“I believe in God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. I endorse the Nicene Creed. I believe that Jesus died for me. I believe that God lives for me as for all men, and no condition you can impose upon me by deceiving me about Christianity will cause me to doubt Jesus Christ and to doubt God. I shall never hold Christ responsible for the commercialization of Christianity by the heartless men who adopt it as the easiest means of fooling and robbing other people out of their land and country.”- Marcus Garvey
This week I celebrated my birthday on August 17th. Growing up in New York City, every year on or around my birthday in Brooklyn and Harlem there were big parades and special events. My mother would jokingly tell me that these celebrations were in my honor. I believed her. But as I grew in my knowledge of African history as well as in my career as a community organizer, I learned that these celebrations took place on August 17th because across the African diaspora this day is known as Marcus Garvey Day.
Marcus “Mosiah” Garvey was born in Jamaica on August 17th, 1887 and immigrated to America where he founded of one of the world’s largest grassroots organizing networks the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League (UNIA-ACL), this organization was founded on July 15, 1914 not only by Garvey but with the help of Black Jewish leaders from Harlem who composed the constitution and hymn. As a Black Christian woman I did not know that one of my heroes was a devout Christian and the inspiration for Black Christians, Black Jews, Black Muslims and for the founding of the Rastafarian religion.
The UNIA from its inception was an interfaith movement where people of African descent not only in America but in the Caribbean, South America, Europe and Africa were urged to unite under: “One God! One Aim! One Destiny” which was the organization’s motto. At its height it had over 1, 900 divisions in more than 40 countries, representing millions of members. Most of the divisions were located in the United States, which had become the UNIA’s base of operations. Marcus Garvey was a serious Christian and this faith motivated him but he understood that the UNIA had to be ecumenical and interfaith in order to provide all African people regardless of faith tradition a venue for organizing for liberation. In recognition of needing a Black led interfaith movement Garvey called on his Black Jewish friends at the Commandment Keepers Synagogue of Harlem (our nation’s first and largest Black Jewish temple) to help form and lead the UNIA. Currently, Black Jews and Hebrews have taken a more visible role in the Black Lives Matter Movement and in light of this it’s important to know the essential role Black Jews played in the leadership of the UNIA.
“Rabbi Arnold Ford became the musical director of the UNIA choir, Samuel Valentine was the president, and Nancy Paris its lead singer. These three Black Jews became the core of an active group of black Jews within the UNIA who studied Hebrew, religion, and history, and held services at Liberty Hall, the headquarters of the UNIA. As a paid officer, Rabbi Ford, as he was then called, was responsible for orchestrating much of the pageantry of Garvey’s highly attractive ceremonies. Ford and Benjamin E. Burrell composed a song called “Ethiopia, ” the lyrics of which spoke of a glorious past before slavery and stressed pride in their African heritage, two themes that were becoming immensely popular. Ford’s efforts in the movement place him in the category of GEORGE ALEXANDER MCGUIRE, Chaplain General of the UNIA.
But Ford’s contributions to the UNIA were not limited to musical matters. He and E.L. Gaines wrote the handbook of rules and regulation for the African Legion (which was modeled after the Zionist Jewish Legion) and developed guidelines for the Black Cross Nurses. He served on committees, spoke at rallies and was elected one of the delegates representing the 35, 000 members of the New York chapter to the “First International Convention of Negro Peoples of the World, ” held in 1920 at Madison Square Garden. There the governing body adopted the red, black, and green flag as its national ensign and Ford’s song “Ethiopia” became the “Universal Ethiopian Anthem, ” which the UNIA constitution required be sung at every gathering. During that same year, Ford published the Universal Ethiopian Hymnal. Ford was a proponent of replacing the disparaging term “Negro” with the term “Ethiopian (In antiquity, all of Africa was sometimes referred to as Ethiopia), ” as a general reference to people of African descent. This gave the line in Psalm 68 that “Ethiopia shall son stretch out her hand to God, ” a new significance and it became popular slogan of the organization. At the 1922 convention, Ford opened the proceedings for the session devoted to “The Politics and Future of the West Indian Negro, ” and he represented the advocates of Judaism on a five-person ad hoc committee formed to investigate “the Future Religion of the Negro.”
