of no better person to help us make sense of the political thinking of African Americans during this era than you.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: You know, one of the things, Minkah, that I love to introduce my students to as just sort of a springboard into this topic is the UNIA—Universal Negro Improvement Association—which was Marcus Garvey's organization. Could you just share with us sort of a rough outline of who Garvey was, and what the UNIA was?
Minkah Makalani: Right, so Garvey is a really intriguing character. Very charismatic, dynamic and a complex thinker. So he's born in Jamaica, and his father is a printer. And so he is introduced very early on to the word and to publishing as a central political activity. He's also learning from his father stories about Jamaica's radical history: the uprisings that occurred both among the enslaved, as well as those efforts to redress oppression after the period of enslavement ends.
Minkah Makalani: And early in his life, he decided to begin traveling. And one of the places that he goes is to the Panama Canal Zone. This had been a project to construct the Panama Canal, and it brought a number of Black Caribbeans to the canal zone. One of the things that he noticed there was that you had this differential pay system—what was known as Panama Silver. And this was a differential pay that was given to Black Caribbean migrant workers that was distinct from the pay that was going to white workers from the US.
Minkah Makalani: He goes to London. He works for Dusé Mohamed Ali and his international African Times and Orient Review. And he's being exposed to Pan-Africanist thought for the first time in a sustained way. He's also hearing stories coming from around the African world that are being published in the African Times and Orient Review.
Minkah Makalani: And then he returns to Jamaica, and he establishes in 1914 the Universal Negro Improvement Association. And the UNIA doesn't get much traction early on when he's in Jamaica. And in about 1916, he decides to embark on a tour, initially to visit Booker T. Washington at Tuskegee Institute with the hopes of establishing a Tuskegee in Jamaica. He has the unfortunate timing of arriving in the United States after Washington had died. So he decides to have a tour anyway, a speaking tour, to try and raise money for the UNIA that he would return to and continue to build in Jamaica.
Minkah Makalani: And during his time in the US, he witnesses reports and accounts of the 1917 East St. Louis race riot. And this is one of the more brutal race riots that precedes the Red Summer of 1919. And with everything he has seen and heard about in Jamaica, in the Panama Canal Zone, the stories that he had read about and the conversations he had had in London, his anger and frustration kind of came to a head, and he decides to establish the UNIA in New York and work in the US.
Minkah Makalani: He frames a lot of the issues in these global terms, and connects what's going on in the US to everything that's going on around the world. He's insisting on the ability of Black people around the world to live freely without the yoke of white supremacy bearing down on them. And he's insisting on Africa for the Africans. And this means the ability of Africans on the African continent to direct their own lives, to direct their own societies, to be free of European domination.
Minkah Makalani: The other thing that he does is as a dark-skinned, Black Jamaican, he is critical of a Black elite, particularly in the US North, that is fair in complexion and that maintains a certain social distance from working class and poor Black folks. You know, they're being shunned, they're being talked about disparagingly. You had preachers on Sunday who would give a sermon chastising people for dressing a certain way, or for eating certain foods, and being loud in public—things that are "bringing the race down." And so Garvey actually is also tapping into a sense of racial pride that doesn't privilege those who are fair skinned, those who are richer.
Minkah Makalani: And so it taps into a whole range of things for a lot of people. And it really is inspiring to think about how it must have been in the context of being a generation removed from enslavement—the 19-teens, 1920s. This is the first full generation where people are largely born outside of the context of enslavement, right? And the kind of psychic trauma that that brings on, the constant barragement of racial stereotypes, demeaning depictions of Black people, demeaning discourses about Black people being lazy, being a danger, et cetera, to have someone in that context talk about Black pride, and talk about the African continent as a place of pride and a place that Black people should revere and focus on and try and liberate as they liberate themselves, ended up appealing to such a wide range of people that the UNIA remains the single largest organization ever in the Black world. I think the records indicate that it had upwards of 1.5 million members, people who were paying dues, who were consistently a part of chapters across the US, in the Caribbean, as well as on the African continent. But in terms of support, people who purchased and read its newspaper, The Negro World, people who sent money in to the UNIA, people who purchased shares in the Black Star Line, this was the UNAI's attempt to establish an international shipping line that would serve the interests of Black people around the world, that number rises to about eight million people. It's hard to overstate how important and profoundly influential the UNIA was to Black life around the world.
Minkah Makalani: And two examples I'll give in terms of the African continent, Jomo Kenyatta recounts how in his village in Kenya when he was young, The Negro World would arrive, and it would be read over and over and over. And young people would then go to different parts of town and relay the stories that were in The Negro World. And the other person that gives a similar account of how influential Garveyism was is Kwame Nkrumah, who was so influenced by Garvey and the UNIA that when he leads the Gold Coast to independence in 1957 and establishes the nation of Ghana, he takes the Black Star Line as inspiration. And so the Ghana national team is called the Black Stars after the Universal Negro Improvement Association's Black Star Line. So you get a sense of how important that is as a movement to so many people.
