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  • Marcus Garvey, Father Divine and the Gender Politics of Race Difference and Race Neutrality
  • Beryl Satter (bio)

C. D. Austin’s 1936 letter to Marcus Garvey was not the adoring missive Garvey might have expected. After briefly recounting his years of committed support for Garvey and the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), Austin came to his main point: that Father Divine was God and that Garvey would do well to recognize this fact. “‘Garveyism’ was the highest grace this so-called race had. . . . But to-day a greater than Garvey is here. [Y]ou were regarded as the world’s most fearless leader in this present civilization before the coming of FATHER DIVINE. . . . Please try HIM out as 23,000,000 of us did, you need HIM as all the World does,” Austin exhorted.

Garvey was not about to turn to Father Divine as his personal savior. Instead, Garvey pushed through a lengthy resolution at the UNIA’s 1936 convention that condemned Father Divine in no uncertain terms. Father Divine’s claim to be God was “blasphemy of the worst kind.” Divine was a common swindler and under the control of scheming whites. Most seriously, Garvey accused Divine of “race suicide.” According to the UNIA resolution, Divinites “separate themselves sexually from the bond of matrimony” and cease to “reproduce the species of the race by having children.” Such a policy, the resolution declared, would lead to the “complete extermination of the Negro race in the United States in one generation. . . .” 1

Garvey was right to focus on race suicide in this resolution, since the valuation of racial identity was one of the key differences that separated [End Page 43] Garvey’s movement from Divine’s. Marcus Garvey was the Jamaican-born head of the UNIA, an organization that reached its peak of strength in the early 1920s and whose organizing principle could be summarized in the slogan “Race First.” A faith in the importance of racial solidarity underlay the three goals of Garvey’s UNIA: to arouse a unified race consciousness in all peoples of African descent, whether living in the United States, the West Indies, or Africa; to strengthen this united black race by organizing black-owned and managed, large-scale business enterprises and shipping lines; and finally, to create a black-governed nation in Africa that would host the creation of a renewed black civilization and stand up for the rights of black people everywhere. 2

Father Divine, born George Baker, was an African American of obscure origin who founded the most notorious new religion of Depression-era America—the Harlem-based Peace Mission movement. If Garvey’s UNIA was premised on “Race First” and faith in national destiny, then Divine’s Peace Mission was premised on a belief in race neutrality and faith in Father Divine as God. Father Divine was most well-known for his ability, during the height of the Great Depression, to feed thousands daily at his free, fifty-course Peace Mission banquets. The Peace Mission program was more clearly enacted, however, in the scores of racially integrated, sexually segregated, and celibate communes formed by Divinites in the 1930s. Within these communes, which Peace Mission members called “heavens,” Divinites refused to recognize race, arguably the key social division of modern America. In a dramatic reversal of the racial segregation characteristic of the larger society, black and white Divinites worked and lived together in heavens, took care to mix the seating at Divinite banquets so as to alternate black and white diners, and refused to acknowledge verbally the existence of racial difference. 3

Why was Marcus Garvey so enraged over Divine’s success, and what role did the two men’s contrasting views of race and sexuality play in this feud? When discussing the tension between Garvey and Divine, scholars of the UNIA and the Peace Mission point to the fact that large numbers of Garveyites were among the thousands 4 joining Divine’s Peace Mission. Historians explain this crossover membership, and Garvey’s extreme reaction to it, in terms of broad similarities between the UNIA and the Peace Mission. Both movements centered around a charismatic leader, provided concrete benefits to their members, promoted [End...

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