In February 1923, the Washington Post published a story alleging that Chandler Owen, the African-American socialist leader, had been the target of an attempted attack in Pittsburgh by supporters of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). The UNIA supporters were said to have ‘rushed a street car in which Chandler Owen… was riding, and failed to harm him only through the timely interference of the police’.1 In the decade or so after World War I there were numerous reports of incidents of violence involving supporters of the UNIA, the black nationalist organisation founded and led by the charismatic and controversial African-Jamaican activist Marcus Garvey. What these episodes can tell us about the UNIA, and about the wider dynamics of black activism in the interwar period, has not, however, been extensively discussed by historians.
Analyses of interwar black activism have traditionally tended to focus on the rivalries, successes and failures of the prominent leaders of the time, figures such as Garvey, W.E.B. Du Bois, Cyril Briggs, Chandler Owen and A. Philip Randolph, to name but a few. This slant in the historiography reflects the relatively limited sources available for studying grassroots black activism before World War II.2 One area of black resistance studies that has undergone a particularly notable recent revamp is that of violence and self-defence. The vast majority of this literature has focused on the post-World War II period, but the significance of armed self-defence by African Americans during Reconstruction has also received attention.3 Inter-racial and black intra-racial violence in the interwar period, however, remain relatively under-studied. Given that UNIA members were apparently involved in various instances of politically motivated confrontations with the supporters of other black organisations, the UNIA’s activism offers insights into the circumstances under which such tension could occur, as well as some of the factors that could both exacerbate and allay such tensions.
Established by Garvey in Jamaica in 1914, the UNIA was founded on a commitment to economic and social uplift for the African diaspora, as well as racial separatism, anti-miscegenation and self-defence. Garvey’s ‘African fundamentalism’ emphasised the racial distinctiveness of people of African descent, their historical achievements and the importance of economic development and transnational self-determination for the race.4 Famously, it championed the development of an independent black state in Africa and the subsequent repatriation of black Americans to Africa. However, it has been argued by several historians that the UNIA’s repatriation agenda was of symbolic yet secondary importance to many grassroots UNIA supporters in the US, who were more interested in what the organisation could offer in terms of social activism and community solidarity, and in the UNIA’s attempts to establish black-owned businesses and cooperatives, including the organisation’s shipping enterprises, the Black Star Line Steamship Corporation and the Black Cross Navigation and Trading Company.5 Such a focus on black economic independence and uplift was a central aspect of Garveyism’s ability to present a viable programme and community for black people away from the oversight and control of whites. This ideal of economic separatism appealed to both urban and rural Garveyites and was a central tenet of the UNIA’s appeal.6 As a further explanation for its widespread success, UNIA philosophy managed to successfully intersect with African-American religious preferences, meaning that Garveyism could powerfully combine religious and civic values, creating a potent vision of redemption.7 The UNIA established local divisions (or branches) all over the world by the early 1920s, including in Europe, Africa, Canada and the Caribbean. Garvey was based at UNIA headquarters in Harlem, New York, between 1918 and 1927, and the organisation experienced its most rapid expansion in the United States.8 The years of the UNIA’s greatest grassroots strength in the US was the period between 1918 and 1930, and these dates provide the temporal parameters for this study.
In the aftermath of World War I, the UNIA capitalised on the nationwide climate of anti-black violence in the US to spread a message of resistance and group solidarity for the African diaspora. The UNIA’s relationship with self-defence and violence in general was, however, to lead many onlookers in both the black and white communities to view the organisation with a deep sense of unease. According to some of Marcus Garvey’s more prominent rivals in the black American community, the involvement of UNIA members in instances of political violence was proof that the UNIA attracted ‘lower types of cranks, crooks and racial bigots, among whom suggestibility to violent crime is much greater’.9 This contemporary view of the criminal nature of some sections of UNIA supporters has been perpetuated since, including by historians; Judith Stein, for example, has blamed the aggressive oratory of UNIA leaders for making ‘respectable members of the working class’ more inclined towards violence than they would otherwise have been.10 Such a view, however, does not allow for an analysis of why Garveyites, as individuals or groups, may have chosen or felt compelled to behave aggressively or violently, or of how issues such as class, ethnicity or gender may have impacted upon behaviour.
Using the thematic lens of violence, this study offers a re-examination of the relationships between the famous ‘war of words’ amongst the prominent black leaders of the interwar period and the actions of their supporters. The types of violence under consideration in this study are violence between UNIA supporters and the supporters of other black activist groups, and between rival factions within the American UNIA itself. These particular types of violence will be referred to as ‘political violence’, which, for the purposes of this study, does not include instances of inter-racial violence against whites or other ‘racial’ groups. As the study seeks to better conceptualise the relationship between the ‘war of words’ at leadership level and the actions of supporters ‘on the ground’, the study uses terms such as ‘supporters’ and ‘grassroots’ to mean those people who were not part of the UNIA’s national-level leadership hierarchy. Although perhaps somewhat vague, this terminology is used here partly because of the recognised challenges associated with applying generalised social-class labels to the UNIA support base.11
Evidence from a number of sources suggests that it was UNIA supporters who were most often involved in political tensions and violence against supporters of other black organisations, and this is why the study takes the UNIA as its main entry point for discussing black political violence in this period. Covering confrontations between UNIA supporters and the supporters of other black organisations, as well as examples of violence between different factions within the American UNIA itself, the study aims to provide insights into the dynamics of interwar black political rivalry generally and of UNIA activism specifically. The study argues that ethnic differences within the American UNIA became significant in some prominent cases of violence between competing factions inside the organisation. Evidence is less conclusive about the impact of ethnic differences in the tensions between UNIA members and the supporters of other black organisations. Such confrontations were less likely to end in genuine violence and can be seen as extensions of the ‘war of words’ at leadership level. At times, tensions were exacerbated by the presence of black leaders in certain major cities and the subsequent mobilising of their respective followers against each other. It is also possible to speculate that the presence and actions of law enforcement officers during some of the incidents indicate that the state benefitted from the UNIA being seen to be involved in political violence, especially as the white press was inclined to report the involvement of law enforcement officers in both uncovering and thwarting UNIA activities.
