Marcus Garvey and his views on the Ku Klux Klan

Black activist Marcus Garvey had a grudging admiration of the KKK


PROMINENT black activist Marcus Garvey once said: “I regard the Klan, the Anglo-Saxon clubs and White American societies, as far as the Negro is concerned, as better friends of the race than all other groups of hypocritical whites put together.”

It seems odd that anybody of African ancestry would have praised such organisations. But Garvey often courted controversy. He believed blacks should be fiercely proud of their ancestry, albeit not to the extreme of lynching whites.

He formed and headed an organisation numbering as many as six million worldwide which inspired Africans to unite. At times he suggested blacks should leave the US to form their own separate nation, hence his statement about the Ku Klux Klan, who also believed in separating blacks and whites.

The statement alienated many of his followers. It was one of many missteps he made as a black leader. While his movement, the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), often at the extreme of black activism, crumbled in the 1920s, he inspired others to stand up for their rights and to be proud of their heritage.

Born Marcus Mosiah Garvey in Saint Ann’s Bay, Jamaica on August 17, 1887, his mother was a domestic servant and his father a stonemason who valued learning. His father kept a well-stocked library at home and Garvey was encouraged to read widely.

Black activist Marcus Garvey.
William “W.E.B.” Du Bois, American scholar and civil rights activist, in 1918.

Apprenticed as a printer at 14 Garvey became involved in unionism in Kingston. In 1907 he took part in a strike that gave him a taste for political activism. He toured central and South America, working as a reporter and sometimes as editor for various newspapers.

From 1912 to 1914 he lived in London studying law at Birkbeck College. His travels showed him that people of African heritage, and even the blacks in Africa, were often poor, exploited, discriminated against and lacked rights.

When he returned to Jamaica in 1914, inspired by American orator, educator and activist Booker T. Washington, Garvey founded the UNIA.

He planned a trip to the US to meet with Washington and give a series of lectures to raise funds for his organisation, but by the time he arrived in 1916, Washington had died.

However, Garvey started speaking on street corners and in church halls, and ended up staying. America, at the time, was undergoing a flourishing of African culture led by jazz music and people such as Washington and William “W.E.B.” Du Bois” who encouraged blacks to better their condition.

It didn’t take the charismatic Garvey long to gain an audience and 1917 he founded a branch of UNIA in Harlem. In 1918 he began publishing the newspaper The Negro World. The organisation continued to grow, boosted by the thousands of black veterans returning from World War I.

In 1919 UNIA acquired the first of many “Liberty Halls”, a meeting hall where Garvey spoke to six thousand people. He also held showpiece parades in New York in which he wore in a military uniform with gold piping and a plumed hat.

Black activist Marcus Garvey in his plumed hat and military uniform.

Garvey launched the Black Star Line, a shipping company meant as a display of African-American enterprise and to ferry African-Americans to their ancestral lands. He also launched a chain of restaurants, hotels, an association of black factories and businesses, and urged Africans
to “buy black”.

Garvey became convinced blacks would never be allowed to integrate with whites in the US and he even met with leaders of the KKK who supported his scheme of separating the races.

However, he made the mistake of saying the blacks should learn from the fervour of the white supremacist organisation. It brought him into conflict with Du Bois, who called Garvey “the most dangerous enemy of the Negro race in America and in the world”.

UNIA began losing members and support, and instead gained enemies such as J. Edgar Hoover. The Black Star Line failed through mismanagement and because Garvey had sold shares in the company through the mail, the FBI arrested him for mail fraud. After appealing his 1923 conviction Garvey went to prison in 1925.

Released in 1927 he was deported to Jamaica. While UNIA continued to exist it was no longer as powerful and influential. In 1929 Garvey started the People’s Political Party in Jamaica. In the ’30s he promoted a scheme for African-Americans to return to Africa.

He lived his final years in London, where his health declined and he suffered a series of strokes. In 1940 a Chicago newspaper erroneously printed an article saying Garvey was dead. When he read it he had another stroke, this time fatal.