Minkah Makalani: A lot of people in the 20th century can trace their early intellectual beginnings to Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association. I like to tell my students about Audley Moore, or Queen Mother Moore, who is receiving considerable attention as of late with the resurgence of the push for reparations. A former colleague Ashley Farmer is writing a biography of Audley Moore and her work for reparations. But if you don't mind, I just want to read this interview that Mark Naison, a historian, did with her about her first encounter with Marcus Garvey in New Iberia, Louisiana, at a Longshoremen's Union.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Absolutely.
Minkah Makalani: So this is about 1920, 1921. Garvey was coming to give a talk at a Longshoremen's Hall, and the police wouldn't let him give his speech. And so she's explaining this. Quote, "Well, Garvey himself came, but the police wouldn't allow him to speak to us. And everybody vowed to go back the next night with the guarantee that we were going to hear Garvey. So we went. All of us went well-armed. Everybody had guns and big bags of ammunition. The police filed into the hall and stood up along the sides of the benches, man-to-man, on both sides of the aisle. So when Garvey came in, everybody stood up and applauded, and Garvey said, 'My friends, I wish to apologize to you for not speaking to you last night. But the mayor of New Orleans permitted himself to be used by the police, the chief, to prevent my speaking to you.' When he said that, the police chief jumped up on the platform and said, 'I'll run you in!' And when he did that, all of us stood on the benches, and everybody's guns came out. And with hand in the air, guns pointed, blue steel, Smith & Wessons, .44s, .38s, all kinds of guns, we said, 'Speak, Garvey. Speak!' And Garvey said, 'And as I was saying …' Garvey went on and repeated himself, and so the police filed out of the Longshoremen's Hall in New Orleans."
Minkah Makalani: I like to give that because it does a number of things. One, it does away with this myth that Black people in the South kind of just took oppression and were pushed around and bullied and never fought back. This is a clear indication that people were willing to bear arms if need be. But the other thing about this is that this is really her political awakening. She talks about beginning to read the newspaper, The Negro World and other newspapers after that, and then being compelled to move to New York in 1922 to really become involved in the UNIA. And then after its decline, moving into other political arenas. And this is where I think Garvey is really good also as a window onto a range of other organizations and political formations.
Minkah Makalani: Audley Moore is someone—or Queen Mother Moore, excuse me—is someone whose political career, intellectual activity extended over the course of the 20th century. She had the ear of Malcolm X. She informed a number of political movements throughout the 20th century, but her intellectual odyssey begins hearing about Marcus Garvey.
Minkah Makalani: And so I think, depending on how you want to approach Garvey, it can open up, and you can drill down into something very specific in the early 1920s, or you can expand it around the world, or you can expand it across the 20th century. But definitely you see those resonances throughout the 1920s and 1930s, and feeding on into those people who become very important figures in the Civil Rights and Black Power movements.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: What are some of the source materials that you use in the classroom to teach and talk about Garvey and the UNIA that you think might be useful to teachers K-12?
Minkah Makalani: The one document that I always use when teaching about the UNIA and Garvey is its "Declaration of the Rights of the Negro Peoples of the World." And this is a document drafted in 1920. And it kind of sets out some of the political concerns that the UNIA has. When you just look at the breadth of it, its preamble lodges 12 complaints, and then it goes on to make 54 demands. And this is a document that is so grand in scope that it goes from calling for Africa for the Africans to demanding the free and unfettered commercial intercourse with all the Negro people of the world, to something like, "We proclaim the 31st day of August of each year to be an international holiday to observed by all Negroes."
Minkah Makalani: So the document is long, and it can take a lot to kind of get into and walk students through, particularly in a K-12 context. But what it does, I think, which is so good, and it works equally as well in a university classroom, is it requires you to give the students some context. You have to explain a whole range of things that are going on in the world. You've had the Great War or World War I that has ended. You've had this concern about what to do with these African territories that were previously held by Germany. And pan-African congresses are seeking to make a claim at the founding of the League of Nations for the independence of Africa and the African colonies.
Minkah Makalani: President Woodrow Wilson has called for self-determination for European nations, but definitely does not consider that as an option for Africa. It's a very racialized notion of self-determination that he's articulating. And Garvey is saying, "Number 13: We believe in the freedom of Africa for the Negro people of the world. And by the principle of Europe for the Europeans and Asians for the Asiatics, we also demand Africa for the Africans at home and abroad."