The study seeks to make links between ‘symbolic’ violence – the words, writings and rhetorical threats that were traded between Marcus Garvey and several of his main rivals – and physical violence, suggesting that at times physical violence could be the extension of the symbolic confrontation of the leaders’ ‘war of words’, but also that symbolic violence could also be the limit of the confrontations between the UNIA and other black organisations. Examples of tension between the grassroots supporters of different black activist groups encourage us to acknowledge how deeply contested interwar black activism really was, both in the South and in the North. Rather than looking for continuities or similarities across black protest movements, a deeper understanding of the complex and often intense rivalries of the interwar period should encourage us to ask questions about the interactions between the different visions for activism that competed at grassroots as well as at leadership level.12 With hindsight, it has become clear that organisational black nationalism, black socialism, and communism did not stand the test of time as successfully as did, for example, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). However, this should not draw us into assuming that those forms of protest that did not survive, or that survived only sporadically, were somehow less ‘authentic’ or meaningful options for African Americans after World War I and into the 1920s.13 For example, the intensity of the rhetorical attacks directed at the UNIA by other black leaders and groups is likely indicative of the threat that the UNIA’s success posed to organisations like the NAACP, which itself struggled at grassroots level in the 1920s.14
Although black intellectuals and leaders in the 1920s tended to talk of racial unity, the competition to win and retain support bases was fierce, and the confrontations of the period are indicative of the significance of themes such as personality, loyalty and rivalry in understanding such confrontations.15 At times, the disapproval of Garvey among American-born black leaders could turn into a general characterisation of black people not born in the United States as alien troublemakers.16 Even as early as 1920, prominent figures including Randolph, Du Bois and Owen saw the UNIA as an organisation primarily of and for people of Caribbean descent.17 The UNIA’s success among African Americans nationwide, however, is proof that the UNIA also successfully appealed to and represented African-American interests. The perpetuation of the idea that the UNIA was primarily for and composed of people of Caribbean origin is important, however. The credence that this concept was given by a number of African-American leaders indicates that they thought of the UNIA’s support base as being very different from their own, and points to the possibility that African-American leaders exploited such perceived ethnic differences for their own ends, often in order to bolster their own claims to leadership and legitimacy.
The existing secondary literature on the UNIA reflects the deep-seated personal animosity between Garvey and the likes of Chandler Owen, Cyril Briggs, W.E.B. Du Bois and Robert Abbott, but much less has been written about how tensions played out between grassroots UNIA supporters, or between UNIA supporters and the supporters of other black organisations. Much of what has been written is critical of the UNIA in a way that does not allow for a balanced investigation of the forces that drove political rivalries at the grassroots level.18 The lack of a wide historiography on the issue of black political violence in this period, and of the UNIA’s involvement in such violence, might be explained in part by what some historians have identified as a scholarly reluctance to give wide credence to the UNIA’s racial-nationalist platform and to engage with the less ‘respectable’ facets of interwar activism in general.19 The purpose of this study is not to offer a defence of or an excuse for the confrontations and violence that the UNIA was involved in, but rather to set such confrontations in their proper context, and to ask why UNIA supporters at times found themselves involved in such clashes. While the study refers to the already well-covered rivalries between the various leaders, it does so with the aim of understanding how those leadership rivalries influenced the actions of supporters at the grassroots or local level – that is, how the symbolic violence of the ‘war of words’ may have both led to and limited physical violence.
Most of the confrontations covered in this study occurred in New York City, but others took place in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Chicago, New Orleans and Miami. In terms of ethnicity, the two main black groups that encountered each other in the US in the early twentieth century were African Americans and black people of Caribbean background. Although the limited evidence base means it is difficult to make firm assertions about the exact ethnicities of those involved in the confrontations covered in this study, contextual information nonetheless allows us to infer that political tensions may at times have been linked to ethnic distinctions, specifically when those distinctions had become tied to loyalties to different organisations or factions. In particular, interwar black nationalism in New York City gained a reputation for being aligned with Caribbean ethnicity. This situation can be compared with that in the South where, with the notable exception of Florida, the UNIA’s grassroots black nationalism drew its support largely from the southern African-American population.
