The Marcus Garvey and Universal Negro Improvement Association Papers

Article in West Africa

Nigerian Notes and News

Emissaries of an American movement, rejoicing in the title of the "Universal Negro Improvement Association, Inc., and African Communities League," have arrived in Lagos to carry on propaganda in its favour.[1] This society boasts of an elaborate constitution, headed by a potentate and supreme commissioner, empowered to confer titles, honours and degrees, and hold court, and edit a list of "social eligibles." A hierarchy of high commissioners and deputies assist him in the discharge of his international duties. No one but an African by birth and extraction is admitted to membership, and all must be of good moral standing.[2] Its further rules and regulations would prohibit nine-tenths of the population of Nigeria from admittance to its fraternity. A feature of the organisation is the collection of 10 cents per month from each of its members by the way of a death tax, in exchange for which a sum equal to 75 cents (? dollars) is paid towards the funeral expenses of a deceased member.[3] The colours of the society are a flag composed of bands of red, black and green,[4] and it possesses a battle hymn that would do credit to Sinn Fein.[5]
Printed in West Africa (London), 7 August 1920. Text abridged.
[1] This may be a reference to the arrival in Liberia of Elie Garcia.
[2] According to the UNIA Constitution and Book of Laws, the Potentate and Supreme Commissioner was the "invested ruler of the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities' League and all its appendages. He shall be of Negro blood and race. He shall constitutionally control all affairs of the Association and League and all other societies . . . and shall retain full power and control over their actions and jurisdiction" (MGP 1:259). The potentate was given authority to suspend or fire any UNIA officer except his own Supreme Deputy, to appoint commissions, and to nominate his successor. He was expected to issue periodic messages to guide the members of the organization, to deliver the opening speech at UNIA conventions on the status of the UNIA during the previous year, and to hold a court reception for delegates. Despite these constitutional claims to final power over UNIA affairs, most of the duties and powers vested in the office of the potentate remained with Garvey as president general (MGP 1:259–262).
[3] In addition to its political, educational, and entrepreneurial goals, the UNIA was established as a benevolent association. According to Section 28 of the UNIA Constitution and Book of Laws, a death tax of ten cents per month would be levied on each member in addition to the regular monthly dues. In the event of the death of a person who had been a paying UNIA member for at least six months, and who was also current in payment of the death tax, seventy-five dollars would be collected from the general death-tax fund and from a special tax of five cents per member levied against the deceased's local division. This sum would then be given to the family of the deceased to be used toward burial costs (MGP 1:273–274).
[4] The UNIA Constitution and Book of Laws stated that "the colors of the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities' League shall be red, black and green" (MGP 1:274). These colors were explained as follows by H. Vinton Plummer, director of the UNIA's Bureau of Publicity and Propaganda: "The Red is emblematical of the richness of the blood; the Black symbolizes the millions of Negroes scattered throughout the globe; the Green is designed to keep before the mind's eye Africa's verdant fields" (NW, 16 April 1921). According to Charles Mowbray White, Garvey once described the meaning of the tricolor as follows: "The Red showed their sympathy with the 'Reds' of the world, and the Green their sympathy for the Irish in their fight for freedom, and the Black—The Negro" (MGP 1:lxxv). At another time, Garvey remarked that the Ethiopian flag of red, black, and green showed "the Black race between blood and nature to win its rights" (MGP 1:290).
[5] The Irish nationalist political party Sinn Fein (Gaelic for "Ourselves Alone") was founded in 1900 by journalist and politician Arthur Griffith. By the end of World War I it had become the most important Irish party advocating independence from British rule; it formed an assembly separate from the British parliament in 1919, and created the first Irish Free State in 1922. It has survived a series of splits and remains in close association with the Irish Republican Army (Cambridge Encyclopedia; Oxford Encyclopedic English Dictionary).