Minkah Makalani: You see there that he's talking about Africa for the Africans in the context of Europe and these movements in Asia to assert independence and sovereignty. And so making those same kinds of claims for Black people. So you get students to think about what are the complaints and what are the demands that they are making, and why are they calling for this in this way?
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: You mentioned The Negro World and Marcus Garvey as its publisher. Would you recommend using The Negro World in the classroom?
Minkah Makalani: Mm-hmm. Definitely. There are a range of things you can do with looking at The Negro World to get students to see what are some of the topics that were covered. How did it mix a news story with an editorial that seeks to politically educate its readership, that seeks to situate a lynching or the Red Summer of 1919? Or an international congress—the Pan-African Congress or the UNIA's international congresses? How does it talk about them? It gets students to thinking about how everyday people are reading this newspaper, who are, say, going to a barbershop or maybe to a salon. People are talking about it in church groups, in their clubs. It shows the kinds of ideas they are debating, both with leaders but also amongst themselves. And then also what does it mean that so many people are reading this around the globe, and that in some instances it's outlawed?
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: One of the great ironies that I find in Garvey and his understanding of Africa is that, to a certain extent, it draws upon some of the prevailing stereotypes of what the continent was.
Minkah Makalani: Mm-hmm.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Is that a fair thing to say?
Minkah Makalani: I think it is fair to say that a lot of the views that Garvey expressed about Africans track with dominant, racist views about Africa and Africans. At the same time that Garvey is saying we need to look at Africa as our home, he would say that people need to be civilized, they need to be Christianized, and we need to redeem Africa. It is in many ways deplorable, but it's not uncommon for its period. Actually, Audley Moore recounts how her and her husband, after Garvey comes to Louisiana, they decide they're going to go to Africa. And an aunt tells her, "No, no, no, you can't go to Africa. If you go there, they're gonna eat you. They eat people there."
Minkah Makalani: Garvey sees himself as a very modern Black person, right? He's well-educated, he's well-traveled. Now it's the same thing that undergirds the thinking of Black leaders in the NAACP, the Urban League, and how they thought about their role to educate working-class Black people, and that is this idea of racial uplift. That those who are the most educated, who are the most culturally advanced, that it's their responsibility to uplift those Black people in the US who are poor, who are uneducated, and tell them what they need to improve themselves, but also to go back to Africa and civilize the continent.
Minkah Makalani: To talk about this history, to talk about this aspect of Garvey and this aspect Black thought at this time, is not to diminish it or bring it down, but to make it human. So Garvey, W.E.B. Du Bois, A. Philip Randolph, a whole host of characters, they end up not being heroes, but being amazing human beings who had flaws.
Bethany Jay: This is Teaching Hard History, and I'm Bethany Jay. We prepare detailed show notes for each episode of this podcast so that you can use what you learn here in the classroom. You'll find relevant resources as well as a full transcript, complete with links to materials mentioned by our guests. You can find them at LearningForJustice.org/podcasts. Let's return now to Hasan's conversation with Minkah Makalani.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Who were some of Garvey's contemporaries that we should know about, and would be helpful for students to be introduced to, to make sense of the thinking circulating at this time?
Minkah Makalani: So the figures abound in terms of his contemporaries. And some people who he was really close to, like the poet Claude McKay—also from Jamaica. He saw great value in some of his work, and then he denigrated other of his work. Langston Hughes, someone again who he saw great value in, but he denigrated his work. And Garvey was also critical of Paul Robeson, in particular his film Sanders of the River.
Minkah Makalani: You know, the most well-known contemporary of Garvey is W.E.B. Du Bois. Born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, excels in school; attends Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee; gets accepted to Harvard, but is forced to repeat a couple years of undergraduate work because it's deemed that Fisk isn't up to the standard for a Harvard education. And so he ends up studying economics and sociology in Germany, and ultimately ends up writing some of the works that become foundational to the field of sociology. And comes back to complete his PhD in history at Harvard on the suppression of the African slave trade. This becomes one of the most important early histories of the subject. It becomes the first in a series of books from Harvard University that issue from the dissertations that their students produce.
Minkah Makalani: After Du Bois writes his dissertation and graduates from Harvard, he immediately becomes involved in a number of political and intellectual formations in the late 19th century and early 20th century. And then in 1903, he publishes his first major work, which is The Souls of Black Folk, and it really does establish him as a major intellectual figure in the United States and around the world. He then goes on to help establish the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, as well as become the founder and editor of its magazine The Crisis. And Du Bois is a contemporary and an adversary of Booker T. Washington, and Washington's focus on industrial education, and Du Bois's emphasis on kind of a liberal arts education. Then he becomes an adversary of Marcus Garvey.