That much of the negative attention from African-American leaders focused on Garvey’s Caribbean background (and the Caribbean background of some of his supporters, particularly in Harlem) indicates that his African-American critics saw his national background as an effective way of discrediting him.20 Some of Garvey’s African-American detractors may even have seen their resistance to Garvey and the UNIA as proof of their own loyalty to the US.21 Such a trend was catalysed by a general move towards nativist, xenophobic propaganda throughout American society during the war period. Because of the nativist nature of the criticisms levelled at Garvey by his African-American critics, the presence of Garvey helped to ‘focus ethnic awareness in ways not so apparent before his organization galvanized such spectacular appeal in Harlem’.22
Because black leaders were generally active in cities, confrontations between their supporters seem to have happened most often in urban areas. Linked to this is the consideration that intra-racial tensions were more pronounced in urban areas that had experienced significant levels of black in-migration during the early twentieth century. The reduction in the availability of European labour during the war years was one of the catalysts for the Great Migration of black people towards cities; around 400,000 African Americans left the rural South between 1910 and 1920, bound mostly for industrial centres.23 Meanwhile, thousands of immigrants from the Caribbean arrived in Harlem between the start of World War I and the passage of immigration legislation in 1924 that restricted such immigration on the grounds of quotas. In total, between 1900 and 1930, around 40,000 black people from the Anglophone Caribbean islands settled in Harlem, a movement that largely coincided with the internal migration of black Americans from the rural South to towns and cities, many of which were in the North.24
During the years of peak migration, the original inner-city residential areas previously occupied by blacks (and other ethnic groups) in centres such as New York City and Chicago could no longer keep up with the demand for housing from newly arrived migrants from the South and the Caribbean. Given such a housing shortage, it was the inner suburbs – areas such as Harlem in New York City and the South Side in Chicago – rather than the central inner cities that could provide a large supply of available housing to be rented at relatively low rates.25 Overall, the multi-national migration to areas like Harlem and the South Side led to an increased focus on black ethnicity, rather than just on race, as various black identities were first transported to and then contested within new demographically concentrated urban American settings.26
Immigrants to New York City from the Caribbean were generally more financially stable and better educated than African-American migrants who arrived from the South. The cost of travel and the financial requirements for entry to the US meant that a high proportion of arrivals to Harlem from the Caribbean were middle-class artisans and small business owners.27 Positive views of Caribbean New Yorkers, among both white and black onlookers, often indicated an acceptance that American-born blacks were culturally inferior. An awareness of such perceptions could, in turn, have the effect of fuelling tensions and even clashes between American-born blacks and those of Caribbean descent.28 In the post-World War I context, African Americans who had fought for the US, or who were linked to those who had fought, often resented the better social positions and treatment afforded to recently arrived black people from the Caribbean islands.29 Hence, while at times the experiences of the war era could serve to unite people of African descent, at other times those experiences could highlight and exacerbate differences among them.30
Adding to such differences of experience and outlook was the fact that Caribbean immigrants tended to have a different vision of activism from African Americans. While Caribbean-born black activists were frequently ‘frontal’ in their attacks on racial injustice in the US, African Americans were often more cautious and ‘incremental’ in their approach. This can be explained by the fact that African Caribbean people were unused to being the racial minority; they tended to have a lower sense of race consciousness, yet a higher sense of class consciousness than African Americans.31 The ‘colour-class’ system of the Caribbean islands often meant the opportunity for some social and economic mobility for lighter-skinned black people within island society, while US-style racial segregation was far more rigid, even for skilled, educated and lighter-skinned African Caribbeans.32
With the end of World War I, returning black war veterans were the latest physical embodiment of a bold spirit of assertive black masculinity in the US.33 Although Victorian concepts of restrained, class-based manhood still influenced those men who had dominated turn-of-the-century black society and politics, such ideals were becoming less applicable to men who had experienced the upheavals of the war era and who, in many cases, had been directly involved in the armed forces.34 In the immediate post-World War I period, economic dislocations combined with black migration to cities and the return of black and white war veterans to create an atmosphere of acute tension. Mobs of whites attacked and massacred African Americans in several cities in 1919, including in Chicago and Washington D.C. African Americans fought back against those attacks, with self-defence efforts sometimes being led or influenced by black military veterans.35
Examples of political tensions, confrontations and violence add further depth to such discussions about the militarisation of society in the World War I era and in the 1920s, including the use of self-defence strategies by people of African descent and the concurrent trend towards militarism in some organisations. The rise of what might be termed ‘paramilitarism’ – acting in a way which is similar to a military force but without the legitimacy of state recognition – in the black community in the World War I era arose largely out of necessity, given the state of domestic race relations in the US, but also partly from developments on the international stage. These developments included the war itself, the Russian Revolution, and the impact of Irish republicanism. One of the most notable instances of organisational black paramilitarism was the African Blood Brotherhood (ABB). The ABB fused black nationalism with socialism and was on the fringes of the American communist movement.36 It was formed, probably in 1919, by a set of left-wing intellectuals, which included Cyril Briggs, Otto Huiswood, Grace Campbell, Claude McKay, Wilfred A. Domingo and Richard B. Moore, a group with a heavy Caribbean influence.37 It is worth noting that Cyril Briggs claimed that immigrants from the Caribbean also formed the majority of the ABB’s grassroots New York membership, providing another link between black nationalism in New York and the perception that it was primarily by and for blacks of Caribbean background.38