What I love about the history of the UNIA was that though it was a Pan African organizing movement, an official position in the organization was Chaplain and in addition to a Jewish Chaplain there was also a Christian Chaplain (and I should note Black Muslims played a key role in the UNIA). The African Orthodox Church was founded by the first UNIA Chaplain to create a Pan African Christian denomination and today this denomination still exists. Marcus Garvey in his lectures would preach about the Blackness of Jesus, God’s hatred of racism and injustice, and the need for Black Christians to root their faith in their African culture. Garvey truly believed it was God’s will for Africans across the world to be free. Here are some quotes from Marcus Garvey’s personal faith that Christians of all races can be inspired by:
“Leadership means martyrdom, leadership means sacrifice, leadership means giving up one’s personality, giving up everything for the cause that is worthwhile. Leadership means everything – pain, blood, death.”
“The God we love, the God we adore, the God who sent His Son to this world 2, 000 years ago never created an inferior man. The God we love, the God we worship and adore has created man in His own image, equal in every respect, wherever he may be. Let him be white, let him be yellow, let him be red, let him be black; God has created him the equal of his brother. He is such a loving God. He is such a merciful God. He is such a God that He is no respecter of persons. He is a God that would not in His great love create a superior race and an inferior one. The God that you worship is a God that expects you to be the equal of other men. The God that I adore is such a God, and He could be no other.”
“The ends that you serve that are selfish will take you no further than yourself. But the ends that you serve that are for all, in common, will take you even into eternity.”
“Radical’ is a label that is always applied to people who are endeavoring to get freedom. Jesus Christ was the greatest radical the world ever saw. He came and saw a world of sin and His program was to inspire it with His spiritual redemption.”
Unfortunately, J. Edgar Hoover, the first Director of the FBI, was obsessed with taking down the UNIA and especially Marcus Garvey because he did not want a “black Messiah that could electrify the Black masses.” This fear of the rise of a Black Messiah led Hoover to also target Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. Garvey was wrongly accused of fraud, arrested and deported from America. Today Garvey’s descendants are pushing for a Presidential pardon of Marcus Garvey.
I believe we all can learn a great deal from the faith of Marcus Garvey, especially as we seek to do justice as people of faith and some of these lessons are:
- Our movements need to be ecumenical and interfaith in order to have a powerful impact. Yes, Marcus Garvey was a Christian but he understood the Black Jews and Muslims had an important role to play in the liberation of African people.
- Our movements have to be rooted in faith, Garvey established the office of UNIA Chaplain understanding that a successful movement has to have “chaplains of the resistance not ministers to the empire”, like my friend Rev. Michael-Ray Mathews, Director Clergy Organizing for the PICO National Network reminds us as we organize an interfaith movement for justice.
- Our movements need immigrants. Marcus Garvey was an immigrant to America and yet his work organized millions of African-Americans, inspired Malcolm X, led to the founding of a denomination and laid the groundwork for the Civil Rights Movement, proving that immigrants have and do bring an important perspective to our movements. Garvey reminded African-Americans that we were not isolated but that we came from a wonderful continent and that our struggle was tied to the struggle of our brothers and sisters throughout the world. One of the founders of #BlackLivesMatter Opal Tometi is a daughter of Nigerian immigrants and Director of the Black Alliance for Just Immigration, where would the movement for Black lives be without immigrants?
- God’s will is for justice to reign. Garvey was so sure of this that even when he was framed, imprisoned and deported he did not lose the faith but in one of his last writings (from prison) he declared:
“If I die in Atlanta my work shall then only begin, but I shall live, in the physical or spiritual to see the day of Africa’s glory. When I am dead wrap the mantle of the Red, Black and Green around me, for in the new life I shall rise with God’s grace and blessing to lead the millions up the heights of triumph with the colors that you well know. Look for me in the whirlwind or the storm, look for me all around you, for, with God’s grace, I shall come and bring with me countless millions of black slaves who have died in America and the West Indies and the millions in Africa to aid you in the fight for Liberty, Freedom and Life.”
During these very hard times for various movements for justice, will you join me in taking inspiration from the faith of a fellow Red Letter Christian Marcus Garvey and push forward knowing that our God will bring justice upon the earth?
My ministry Prophetic Whirlwind: Uncovering the Black Biblical Destiny was inspired by Garvey’s Look For Me in the Whirlwind Speech.
For more information on Prophetic Whirlwind visit us on Facebook and Instagram @PropheticWhirlwind