Minkah Makalani: One of the resources that I tend to turn to with my students is a book that was edited by Henry Louis Gates and Jennifer Burton called Call and Response: Key Debates in African-American Studies. It covers key debates around a range of topics that begin during the period of enslavement on up to the present era. And it has such topics as the politics of art, government, civic rights and civic duties, nature, culture and slavery, separatism versus integration. So it covers a range of topics that are useful because it's giving documents where the people from these periods are speaking themselves, both lay figures, as well as intellectuals and names you would recognize.
Minkah Makalani: And just to give you a sense of how good this material is and how useful it can be, in about 1920, 1921, you have Du Bois speaking explicitly about Garvey, as well as Garvey speaking explicitly about Du Bois. And so in one instance in Du Bois's Crisis magazine in January of 1921, he's writing about Marcus Garvey's economic program and his design for an international shipping line, the Black Star Line. And he's really critical of it. He sums up by giving his characterization of Garvey that I'll just read for you. "To sum up, Garvey is a sincere, hardworking idealist. He is also a stubborn, domineering leader of the mass. He has worthy industrial and commercial schemes, but he is an inexperienced businessman. His dreams of Negro industry, commerce and the ultimate freedom of Africa are feasible, but his methods are bombastic, wasteful, illogical and ineffective and almost illegal. If he learns by experience, attracts strong and capable friends and helpers instead of making needless enemies, if he gives up secrecy and suspicion, and substitutes open and frank reports as to his income and expenses, and above all, if he is willing to be a coworker and not a czar, he may yet succeed in his schemes toward accomplishment. But unless he does these things and does them quickly, he cannot escape failure."
Minkah Makalani: And so in that, you get this critique of Marcus Garvey that also gives you a sense of who Du Bois is. This is someone who's committed to the development of a leadership class of highly-educated, primarily Black men, although he does allow for Black women to be in that leadership class as well, but primarily Black men who will lead the fate of the race. And so he's kind of marking out Garvey's failures in a number of ways along those lines.
Minkah Makalani: Now writing almost in response to W.E.B. Du Bois, Marcus Garvey offers his assessment of Du Bois and the NAACP. I'll just read this paragraph, and you can get a flavor for what Garvey is saying. "Du Bois appeals to the talented tenth while Garvey appeals to the hoi polloi. The NAACP appeals to the Beau Brummell, Lord Chesterfield, kid gloved, silk stockinged, creased trousers, patent leather shoe, Bird of Paradise hat and Hudson Steel coat with beaver or skunk collar element. While the UNIA appeals to the sober, sane, serious, earnest, hardworking man who earns his living by the sweat of his brow. The NAACP appeals to the cavalier element in the Negro race, while the UNIA appeals to the self-reliant yeomanry. Hence, in no sense are Du Bois and Mr. James Weldon Johnson rivals of Marcus Garvey. Du Bois and Johnson as writers and speakers, and Garvey as prophet, propagandist and organizer and inspirer of the masses are doing good work and all should be free and unimpeded in perfecting their plans."
Minkah Makalani: And so Marcus Garvey offers his assessment of what he sees as a Black elite leadership that doesn't reflect the interests of Black people on a much larger scale. Du Bois is nonetheless like Garvey: pushing for a pan-African or a global approach to solving the issues of racial oppression and colonialism around the world. So he not only participates in the 1900 Pan-African Conference, where he delivers the famous line, "The problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line. And the color line belts the world." He leads the 1919 Pan-African Congress that's held in France, and then a number of subsequent Pan-African Congresses.
Minkah Makalani: W.E.B. Du Bois's Crisis magazine was widely influential. This is one of those periodicals that people would wait for in the mail, and they would read the stories, read his editorials. And it really helped shape how people thought about political struggles in the United States in this global context. And that helps shape a liberal to radical political orientation in the 19-teens and 1920s. In distinction from the NAACP, which is a very top-down organization—everything had to be controlled by the national headquarters—the Garvey movement and the UNIA was very decentralized in some ways. And so people who were in the UNIA chapters around the world and around the country had much greater latitude to organize and do a whole range of things that, by the time Garvey is arrested, he has no interest in them doing.
Minkah Makalani: And so in one case in particular, in Milwaukee, the leadership and most of the membership of the UNIA is composed of socialists and labor organizers who reject some of Garvey's business proposals in lieu of advocating for a Black working class struggle. Ultimately, Du Bois ends up falling out of favor by the 1940s with the NAACP as he becomes increasingly radical. And then you have a whole range of other people who are contemporaries of Garvey like Ida B. Wells, who did a great deal of work around anti-lynching, investigating lynchings. And this is beginning both in Memphis, Tennessee, when she exposed a lynching of three Black men, and was essentially ran out of Memphis, her printing press destroyed, but becomes a real important figure in terms of one of the earliest Black women intellectuals. Or people like Grace Campbell, who was a parole officer, a social worker but also a socialist and a communist. And you have her, along with a woman named Elizabeth Hendrickson, who helped establish the Harlem Tenants League, which organizes Harlem tenants around sanitary living conditions, affordable rents, really addressing the needs of Black people as they live in a day-to-day basis in their community, along with organizing people as workers in a radical movement.