The Brotherhood probably had somewhere between three thousand and eight thousand members, mainly in New York, and its magazine, The Crusader, preached a message of black pride with an emphasis on self-defence.39 Many ABB members, including Briggs himself, were inspired by the example of the Fenian Irish Republican Brotherhood and its 1916 Easter Rebellion against British rule.40 The ABB’s most notorious piece of publicity came during and after the Tulsa massacre in May 1921, during which a white mob virtually destroyed the black community in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Although the attack was started by whites, the ABB subsequently found itself accused of fomenting the violence.41 It is possible that the combativeness of the ABB, often expressed through the writings in Briggs’s Crusader, helped to fuel the militancy of the UNIA, while the UNIA’s influence gave credibility to the ABB’s nationalist platform.42 Winston James has argued that one of the reasons for the decline of the ABB was that the Brotherhood shared its membership with the UNIA, and that whenever ABB leaders criticised the UNIA, many ABB members left the organisation.43
Groups like the ABB and the UNIA symbolised a particular vision for a black masculinity that allowed black veterans and others in the black community the opportunity to prove their ability to protect their communities against attack.44 According to Robert Hill, it was the Irish revolutionary cause, and specifically the example of the 1916 Easter Week Rising, that impacted most powerfully on Marcus Garvey’s personal brand of radical politics in the war era.45 Garvey built a support base for the UNIA in the post-war period largely by utilising rhetoric that focused heavily on resistance and that consciously appealed to black veterans, many of whom were angry about the violence and injustice that they continued to encounter in their homeland.46 Such appeals also found significant support among the wider black community who were not necessarily military veterans. The context of surging anti-colonial radicalism is a crucial part of understanding the UNIA’s appeal in the immediate post-war period, with strikes erupting in South Africa and the Caribbean islands, as well as widespread protests and unrest in China, Turkey, India and Palestine, to name but a few locations that experienced such turmoil in this period. Both the Crusader and the Messenger hailed these developments in global anti-colonial and anti-western struggles, and the early UNIA was a part of this milieu, with Garvey in particular using such rhetoric to inspire disaffected black people in the United States.47
The UNIA’s initial growth in the immediate post-war years occurred primarily in northern and mid-western urban areas such as New York City, Detroit, Chicago and Philadelphia, some of which had experienced severe recent anti-black violence. In New York City, people of Caribbean origin were disproportionately represented in the city’s UNIA division after 1917, but overall it was only in New York and southern Florida where immigrants from the Caribbean comprised a substantial section of the UNIA support base.48 As well as in the urban North, early and very successful UNIA outposts were established in some cities of the coastal South, including Norfolk, Virginia; Miami, Florida; and New Orleans, Louisiana.49 UNIA expansion into the interior of the South began in 1921, and by 1926 there were over 400 local UNIA divisions across the South, nearly half the national total.50
Despite and perhaps because of the UNIA’s rapid early success, however, the organisation quickly encountered hostility from the ranks of America’s black leadership in the decade after World War I. In August 1922, pro-UNIA clergyman Junius Austin despairingly told an audience of UNIA supporters that ‘…all the lines that the white man has drawn from Maine to Texas are not as injurious to the [black] race as the lines we have drawn right here in our own crowd’.51 The UNIA’s unpopularity with other black leaders developed for a variety of reasons, but the leaders of other black organisations in the US almost certainly resented the wide grassroots popularity of Garvey’s organisation. Also significant, however, was the fact that Garvey stridently rejected coalitions with more integrationist organisations like the NAACP, and with black left-wing groups.52
In September 1919, a Bureau of Investigation assistant director noted in an official report that Garvey had created a ‘well drilled military organization for the purpose of protection and to prevent anyone from disturbing the meetings which he addresses’.53 This organisation was the African Legion, a self-defence auxiliary, units of which were often attached to local UNIA divisions in both the North and the South, particularly in urban areas. The creation of the African Legion was the most prominent indication of the UNIA’s commitment to self-defence, sometimes as a symbolic act but sometimes also as a direct physical one. This study will argue that the African Legion is an important factor in explaining why the UNIA became involved in political violence, because militarism was thereby given a physical expression that was embedded in the organisation’s structure (although this does not necessarily mean that incidents of violence were always the UNIA’s ‘fault’ as such). Members of the African Legion paraded, drilled and wore uniforms modelled on those of the US Army.54 In some cases, members of the Legion possessed and used firearms, although it is difficult to be sure of exactly how widespread firearms ownership was among UNIA members. In the summer of 1922, some members of the New Orleans UNIA division were reported to have brandished guns at New Orleans Police Department officers who were trying to disrupt a speech that Garvey was delivering in the city.55 The most dramatic incident involving the UNIA and firearms occurred in August 1927 in Chattanooga, Tennessee, when police units attempted to gain entry to a meeting of the local UNIA division. The encounter quickly became confrontational and, although it is unclear which side fired first, UNIA African Legion guards exchanged gunfire with police officers, leaving three men seriously wounded.56
The line between ‘respectable’ violence (for example, as deployed to protect self and family against attack by whites) and ‘unrespectable’ violence (such as political brawls) was, however, clearly a fine one. Martin Summers has argued that, in general, the UNIA’s vision of community activism relied on a fundamentally conservative, Victorian vision of respectable, class-based manhood.57 In the interior of the South, the African Legion, with its focus on military-style organisation and symbolism, represented the respectable and masculine aims of protecting family and community from white predation.58 As Summers points out, however, many UNIA divisions undoubtedly had primarily working-class memberships, which may have seemed, in the eyes of middle-class blacks, to represent ‘unrespectable’ values.59 While the respectability norms of the integrationist NAACP were thoroughly middle class, those of the UNIA blended middle-class respectability with concerns about community solidarity, self esteem, and group survival.60 Respectability within the UNIA, then, had greater flexibility as well as more scope for tension when set against traditional Victorian tropes.