His body was interred in a crypt in an English cemetery until it was returned to Jamaica in 1964 where he became a national hero.



Marcus Garvey’s views on the KKK in his own words:


“I interviewed the Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan to find out the Klan’s attitude toward the race. You may believe it or not-I made several statements to him, in which he said this: that the Klan is not organized for the absolute purpose of interfering with Negroes-for the purpose of suppressing Negroes, but the Klan is organized for the purpose of protecting the interests of the white race in America. Now anything that does not spell the interests of the white race in America does not come within the scope of the Ku Klux Klan. I found out, therefore, that the Ku Klux Klan was purely a racial organization standing up in the interests of white folks exclusive of the interests of others. You cannot blame any group of men, whether they are Chinese, Japanese, Anglo-Saxons or Frenchmen, for standing up for their interests or for organizing in their interest. I am not apologizing for the Klan or endeavoring to excuse the existence of the Klan, but I want a proper understanding about the Ku Klux Klan so that there can be no friction between the Negroes in America and the Ku Klux Klan, because it is not going to help.

The Ku Klux Klan is not an ordinary social club organized around the corner. The Ku Klux Klan is the invisible government of the United States of America. The Ku Klux Klan expresses to a great extent the feeling of every real white American. The attitude of the Ku Klux Klan is that America shall be a white man’s country at all hazards, at all costs. The attitude of the Universal Negro Improvement Association is in a way similar to the Ku Klux Klan. Whilst the Ku Klux Klan desires to make America absolutely a white man’s country, the Universal Negro Improvement Association wants to make Africa absolutely a black man’s country. {Great applause. } Whether you wish it or not, that is not the point, because your wish does not amount to anything. The wish of fifteen million Negroes in America does not amount to anything when 95,000,000 other folks wish the thing that you want. That is the disadvantage. We wish liberty; we wish to be good American citizens; we want to be President of the United States; we wish to be Congressmen; we wish to be Senators; we wish to be governors of states; we wish to be mayors of cities; we wish to be police commissioners. It is a wish, all right, but the other fellow wishes the same thing. Now, is he going to allow you to have your wish? That is the attitude. The white people of this country are not going to allow Negroes-ambitious and educated Negroes-to have their wish, and the wish of the educated, ambitious Negro of America is that the Negro has as much right to be President of the United States as President Harding has. The ambition and wish of the Negro in America today is that the Negro has as much right to be a member of the Cabinet as any white man. Now that is your wish. Will the other fellow accede to your wish?

The Ku Klux Klan interprets the spirit of every white man in this country and says, “You shall not pass.” What are you going to do? You have the wish, but the odds are against you. Therefore the best thing you can do is to get down to a sober understanding of the Klan and try to the best of your ability to solve the question that concerns you. And the Universal Negro Improvement Association says the only way the problem can be solved is for the Negro to create a government of his own strong enough on the continent of Africa that can compel the respect of all men in all parts of the world. We are not going to have any fight as an organization with the Ku Klux Klan because it is not going to help.

The Ku Klux Klan, as I said a while ago, is the invisible government of the United States of America. What do I mean by that? The Klan represents the spiritual feeling and even the physical attitude of every white man in this country. There are hundreds of other organizations that feel as the Ku Klux Klan feels. There are millions of individuals in America who feel as the Ku Klux Klan feels, but those individuals, those organizations are not honest enough to make the confession that the Ku Klux Klan makes. I prefer and have a higher regard for the man who intends to take my life who will warn me and say, “Garvey, I am going to take your life,” so as to give me time to prepare my soul for my God, rather than the man who will pretend to be my friend, and as I turn my back he ushers me into eternity without even giving me a chance to say my Lord’s Prayer.”

Marcus Garvey. Selected Writings and Speeches of Marcus Garvey (Dover Thrift Editions) (Kindle Locations 1513-1518). Kindle Edition.
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