Minkah Makalani: She's from St. Croix, Virgin Islands, and immigrated to New York at the turn of the century. Now she co-founds two organizations. One is the Virgin Islands Protective League. The other is the American West Indian Ladies Aid Society. Now these are mutual aid societies, but they took very radical political positions on a whole range of things. You know, they also live within probably five square blocks of one another in Harlem, and you can actually see how close their headquarters are. And so these are people who are interacting with each other and seeing one another on a daily basis. And then this kind of spills out into a whole range of organizing activities throughout the United States.
Minkah Makalani: You have organizations like the National Association of Colored Women. Or you have the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs. And you have a whole range of Black women's clubs that take on a whole host of initiatives and projects. And some of those are concerned with improving the conditions that Black women and Black families are in, kind of social service oriented. Alongside that, you had organizations like the Ladies Auxiliary to the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. And the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters was a labor organization, and they had a ladies auxiliary. You also had a number of organizations like the African Brotherhood or the UNIA, where Black women played very important roles.
Minkah Makalani: These spaces that Black women are developing allowed them to engage in the intellectual activity of thinking and talking about and making sense of the world that they exist in, but not to see it simply as how race impacts Black people as if it's just one group. They're actually talking about how these issues that affect the race impact them specifically as Black women. You get this concern with what is known now as "intersectionality." And this is, I think, something that comes out of both formal political spaces like the National Association of Colored Women, and Black clubs, the labor organizations that people were a part of, but also beauty salons and social settings where they are talking to each other about problems with an employer. In some instances, they have to go out and work as domestics in the homes of white people, and they have to confront the range of issues that are presented there: low pay, sexual violence. Then they come home and they are confronting some of the same kinds of problems. And I think it's that constellation of spaces that allow for Black women to raise these questions and debate them.
Minkah Makalani: We have a lot of work that looks at the social world of Black men, but I think increasingly we have work that looks at the social world of Black women during the 1920s and '30s, and how those institutions and those social frameworks provide a much different picture of what Black politics looks like, and what the United States looks like, and what are some of these pressing issues. You could look at the work of, say, Brittney Cooper. You could look at Davarian Baldwin. You could look at LaShawn Harris. I try and draw on their work in my teaching.
Minkah Makalani: Other contemporaries of Garvey are the Negro Historical Association that is based in Harlem. It has members like Arturo Schomburg, George Wells Parker, John Bruce, Cyril Briggs from the African Brotherhood and others. And they are concerned with a range of things. So Arturo Schomburg, he's a bibliophile, and he's collecting works that get into the history of Black people around the world, which becomes the basis for the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and History in Harlem today. George Wells Parker is articulating an early Egyptology. His pamphlet is called "Children of the Sun." And he's trying to look at and rehabilitate an image of Africa that looks to Egypt and some of Africa's more dynamic, well-known histories and civilizations that are seen as non-Black, that are seen as actually white or Middle Eastern, and arguing that these are African civilizations, and that this is a testament to the greatness of Black people. And so these are things that you see informing a range of political formations throughout the 1960s and '70s, but also intellectual approaches. So if you're thinking about Afro-centrism today, that is a kind of articulation of those early concerns with Egypt and ancient African civilizations that you have in the 1920s.
Minkah Makalani: Other contemporaries of Garvey are the African Blood Brotherhood, which is a radical organization that had ties to the Garvey movement, but ended up becoming some of the first Black members of the Communist Party. Cyril Valentine Briggs, Richard Moore, who had the Frederick Douglass Bookstore in Harlem for a good number of years, and one of the earliest to advocate for doing away with the use of the word "Negro" to describe Black people. Wilfred Adolphus Domingo, who actually had been in some of the same political formations with Marcus Garvey in their native Jamaica, some of their ideas end up really shaping what the Communist Party in the United States does. And some of their members, and some of those early Black people who come into the Communist Party through the United States, end up having this profound impact on what communism looks like internationally, and how it grapples with questions of racial oppression, national oppression and colonialism.