Respectability within the UNIA had gender as well as class delineations. When it came to protecting black women from white male predation, the UNIA’s approach to self-defence through the African Legion represented a form of gender hierarchy within which women were generally assumed to both require and be grateful for male protection. Scholars have pointed to the fact that the UNIA’s racial nationalism meant that, while women were undoubtedly valued members of the organisation, they were expected to conform to gender norms and hierarchies which generally kept them less powerful than UNIA men, and were often cast in the traditional roles of mothers, wives and caregivers first and foremost.61 However, it has also been persuasively argued that Garveyite women used the organisation as a powerful vehicle to openly express their discontent with a range of forms of oppression, including gender, race and class.62
Overall, the African Legion can be seen as standing at the crossroads of the UNIA’s vision of respectability, because in the interior of the South it generally fulfilled the role of respectable community protection against white attack (or at least preparing for such protection).63 However, in urban areas where members of the Legion became involved in political violence against black rivals, these particular members veered away from class-based respectability norms and into a murkier, less reputable world brought about by the intense urban rivalries of post-World War I activism.
The African Legion sometimes became involved in violence against the UNIA’s external enemies, both black and white, and it was against its rivals in the black community that the UNIA often directed its strongest attacks. At the 1922 UNIA convention in New York City, Thomas Anderson, UNIA commissioner for Louisiana, told his audience that those black people who have ‘anxious faltering faith’ in Garvey and the UNIA should have their throats cut and ‘they ought to be sent to hell where they belong’. His statement was met by applause from the gathered UNIA faithful.64 Garvey frequently made similar statements about blacks who were not aligned with the UNIA, writing in 1924:
The vicious and wicked of our race have tried to handicap us at every turn… These men we will have to dislodge from leadership. We have to take them out of the pulpits, off the platforms and from the public places, and relegate them to the scrap heap of racial treachery… Because of the advantages of education that some of them have had, they are trying to use it to stultify the growth of the common people…but the common people shall make them bow down on their knees and beg for bread.65
This kind of rhetoric was a veiled swipe at the NAACP, which was perceived by many in UNIA circles as being too bourgeois. At one annual UNIA convention in Harlem, several representatives from local divisions across the US spoke out against African Americans who did not lend their support to the organisation. One R. McDowell, a delegate from the Blytheville, Arkansas, division, highlighted the issue of class tensions, saying, ‘The Negro of wealth in the South stood between the masses and their salvation’.66
Alleged instances of UNIA involvement in violence against other black people soon made their way into the press. In October 1922, the Chicago Whip newspaper reported that William Ware, president of the Cincinnati UNIA division, had been found guilty, along with three other men, of assaulting Samuel Saxon, a black lecturer from New York. Ware was said to have ‘struck at him [Saxon] with a knife’ while Saxon was speaking against Garvey at a local meeting.67 In June 1923, with Garvey standing trial on federal mail fraud charges, the Chicago Defender reported that, ‘Charles Linous, a subway porter and member of Garvey’s African Legion… was sentenced to two months in jail after he had stood in the courtroom and declared that he would kill anybody who spoke a word against Garvey’.68 While the attack against Saxon may have been an isolated incident, the case of Linous is one example of the different roles that the African Legion could play depending on setting and circumstance. In more urban settings with national-level leaders present, the Legion sometimes became involved in intimidation and violence against black and white enemies for political purposes, whereas in more rural areas of the South it generally undertook preparations for community self-defence against attack by white supremacists.
By 1923, some sections of the black press were not only reporting UNIA involvement in political violence against other blacks, but were making a general point about the organisation’s alleged capacity for fomenting confrontations. The Norfolk Journal and Guide, for example, commented, ‘It is interesting…to note that an increasing number of race [news]papers are putting their condemnation upon the bullying, threatening tactics [of the UNIA]’.69 Reports such as this were often circulated by Garvey’s opponents in the black press and were undoubtedly designed to add to the unfavourable perception that the UNIA tended towards the use of violence against its rivals. The Chicago Defender, edited by Robert Abbott, competed for readers with the UNIA’s Negro World among a similar constituency, and Abbott and Garvey eventually took to attacking each other in print.70 National white newspapers like the New York Times and the Washington Post also had reason to dislike Garvey, given his outspoken criticisms of white violence and his calls for blacks to organise to resist oppression. Given the level of white prejudice against black activism, it is unsurprising that white newspapers seized upon prominent examples of a black organisation like the UNIA behaving lawlessly, and used them as a way to cast such activism as disreputable and futile.
As well as tensions between Garveyites and black people who did not support the UNIA, fault lines also became apparent within the UNIA itself. The UNIA’s general worldview meant that, at times, particularly when personal rivalries emerged between different leaders within the UNIA, those leaders were liable to target and blame other ethnic groups within the organisation itself.71 UNIA politics contained a heavy nativist streak that could vary between race-based unity on the one hand, and intra-racial ethnic and national nativism on the other. This tendency derived from the organisation’s general philosophical outlook, which saw different racial groups struggling to survive and to dominate.
