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Marcus Garvey: Look For Me in the Whirlwind

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Online Forum: Comparing the Role of Women in the Garvey Movement
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This question is for Barbara Bair -- How did Garvey usage of women in his movement compare to the very small usage of women in the Civil Rights movement. In other words were the women there for show or did they have a very active role in the movement?

Answered by Barbara Bair
Thanks for your question, Karen. I think you phrased it in an interesting way. Garvey made "use" of women in some ways, but it also has to be remembered that women made quite good use of themselves.

Garvey voiced definite ideas regarding what Garveyite women should be and do, and very consciously incorporated them into the Garvey movement. But UNIA women had their own ideas about their capabilities and functions that in many ways challenged and exceeded Garvey's. In either case, Garveyite women were there for much more than show. It was not just a matter of Garvey's perspective versus the perspective of many of the leading women in the movement. Garveyite women's own views of their roles evolved through time, as the movement itself changed and hopes and demands for leadership in some quarters went unmet.

As Garvey's son says in the film, the women proved to be the backbone of the Garvey movement. Women were very active in the Garvey movement on many levels. As the "People & Events" page on this issue within this Web page describes, they were members of female auxiliaries (the Black Cross Nurses and the Universal African Motor Corps), and of various social and working women's clubs that formed within the UNIA in conjunction with local divisions and in New York. They served asdelegates to international conventions, representing their local divisions, and argued their viewpoints from the floor. They served as teachers of the Juvenile Divisions, and as girls, as youth participants. In some local divisions, they made up a majority of UNIA members. Women served as UNIA regional, national, and international organizers and as local officers. They sold stock for the Black Star Line and helped arrange and run UNIA programs and meetings. Every local branch had a "lady president." And, individual women were stars in the national and international leadership of the UNIA.

In the past decade, Amy Jacques Garvey has become well recognized in this regard, as a leader, as an editor of the _Negro World_, and as a feminist. The film describes Amy Ashwood's key role in the early formative years of the Garvey movement. It also mentions the importance of Amy Jacques Garvey as Garvey's wife and the mother of his two sons, but does not delve into her centrality to the life and leadership of the movement, particularly during Garvey's imprisonment.

M. L. T. De Mena was another important leader in the movement in those years, and she and Henrietta Vinton Davis were both key organizers on Black Star Line tours. Davis, who is pictured a few times within the film in the contexts of her many different forms of UNIA activism, was indispensable to Garvey in his fledgling organizing tour of the United States. She became the first International Organizer of the movement and chaired key mass meetings at Carnegie Hall, Madison Square Garden, and Liberty Hall. She was the only woman in the delegation that met with Liberian president C. D. B. King in 1924, and she was part of the UNIA committee that delivered UNIA petitions for Garvey's freedom to President Calvin Coolidge in that same year. Garvey once described her as "the greatest woman of the Negro race today."

Women in the UNIA debated their own roles. In the abstract, Garvey lauded the women in the movement. He recognized their importance as loyal supporters, and he idealized them--in his speeches, editorials, songs and poems,--in ways congruent with the larger message of black pride of the movement, and in sharp and welcome contrast to the negative white stereotypes that demeaned and degraded black femininity. The UNIA as a whole heralded the importance of black motherhood and the nurturing of black children, in part as a remedy and counter balance to the violence, repression, poverty and racism faced in daily lives. They also took very seriously the political contribution of women raising and educating black children to pride and knowledge of the history of their race.

Many women embraced these roles and images, including the idea of black women as beautiful and the centrality and worth of motherhood. They also were determined to stand by their men, and bolster the identity of strong black manhood that was in many ways at the heart of the Garvey movement. But they also wanted more. Garvey, for all his recognition of women and his attitudes of chivalry, relegated them to secondary status. Few women made it into the upper echelons of leadership, and those that did sometimes had a very hard row to hoe. While Garvey called for the "protection" of his wife, Amy Jacques Garvey proclaimed herself quite able to serve and lead in her own right. Over time, many Garveyite women became frustrated with the sexism in the movement, and called on each other to, if necessary, sweep ineffectual men aside and take the reins of leadership into their own hands.

There are actually many parallels between the role of women in the Garvey movement and in the Civil Rights movement. Although the upper echelons of leadership in the Civil Rights movement, like the Garvey movement, were made up mainly of men (from the NAACP and SCLC to CORE and SNCC), it should not be forgotten that women were very active throughout the grassroots aspects of the movement, and indeed spearheaded many of the major events. Key activist and SNCC founder Ella Baker has said that the "movement of the fifties and sixties was carried largely by women." Women Civil Rights activists were instrumental and dogged as voting rights advocates. They participated in sit-ins and marches, helped to plan demonstrations, boycotts, and local campaigns. They were arrested for defiance of Jim Crow laws and for public protest, and were essential in harboring student organizers in their homes. This latter kind of local, personal, heroism should not be discounted.

Women were at the heart of two landmark events in 1954-55 that ushered in the following decade of protest, and led to ultimate victories in the courts. Linda Brown, of Topeka, Kansas, was the student of the Brown _v._ Board of Education case which led to the end of legal racial segregation of American public schools, and Rosa Parks' (and Claudette Colvin before her) act of civil disobedience sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the legal challenge to racially segregated public transportation. Although the boycott is best known as the forum which gave rise to the leadership of Martin Luther King, Jr., it was originally instigated by the Women's Political Council and local Montgomery women activists like Jo Ann Robinson, who then worked along with King and other male leaders of the Montgomery Improvement Association. Similarly, Daisy Bates, a NAACP activist, was crucial to the 1957 community campaign to enroll African American students in Little Rock, Ark., public schools, and six of the Little Rock Nine--the group of brave students who actually challenged the racial ban--were women. The list goes on and on, with women like Septima Clark, Fannie Lou Hamer, Unita Blackwell, Ella Baker, and many others.

The fundamental sexism of the male leadership of the movement, however, cannot be denied. In the Civil Rights movement, as in the Garvey movement, women played essential roles but were too often little recognized and relegated to secondary or token positions. But without them, neither movement would have had the power for social change or the grassroots impact that they in fact wielded.

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