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  • Marcus Garvey’s Operation Dixie
  • Edward J. Blum (bio)
Mary G. Rolinson. Grassroots Garveyism: The Universal Negro Improvement Association in the Rural South, 1920–1927. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007. 286 pp. Appendices, notes, bibliography, and index. $59.95 (cloth); $22.50 (paper).

Devotion and derision have run side-by-side in African American responses to Marcus Garvey. In the late 1910s and early 1920s, he and his Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) had a meteoric rise. He became the popular voice of emigration to Africa, of race pride, and of black entrepreneurship. Hundreds of UNIA divisions sprang up throughout the nation. Yet unsound business practices, government persecution, and opposition from other activists led to his downfall. He was imprisoned for mail fraud and then deported in 1927. Throughout these tumultuous times, Garvey was loved and hated, respected and despised, followed and questioned. Even after his deportation, Garvey made a cameo appearance in George Schuyler's satirical novel set in the 1930s, Black No More. In this tale of racial transformation run amuck because of a machine that could make blacks look like whites, Garvey was lampooned as "Santop Licorice," an obese, greedy, self-interested demagogue in New York City whose aspirations had been destroyed by the "Black-No-More" machine. (To be fair, Schuyler portrayed nearly every historical and fictional character in his novel as duplicitous and pompous.) There was no longer a need for race pride in a country where everyone was becoming white, and Santop had lost his followers; his Back-to-Africa movement lay in shambles and his income with it. His last resort was to align with the raging white supremacists of the Knights of Nordica. But even that failed to bring him back to power.

While scholars no longer see Garvey as an opportunistic demagogue, they retain the focus on northern cities and black business enterprise in their assessments of Garvey and his appeal. Textbooks and monographs portray Garveyism in the United States as a northern and urban phenomenon. Garvey, the general arguments proceed, attracted recent émigrés from the South, working-class African Americans now in confusing and disorienting cities, but free from vitriolic southern white lynch mobs and legal codes. But Garvey had a rural southern wing as well. Sociologist Charles Johnson pointed [End Page 419] out in 1941 that "one outstanding example of articulated racial ideology affecting southern Negroes was the Garvey Back-to-Africa Movement" (p. 17). Who were these southern Garveyites? Were southern Garveyites distinct from others in the organization? How did the South impact Garvey's ideas and his movement? Mary G. Rolinson sets out to answer these questions. Grassroots Garveyism demands that historians take seriously the movement's appeal in the rural South. She suggests that scholars miss perhaps the most vibrant and important aspects of the UNIA by focusing solely on northern cities. In this informative study, Rolinson shows convincingly that Garveyism had a distinct southern appeal and that the southern movement transformed Garvey's broader crusade.

Rolinson begins by drawing attention to the ways Garvey echoed, appropriated, and reframed the ideas of generations of African American spokesmen in the South. As Steven Hahn demonstrated in his award-winning A Nation Under Our Feet: Black Political Struggles in the Rural South from Slavery to the Great Migration (2003), rural southern blacks crafted numerous political, social, religious, and economic strategies to respond to enslavement, freedom, enfranchisement, disfranchisement, racial violence, and segregation. Their politics often concentrated on family autonomy, access to land and property ownership, and collective efforts rooted in kinship ties. Rolinson claims that Garvey emulated not only the black improvement and self-separation theories of Booker T. Washington and Henry McNeal Turner, but also the international ideas of missionary organizations dedicated to "redeeming" Africa. Garvey drew rural African Americans who envisioned Africa not as a place to be saved from outsiders, but as a location where they themselves could find salvation. Africa was a place where they could obtain independence and hence true liberation. Just as Michele Mitchell has maintained recently in her Righteous Propagation: African Americans and the Politics of Racial Destiny After Reconstruction (2004), rural blacks in the late nineteenth and...


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