Marcus Garvey and W.E.B. Du Bois were two of the great civil rights leaders and leading pan-Africanists of the 1920s. They each fought in their own way for freedom and justice for Black America but their ways often collided, resulting in a war of words and worse.
Some say Du Bois was in part responsible for the downfall of Garvey’s Back-To-Africa movement through which Garvey was trying to arrange for Black Americans to leave the U.S. and relocate to the West African country of Liberia.
Tensions between Garvey and Du Bois haven’t been widely discussed.
Garvey, Jamaica’s first national hero who advocated for Black nationalism in Jamaica and the U.S., launched the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) in 1914, which protested against racial discrimination and encouraged self-government for Black people all over the world. He also founded the Black Star Line, a shipping and passenger line that promoted the return of the African diaspora to ancestral lands.
Garvey advanced a pan-African philosophy which inspired a global mass movement known as Garveyism.
Du Bois would become one of Garvey’s harshest critics.
Here are five things to know about their differences.
Garvey’s and Du Bois’s ideological differences would ruin any relationship the two influential Black political leaders had. Coming from different backgrounds, they had very different views on the destiny of African Americans, Face 2 Face Africa reported.
Du Bois was from a more privileged background and felt he could improve the condition of African Americans by working with liberal whites in the U.S. through the organization he co-founded — the NAACP. Du Bois helped start the NAACP in 1909 with a group that included not only prominent African Americans such as journalist Ida B. Wells and activist Mary Church Terrell but several whites.
Meanwhile, Garvey grew up in an impoverished Jamaican community. He believed in Blacks helping Blacks without any dependence on whites.
Their philosophies also differed.
For Garvey, whites would never come to accept Blacks, and thus he proposed that Black Americans return to Africa, “where they would live as part of a majority population and perhaps have real political power,” NPR reported.
Du Bois, however, “wanted to push shining examples of Black citizenry front and center for white America to see, people so accomplished it would be hard to deny them their rightful place in society.”
Du Bois felt that Garvey’s program of complete separation was a form of surrender to white supremacy and threatened the gains made by the NAACP, according to Face 2 Face Africa.
Garvey and Du Bois met in May 1915 in Jamaica when Du Bois was on a visit to the Caribbean country. At the time, Du Bois was already a Black leader in the U.S. while Garvey had just a month earlier established his UNIA in Jamaica.
During his visit, Du Bois received a friendly welcome letter from Garvey and they met in person. During their meeting, Garvey told Du Bois about his Back-to Africa movement and his hope to get his support. A year later, Garvey came to the U.S. for a speaking tour and invited Du Bois to his first lecture. Du Bois declined the invitation, wrote Eva Kiss in the 2001 seminar paper, “The Conflict Between Marcus Garvey and W. E. B. Du Bois.“
Liberia was an important focal point for both Du Bois and Garvey, but they had competing views of how the West African country would play in the push for Black American equality.
“Du Bois viewed Liberia as evidence of the ability of Blacks to govern themselves without whites. Garvey viewed Liberia as the ideal place to start the return to Africa, and Liberia as the center of the African Diaspora,” according to The Slave Rebellion.
Du Bois envisioned Africa being ruled by Africans and no one else. Garvey wanted to establish the United States of Africa with himself as president. This was the fundamental basis of Garveyism—racial liberation, empowerment, and a Black homeland in Africa, according to The Slave Rebellion.
Garvey’s initial plan was to send a limited number of African Americans (20,000 to 30,000 families at first) with skills, professions, and capital to settle in Liberia. With Liberia having economic trouble due to corruption and mismanagement, Garvey offered the Liberian government money in exchange for the settlement of his people there. In October 1920 Garvey offered the Liberian government a construction loan and had raised a $2 million down payment to Liberia to buy land for the resettlement.
Meanwhile, Du Bois maneuvered through his high-powered contacts to get himself appointed Ambassador Extraordinary of the United States so he could attend the second inauguration of Charles King as the president of Liberia. During this time, Du Bois developed a relationship with King.
Shortly after, the experts and engineers of Garvey’s UNIA arrived in Liberia to prepare for resettlement and they were immediately deported on the instruction of Liberian President Charles King. It is suspected that King was influenced by his new acquaintance, Du Bois.
“The truth of the matter is that Du Bois was working very closely with the U.S. State Department to destroy the UNIA movement in Liberia and had taken steps to hamper the UNIA and worked to undermine Garvey’s Liberian construction and resettlement plan,” The Slave Rebellion reported.
The name-calling between Du Bois and Garvey became vicious. Du Bois, the editor of the NAACP magazine The Crisis, accused Garvey of being “without doubt the most dangerous enemy of the Negro race in America and the world,” Face 2 Face Africa reported.
While it is true Du Bois and Garvey had different ideologies, some observers say the real conflict had to do with colorism — prejudice or discrimination usually against individuals with a dark skin tone among people of the same ethnic or racial group.
Garvey believed that Du Bois was prejudiced against him because he was from the Caribbean with darker skin, Face 2 Face Africa reported.
Garvey’s suspicions proved right. The February 1923 issue of Du Bois’ Century magazine made fun of Garvey by depicting him in a caricature as a character from Eugene O’Neill’s 1920 play, “The Emperor Jones.” The play centers around the decline of a former Pullman porter, Brutus Jones, who escapes from prison to the Caribbean (presumably Haiti), where he is crowned emperor. The flamboyant Jones becomes drunk with power and abuses and exploits his subjects, according to Britannica.com.
Du Bois also described Garvey as “a little, fat Black man, ugly, but with intelligent eyes and a big head,” The Slave Rebellion reported.
Garvey also took jabs at Du Bois over his skin tone. In an editorial published in Garvey’s publication The Negro World, in February 1923, Garvey said that Du Bois was an “unfortunate mulatto who bewails every day the drop of Negro blood in his veins.”
Garvey added that Du Bois was a self-hating Negro who preferred the company of white people. Garvey characterized Du Bois as a light-skinned mulatto who hates Black people and “that he likes to dance with white people and dine with them and sometimes sleep with them,” The Slave Rebellion reported.
Garvey blamed his failed Back-to-Africa plan on a plot against him by lighter-skinned Black people colluding with whites. He concluded in the editorial that the enemies of colonization of Africa were led by “very light-skinned Negroes” under the leadership of Du Bois because “the Black leadership and politicians, and those of the white race who wanted to discredit and imprison me to please their Negro political wards and foreign power tried to make the plan unpopular and unsuccessful.”
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