Minkah Makalani: One of the things I think is important to remember about the early 20th century, particularly the '20s and '30s, is that when you are talking about socialism or when you're talking about communism, it hasn't become this bogeyman that it is by the 1960s and '70s that can undermine someone's credibility or undermine a political movement. With the Depression, people are confronting the real drastic economic impact that capitalism is having in their lives. You're talking about people who are thankful to have oatmeal for a week, or to get bread. They're living in shantytowns, essentially. And you can find photographs of what were known as Hoovervilles, where people were constructing makeshift homes and towns really in the St. Louis area, on the banks of the Mississippi.
Minkah Makalani: So when people encountered the Communist Party or the Socialist Party, they were encountering a viable political party that spoke very specifically to their circumstances, to their economic life, to their social conditions. And at the time when people are being evicted from their homes, it provided them not only an organization that they could turn to if they are evicted who would come and confront the police or confront sheriffs, and then in many instances move families back into apartments or houses that they had been evicted from. And in terms of the Communist Party, in the '20s and '30s, you're talking about the only major political party that is explicitly articulating an anti-racist platform. You know, in all these parties: the Communist Party, Socialist Party, Democratic and Republican Parties, you had Black members encountering white racism, the racism of its members being dismissed, being ignored, being treated poorly, talked to poorly, even violence against its members, right?
Minkah Makalani: The Communist Party held trials where its members were tried for racism and expelled for racism. If someone called you a racial slur or if they hit you, or if they violated you or your person or your family in some kind of way, you could actually have that person tried and expelled. And that was profound. Audley Moore ultimately joins the Communist Party because of all the political parties that were around at that time, major political parties, she said that was the one that was actually dealing with Black people's needs at that point in time. The event that compels her is that the Communist Party takes up the case of the Scottsboro Boys. And these were nine boys who were arrested while hoboing on a train that stopped in Scottsboro, Alabama; were accused by two white women on the train of raping them; and were tried, convicted and sentenced to death in a matter of days, really. And the Communist Party took up that campaign, made it an international campaign.
Minkah Makalani: And the Communist Party is explicitly talking about the nature of colonialism in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean. And this is not to say that everything the Communist Party said about race, everything that it said about imperialism or colonialism was accurate or was the epitome of how one should think about these things, but these were issues that Black people held as central and essential to look at. And none of the other major parties were offering them any kind of language, any kind of political framework to either think about it, and then more importantly, I would say, none of these other parties offered Black people vehicles in which they could take their own ideas about racial oppression, about colonialism and bring it onto the political stage. And the Communist Party did that.
Minkah Makalani: So those are the kinds of things I think are important to really keep in mind to help explain to students who are encountering these terms in 2022 what the landscape was in that period. People who were trying to identify ways to transform their lives, and to address their most immediate needs, as well as speak to these larger global patterns.
Bethany Jay: Learning for Justice has a special opportunity just for educators. After listening to this episode, you can earn a certificate for one hour of professional development. All you have to do is go to LearningForJustice.org/PodcastPD—PD for "Professional Development." That's PodcastPD, all one word. Then enter the unique code word for this episode: liberation—all lowercase. You'll also find a link in the show notes. It's a great way to get even more out of Teaching Hard History.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: How did white authorities respond to the kind of organizing that was occurring through organizations like the UNIA, but especially the kind of public thinking that Black intellectuals and organizations were doing at the time?
Minkah Makalani: This is one of the more interesting things to talk about with students: the development and refining of state surveillance of Black intellectuals and Black political figures that begins in the 19-teens and the 1920s, that becomes a template for much of the FBI's activities in terms of domestic surveillance, and ultimately the COINTELPRO, the counterintelligence program.
Minkah Makalani: So essentially, they begin to recruit people to infiltrate organizations and provide reports about the activities of organizations, or provide detailed reports about individual figures. And so you have reams and reams of federal surveillance reports on Marcus Garvey's activities; on the activities of Du Bois; A. Philip Randolph and The Messenger, his Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters—a labor organization that organizes Black men who worked as porters on the trains; surveilling and monitoring labor organizations; Black women's clubs; a whole range of organizations. If they were concerned with and addressing political questions, they would put them under surveillance.
Minkah Makalani: And additionally, you had a cataloging and surveilling and monitoring of what went into their publications. So this occurs in the US. It doesn't necessarily disrupt the circulation of these publications, but they are also exchanging information with England, with France. And those authorities are barring the circulation of these periodicals in their colonies. And so it's really the work of maritime workers in some cases—Black maritime workers—to smuggle these publications into different places, once they get outlawed or barred or are taken possession of in the ports. So you have the whole range of these kinds of surveillance activities, and you can actually go through these reports and you can really construct, like, the day-to-day activities of some of these organizations.