The issue of ethnic nativism within the UNIA played a part in what is perhaps the most notorious murder of a black person that was allegedly carried out by the UNIA. On New Year’s Day 1923, the Reverend James Eason, who had been one of Garvey’s most charismatic and successful lieutenants, was shot dead in New Orleans. An African American from North Carolina, Eason was viewed by some in the UNIA as being an even more talented orator than Garvey himself. His official UNIA title of ‘Leader of American Negroes’ indicates both his popularity amongst the Garveyite rank and file in the United States and the general awareness that Garvey himself was inherently linked with a Caribbean background. Eason’s murder came in the wake of a very public falling-out, as Garvey had become increasingly suspicious of Eason’s popularity and influence within the organisation in the US. Eason, in response, spoke out against people of Caribbean descent within the American UNIA, in the hope that this would turn African-American Garveyites against their leader.72
Garvey had had Eason formally expelled from the UNIA in August 1922, but Eason responded by setting up an anti-Garvey organisation with similar aims to those of the UNIA itself. As the start of Garvey’s mail fraud trial approached, Eason liaised with the Bureau of Investigation about the possibility of standing as a witness against his former boss.73 He also contacted NAACP field secretary Walter White, who was involved in the federal government’s investigation into Garvey’s activities, and reportedly told White that he wanted to destroy Garvey and the UNIA.74
Just before Eason’s murder, Garvey had directed Esau Ramus, an African Legion leader originally from the Caribbean island of St Kitts, to go to New Orleans from Philadelphia, where Ramus had been organising African Legion units.75 While in Philadelphia, Ramus had been arrested for possession of a firearm and for inciting a riot at a meeting led by Eason.76 There has been much speculation about whether or not the subsequent murder of Eason was directly ordered by Garvey himself, and ultimately the evidence is inconclusive. Ramus was, however, eventually identified as one of the attackers who shot Eason in New Orleans, along with William Shakespeare and the Jamaican Fred Dyer, two New Orleans UNIA supporters.77 Whether or not Garvey personally ordered Eason’s murder, ethnic tensions had come to the fore in the dispute between the two men, even though ethnicity was not the original cause of the quarrel. The Eason versus Garvey confrontation speaks to the fact that issues of ethnicity had the potential to exacerbate pre-existing conflicts over power and influence.
At the same time, a bitter feud was developing between Garvey and the NAACP’s W.E.B. Du Bois, a vendetta which was variously expressed in both ethnic and class terms. The leaders of the NAACP and the UNIA differed from each other in several ways in the 1920s, but most fundamentally on the issue of separatism versus integration as the best way to improve the situation of black people in the US. One of the most contentious issues of the day was that of how best to respond to white violence against black people. The NAACP’s solution to this problem was to gather evidence of lynchings and mob violence with the aim of putting pressure on authorities to act against mob lawlessness.78 Garvey, on the other hand, frequently dismissed the NAACP’s attempts to work with the white power structure, instead advocating self-defence in the short term and repatriation to Africa in the long term.79 In September 1921, Garvey gave a speech to UNIA supporters in which he presented white violence not only as one of the most pressing problems facing African Americans, but also one that clearly illustrated the fundamental differences between the programmes of the UNIA and the NAACP:
Here you have two leaders and two extremes – one of power who is clinging to his racial identity [Garvey]; the other [Du Bois] who has no power and who is giving way, subordinating and destroying his racial identity, the greatest weapon that the Negro has for his development. It [Du Bois’s programme] means that Dr. Du Bois tells us to remain here until we get killed…, remain here until we are ready to be killed! Because, according to the attitude of those white men who represent the Ku Klux Klan, America now is and always will be ‘a white man’s country’… It is only a question of time.80
Garvey’s personal rhetoric directly added to the sense of irreconcilable difference between the programmes of the UNIA and of the NAACP, both at the time and subsequently. After the summer of 1921, Garvey increased his attacks on black American leaders who he perceived to be compromised by their links to white society, as he distanced himself from integrationism in an attempt to persuade the US government that he was not a security threat.81
The tension between Garvey and the ranks of America’s black leadership increased significantly after June 1922, when Garvey decided to personally meet with Edward Young Clarke, the ‘Imperial Wizard’ of the Ku Klux Klan. The rationale underpinning Garvey’s meeting with a prominent Southern Klan leader seems to have been the opportunity to minimise Klan violence against the UNIA, particularly in the South, by reassuring Clarke that the UNIA wanted essentially the same thing as the Klan; that is, an end to miscegenation and the repatriation of black Americans to Africa. Following Garvey’s notorious meeting with Clarke, Du Bois’s tone, in particular, became more nativist when he was commenting on UNIA activity, and he frequently cited Garvey’s nationality and skin tone as undesirable qualities.82 As the public dispute between Du Bois and Garvey gathered pace in 1923 and 1924, it had the result of persuading both leaders, and many others, that unity of position and purpose between people of African descent was an unlikely aspiration.83
Motivated in no small part by Garvey’s meeting with Clarke, several prominent black leaders banded together to form the ‘Garvey Must Go’ campaign, which aimed to enlist government support for the removal of Garvey from a position of influence in the US. Supporters of this campaign included Chandler Owen, editor of the socialist magazine the Messenger; Robert Abbott of the Chicago Defender; and William Pickens, Walter White and Robert Bagnall of the NAACP. This development indicates how useful it might be for Garvey’s most powerful African-American critics to highlight the UNIA’s involvement in ‘unrespectable’ political violence, especially given that Abbott had the ability, through the Chicago Defender, to disseminate such stories widely. Casting the UNIA in such a light could help to discredit the organisation, lure supporters away from it and lend credence to the federal government’s investigations into Garvey’s organisation (investigations which White and the NAACP were interested in helping with). In August 1922, Randolph and Pickens organised an anti-Garvey rally in Harlem which was attended by a crowd of around 2,000 black people who were apparently ready to hear Garvey publicly denounced. Pickens told the crowd that he had ‘received many threats from friends of Garvey that they would not only interrupt the meeting, but would “do away” with him’. Pickens said he had ‘been assured when threatened that, “Garvey always carries out his threats”’.84 Ultimately, the event almost triggered the violence it supposedly condemned. The Bureau of Investigation agent monitoring the proceedings reported that ‘A number of Garveyites were amongst those present… only the prompt action of the police preventing what might have turned out to be serious trouble’.85 The Washington Post alleged that, in the same month that Pickens and Randolph held their meeting, ‘Speakers at a series of meetings held by the Frie[n]ds of Negro Freedom in New York… were threatened with death’ by UNIA supporters, some of whom may have been of Caribbean origin.86