Minkah Makalani: What this all leads up to though, are extreme levels of repression. So Du Bois is under constant surveillance. And people like he and Paul Robeson, they have their passports revoked, and they're unable to travel internationally. And this really limits their ability to make a living, as well as engage in the kind of robust political activity that they had before. You have the same thing happening with a number of individuals. In early 1921, Garvey goes on a trip to the Caribbean and to Central America, but ultimately the trip is extended for about five or six months, because the federal government is barring his re-entry into the United States. And he's ultimately forced to kind of tone down his more radical elements and begin to argue against radical political programs when he returns. And this doesn't stop him from being arrested, convicted and ultimately deported from the United States.
Minkah Makalani: So ultimately, Garvey is indicted on selling shares for his Black Star Line. And some of the boats that he's selling shares on, he doesn't actually own. You also have efforts that essentially destabilize some organizations, that create misinformation about different figures. And so what you have occurring in the 1920s and '30s is really leading up to that surveillance that happens of the Civil Rights and Black Power Movement that we probably know a whole lot more about of Black radicals and Black intellectuals in the '50s and '60s.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I mean, literally, J. Edgar Hoover gets his start investigating the UNIA and bringing on Agent "800." Literally.
Minkah Makalani: Right, right. And you see him asking for more resources to expand his surveillance and get more agents under his guidance in these reports. And so you can go to the library. There's a person named Theodore Kornweibel, who compiled 25 microfilm reels worth of federal surveillance between 1917 and 1925 of Black political organizations. And in that, you see Agent "800," you see a whole range of people. You can see in those documents the thinking of someone like Hoover, and the language that he begins to develop, that 'We need to contain these threats. We need to surveil them. We need to make sure that we know all of their moves.' And you see to what extent those in power went to maintain power, and when they are forced to make concessions and to allow greater freedoms, to peel back some of the structures of racial oppression, they find new creative ways to maintain that control and domination.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: When we think about some of the ideologies that are circulating at this time among these various organizations and thinkers—you've talked about Pan-Africanism, for example, being one of them—is there a way to think about this era as a Black nationalist era, that that is really serving as sort of a unifying ideology across many of these organizations?
Minkah Makalani: Yes, I think definitely. You know, it might not be what one might detail as a typology of what Black nationalism is, but in terms of a sense of a need for racial unity to grapple with racial oppression and to move towards liberation, I think that informs a great deal of what's going on in this period. I think that everyone, for the most part, they are concerned with what political program can we pursue, and what strategies can we deploy that's going to liberate everyone, that's going to give us all equal rights? And then how that will reverberate outside of the United States, and will inform the fate of the colonized African countries, the Caribbean, Black folks in South America. Marcus Garvey, the African Blood Brotherhood, W.E.B. Du Bois, Ida B. Wells, Black Club Women, they're all concerned about liberating Black people across the board.
Minkah Makalani: Now the interesting thing too about this period is that you do have the explicit formation of nationalist political ideologies and political groups. So one of the organizations that come out of this period is the Nation of Islam, which is established by W. D. Fard Muhammad in Detroit in 1930, but then after his disappearance is taken over by Elijah Poole, who becomes Elijah Muhammad. He was a member of the UNIA, and one of the earliest members of Fard Muhammad's Nation of Islam. And then goes on to build it into what it has become and what we know it as today.
Minkah Makalani: And there are influences from the Moor Science Temple, from Noble Drew Ali, from a number of figures who are engaged in millenarian movements in the teens, '20s, that become the basis for the Nation of Islam and its unique or idiosyncratic eschatologies or ideas about a white race that's genetically coded to attack and kill and oppress Black people. As problematic as all of that might be, it is speaking to some real experiences that people are having, in terms of what they are encountering, and what their lives have been, and how they've been impacted negatively by white people.
Minkah Makalani: And, you know, one thing I would say just as kind of a caveat in talking about Black nationalism is you want to be careful to not overly romanticize Black nationalism, but you also want to be careful not to vilify it or just dismiss it as a Black version of white nationalism. When we talk about white nationalism, we're talking about these movements that are designed to reinstitute explicitly racist regimes because it sees the granting of rights, access, greater movement, economic advancement, Black people and Asians and Latinx folks as threatening white people. And that's not what Black nationalism is in and of itself. You do have extreme strains of that, but that's not anywhere near a central current within Black nationalism, and particularly not in the '20s and '30s.
Minkah Makalani: You know, just to backtrack a little bit. You think about Woodrow Wilson with World War I, and calling for the right of self-determination for oppressed nations. The argument for Black nationalism is really Black people seeing themselves as an oppressed nation within a nation. We want to have the same kind of independence to determine our life and to determine the direction of our nation. So it is in that context that I think we have to think about Black nationalism.
Minkah Makalani: There are a number of reasons why teachers should include this material in their course plans, but I want to just give somewhat of a personal account. All the way through elementary and high school, I had never heard of Du Bois, Garvey, Booker T. Washington. I never heard of the New Negro Movement: Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Audley Moore, any of these figures that we talk about in African-American history in the early 20th century. You know, we got Martin Luther King or Malcolm X, but not a real true portrait of what they were about.
Minkah Makalani: But when I got to college, and I had that first class that talked about and showed photos of Black people lining the streets of Harlem, all up and down Lenox Avenue, and you can see there are tens of thousands of people out on the street, and they're all there to get a glimpse of Marcus Garvey as he's driving in his motorcade parade at a UNIA convention. And they are hanging out of windows to see him. And then the professor is talking about the program of the UNIA—why it was so transformative and inspiring, as well as the problems of it. That lecture as a freshman at a small Black college really did transform how I thought about myself and how I thought about the world that I'd come into. And I began to try and hunt down material and read articles, try and find Marcus Garvey's speeches. And then that led me into trying to find the work of W.E.B. Du Bois, this person who was critical of Marcus Garvey.
Minkah Makalani: Learning about your past can really energize you to want to learn more about that period. And I don't think this is something that solely inspires Black children, but I think that is in and of itself a justification for doing this kind of work in the K-12 educational system. But I think it also, in terms of those who are encountering it for the first time, it gives them a much better sense of the world that they inherit. So if you're a white kid, if you are Latinx or you're Asian American, you're learning a complex and compelling history about the world that you live in and why the United States looks the way it does. Why the questions that are being raised in public political discourse, why the questions that are animating political movements like Black Lives Matter, and why the response to that in the form of seeking to ban Critical Race Theory, you begin to get a much better sense of why you are in the world you're in, and I think that helps you navigate it so much easier than going about your life blind until the point when you get to a college classroom and you're introduced to this material for the first time.
Minkah Makalani: I think you get this stuff to kids, and you give them a context and you give them a way to think about it and help them understand some of the debates, some of the circumstances and some of the things that were at stake. They can begin to formulate their own ideas. And it isn't indoctrination, it is giving students the tools and the resources to think about the world around them and how to make sense of that world themselves.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Minkah Makalani, thanks so much for joining us and for shining a light on the thinking of this era. Thanks a lot, brother.
Minkah Makalani: Brother, thank you as well, Dr. Hasan Kwame Jeffries, for the work you do with this podcast. It is definitely something that I draw on when I'm preparing lectures. And I know it's influencing a whole range of people around the world. So thank you as well for the work you're doing.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Thanks, man.
Minkah Makalani: And for having me on.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: For sure.
Bethany Jay: Minkah Makalani is an associate professor of history and the director of the Center for Africana Studies at Johns Hopkins University. He is the author of In the Cause of Freedom: Radical Black Internationalism from Harlem to London, 1917-1939, and the co-editor of Escape from New York: The New Negro Renaissance beyond Harlem.
Bethany Jay: Teaching Hard History is a podcast from Learning for Justice—the education arm of the Southern Poverty Law Center—helping teachers and schools prepare students to be active participants in a diverse democracy. Learning for Justice provides free teaching materials about slavery, Reconstruction, the civil rights movement and more. You can find award-winning films and classroom-ready texts at LearningForJustice.org.
Bethany Jay: Most students leave high school without an understanding of the Jim Crow era and its continuing relevance. This podcast is part of an effort to change that. In our fourth season, we put Jim Crow under the spotlight, examining its history and lasting impact.
Bethany Jay: Thanks to Dr. Makalani for sharing his insights with us. This podcast was produced by Mary Quintas and senior producer Shea Shackelford. Russell Gragg is our associate producer. "Music Reconstructed" is produced by Barrett Golding. And Cory Collins provides content guidance. Amelia Gragg is our intern. Kate Shuster is the series creator. And our managing producer is Miranda LaFond.
Bethany Jay: If you like what you've heard, please share it with your friends and colleagues. And let us know what you think. You can find us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. We always appreciate your feedback.
Bethany Jay: I'm Dr. Bethany Jay, professor of history at Salem State University, and your host for Teaching Hard History.
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- Mary Dudziak, Cold War Civil Rights
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- North Omaha History, The Life of George Wells Parker
- BlackPast, African Blood Brotherhood (1919-1924)
- Rare Historical Photos, Inside the Hoovervilles of the Great Depression, 1931-1940
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- BlackPast, Messenger (1917-1928)
- BlackPast, James Wormley Jones (1884-1958)
- Southern Poverty Law Center, Nation of Islam
- Minkah Makalani, In the Cause of Freedom: Radical Black Internationalism from Harlem to London, 1917-1939
- Minkah Makalani (co-editor), Escape from New York: The New Negro Renaissance beyond Harlem