It is important to note, however, that these meetings of the Friends of Negro Freedom were almost certainly initiated at leadership level, rather than occurring spontaneously at grassroots level. They were organised by Chandler Owen and Robert Bagnall as well as by Pickens and Randolph, and were very likely timed and designed to be confrontational. August 1922, for example, was also the month of the annual UNIA convention in Harlem, an area that was known to be a UNIA stronghold. The leader of the UNIA’s Harlem division viewed Lenox Avenue between 133rd and 135th streets as strictly UNIA ground.87 Given the strong UNIA base in Harlem, it is unsurprising that there were tensions and even some confrontations between pro-Garvey activists and those mobilised by the Friends of Negro Freedom that August.88 It is almost certainly too simplistic, however, to attribute these tensions to the alignment of Caribbean immigrants with the UNIA and of African Americans with integrationist black groups. Although people of Caribbean descent are generally thought to have been more direct in their attacks on American racism, it does not follow that people from the Caribbean were more inclined to act provocatively or violently than were African Americans. Instead, the ‘war of words’ at leadership level intensified pre-existing tensions and created the conditions where such tensions were more likely to result in threats and confrontations when different groups of supporters encountered each other.
Reports of intimidation by Garvey loyalists arose again in New Orleans during the trial of the UNIA men indicted for the murder of James Eason. According to the New York Times:
Federal authorities have known for weeks that attempts were being made to intimidate Government witnesses, and that several of them had stated their lives had been threatened if they aided the prosecution in any way… It was reported that negroes in New Orleans and elsewhere had acted violently toward others of their race who had complained of having been induced [to support the UNIA]…89
The month after Eason’s assassination in New Orleans, the Washington Post reported the alleged attack by UNIA members on Chandler Owen in Pittsburgh which was apparently thwarted by the police. The Post article’s rather sensational sub-heading was, ‘Negroes throughout country reported to have been victimized’, and the article went on to report that ‘A meeting is alleged to have been broken up in Chicago by the Garvey supporters, and a policeman shot when he attempted to preserve order’. The Negro World had reported shots being fired at an anti-Garvey meeting in Chicago in October 1922.90
A further example of faction violence within the American UNIA comes from Florida, where the popular UNIA leader and orator Laura Kofey formed an unofficial offshoot of the UNIA for her devoted followers. Over the course of the 1910s, thousands of black people from the British-owned Caribbean islands had migrated to Florida, with well over half of the 10,000 black people in Miami by 1920 originating from the islands. These Caribbean immigrants were unused both to being a racial minority and to the harshness of Jim Crow-style racial segregation. By early 1921, there was a large UNIA division in Miami, composed primarily of Caribbean members, which was probably more radical than many other Southern UNIA branches at the time.91 Overall, the UNIA could not unite African Americans and Caribbean immigrants in Florida, and there was often deep hostility between the two groups, based partly on cultural differences. In Key West, reports circulated that some African Americans had received threats from Caribbean-born Garveyites, having failed to lend their support to the UNIA. In 1921, Garvey himself had to take steps to limit the influence of more radical Caribbean elements in the UNIA in the South, particularly in Miami and Key West.92
During the period of Garvey’s trial, incarceration and eventual deportation, many UNIA supporters in Florida became frustrated with the organisation’s lack of leadership and progress, and Laura Kofey stepped up to fill the vacuum, essentially forming a new faction of the organisation in Florida and in some coastal areas of the Gulf states, much to the anger of many Garvey loyalists. In March 1928, after a period of tension in southern Florida between Kofey’s faction and Garvey’s local supporters, Kofey was shot dead while leading one of her meetings in Miami, probably by a Garvey loyalist, in what was rumoured to have been an execution ordered by the UNIA hierarchy. The crowd who witnessed the killing of Kofey was enraged and subsequently turned on and killed Maxwell Cook, the head of Miami’s African Legion, in revenge for Kofey’s death.93
It is likely that Kofey became such a controversial figure, at least in part, because she upended the UNIA’s gender hierarchies, in which women were generally allowed to be influential but not to the point where they surpassed men.94 Overall, the examples of the deaths of Kofey and Eason suggest that the UNIA’s widespread geographic reach and the hierarchical structures of its particular brand of conservative nationalism could at times lead to internal instability for the organisation. These case studies demonstrate some of the processes by which rival leaders and different visions could arise, with tensions then having the potential to develop along gender and ethnic lines.95 Eason’s death sheds light on how quickly power struggles could escalate within the American UNIA, with ethnicity being used to both claim legitimacy and to discredit opponents. The death of Kofey arose from a context of long-standing radicalism and disillusionment within the Caribbean community in Florida, a milieu which eventually disrupted UNIA gender norms and set a new faction against more conservative Garvey loyalists. A more straightforward rift over power also developed between Garvey and William Sherrill, the acting president general of the UNIA during Garvey’s time in prison in Atlanta, as Garvey began to suspect Sherrill of manoeuvring to displace him as the most influential figure in the organisation.
Garvey’s battles against his enemies, both internal and external, had taken their toll by 1927. When the Justice Department eventually agreed to release Garvey from prison in Atlanta, where he had been incarcerated since his appeal against his mail fraud conviction had been turned down, he was released only on the condition that he be immediately deported. Garvey sailed from New Orleans to Jamaica in December 1927 and did not return to the United States. The American UNIA never fully recovered from this blow and it gradually began to fragment, although it persisted directly and indirectly in some areas of the US for years after Garvey’s departure, a fact that is often overlooked by historians.96 As the power vacuum deepened within the American UNIA, tensions between rival groups exacerbated the development of factionalism. In New York City in 1929, the ‘Tiger Division’ of the African Legion clashed violently with the city’s more conventional Garvey Club, in what probably indicates class and ethnic divisions between different groups of UNIA supporters.97 The rise and fall of Laura Kofey in Miami can also be understood in the context of the post-Garvey power vacuum that afflicted the organisation after 1927. Animosity flared at times between UNIA supporters and external groups after Garvey’s departure. In 1930, for example, after a period of tension in Harlem, a street brawl between the UNIA’s ‘Tiger Division’ and local communists left one communist supporter dead on the street.98
While scholarly discussions of black political rivalries in this period tend to focus on personal vendettas between Garvey and other black leaders, the examples discussed in this study demonstrate that the ‘war of words’ between the leaders was not separate from grassroots rivalries and confrontations between supporters. At times, these grassroots rivalries did not extend beyond words and threats, while at other times they manifested as physical confrontations. Overall, these examples indicate that tensions between UNIA supporters and the supporters of other black organisations comprised primarily of threats, both physical and verbal, that could be confrontational but only occasionally escalated into notable instances of outright physical violence. Ultimately, there is not enough evidence to make firm assertions about the precise ethnicities of those activists who opposed each other at grassroots level. However, such tensions most likely speak primarily to the presence and agendas of prominent leaders in certain places and at certain times, and to the fact that supporters of different organisations were in close proximity to each other in the urban centres of black activism, most notably in Harlem. While there were clear links between the UNIA and Caribbean ethnicity in New York City, this study has not attempted to argue that people of Caribbean descent were more inclined towards violence than were American-born black people. Instead, while issues of ethnicity probably exacerbated certain political tensions, grassroots tensions between the UNIA and other organisations were also intrinsically linked to the presence of prominent, national-level leaders, such as Bagnall, Owen, Pickens and Randolph in Harlem in August 1922, and Owen in Pittsburgh in February 1923. On the other hand, the prominent examples of tension within the American UNIA itself more obviously highlight the impact that ethnic and even gender hierarchies could have in exacerbating pre-existing differences and rivalries, with these disputes sometimes escalating into deadly physical violence.
The militarism evident in the creation and activities of the African Legion meant that martial tendencies were an inherent part of the UNIA. In the interior of the South, an area where African Americans were usually the only black group, these expressions of militarism usually spoke to ‘respectability’ through group self-defence against white violence. In larger urban centres, however, where leadership machinations and grassroots rivalries manifested themselves more obviously, the presence of the African Legion could have the effect of enabling the often shadowy, politically motivated intimidation, coercion and violence that some UNIA supporters became involved in. Although such political violence against other black people may seem ‘unrespectable’ compared to self-defence against white attack, it is not possible to make clear assertions about the social class of those involved in such political violence. Instead, this study has suggested that expressions of violence were more likely linked to certain combinations of circumstances, rather than to social class or ethnic factors as such.
Scholars who discuss the UNIA’s involvement in the rivalries of the 1920s generally lay the blame for any violence on the UNIA, a tendency that may have its origins in the writings and pronouncements of Garvey’s rivals at the time.99 Although the forthright criticism that the UNIA attracted has often been taken to mean that it was essentially doomed to fail, historians’ approaches to the UNIA should avoid being overly influenced by the comments made by leaders of rival organisations or by its enemies in the press, both black and white.100 It is noticeable that the white press reported the involvement of police officers in several of the incidents covered in this study, indicating that the white press routinely both denigrated the UNIA and glorified the actions of the police. Furthermore, the state had a vendetta against the UNIA that had begun as early as 1919 and contributed, via police interference and a long-standing Bureau of Investigation campaign, to the development of tensions. The white press and white authorities may even have had a symbiotic relationship in this regard, with the prejudice of one stoking that of the other. The authorities believed from an early stage in the UNIA’s propensity for violence and it probably helped the cause of white officialdom to actively attempt to expose, provoke and subdue the UNIA. This may be an area of speculation but, nonetheless, the circumstantial information points to such questions about the roles of the press and the state in creating and perpetuating certain situations and perceptions regarding the UNIA and its involvement in political violence.
While it seems to have been the case that the UNIA was the organisation most often involved in grassroots political confrontations, this study has suggested that we need to understand such confrontations in the context of the UNIA’s internal dynamics and in the context of its relationships both with other black organisations and with the white power structure. Such an understanding of the UNIA’s involvement in political confrontations and violence can move us away from a temptation to reduce UNIA supporters to ‘lower types of cranks, crooks and racial bigots’. Instead, properly contextualising and understanding such tensions can provide us with an appreciation of the pressures, influences and shifting circumstances that shaped black activism in the interwar period, and of how and why ‘wars of words’ had the capacity to spill out into outright violence.