More than a quarter century before Brown v. Board ended legal segregation in the United States, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Field Secretary William Pickens (1881-1954) criticized the forced separation of white and black Americans. With logic typical of the NAACP's approach to fighting segregation counterbalanced by colorful phrasing and a strain of passion, Pickens anticipated many of the arguments African Americans in the coming decades would use to fight segregation. He attacked so-called separate but equal accommodations as "a mere legal fiction," scoffed at laws banning interracial marriage, and detailed segregation's potentially unhealthy effects on the black psyche. Pickens devoted much of his energy to this final point. Under the weight of segregation, light-skinned African Americans slipped under the color line to pass as white; African American children developed inferiority complexes they retained as adults; and the African American community splintered, internalizing the racism that kept segregation in place. To Pickens, segregation truly was subjugation.
How could African Americans escape this subjugation? Marcus Garvey, the founder of the United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), preached voluntary separation. Born in Jamaica, Garvey (1887-1940) combined his international perspective with black nationalism, the belief in the need for African American political, economic, and social autonomy. Under him the UNIA urged African Americans to seek this independence by forming communities in places like Liberia, Sierra Leone, and the Ivory Coast. His message of independence and pride appealed to African Americans frustrated by the unmet promises of World War I. In the piece offered here, Garvey addresses white America, describing his desire to maintain "racial purity" by creating independent countries for people of African ancestry. "Will deep thinking and liberal white America help?" Garvey asks. If white Americans don't help, they're in for some trouble. Garvey threatens "riots, lynching, and mob rule,"—or worse, a black president—if the groups like the NAACP achieve their program of social equality. Statements like this show how Garvey's unique brand of black nationalism put him at odds with other black leaders of the time. He scoffed at the core idea of the growing civil rights movement—that with some convincing, white Americans would change their laws and minds to permit African Americans to live among them as equals. David Van Leeuwen's article, "Marcus Garvey and the Universal Negro Improvement Association" offers a convenient overview of Garvey's movement along with advice on how to teach it. Van Leeuwen notes important similarities between Garvey's message and that of Malcolm X. (18 pages.)
- What is the difference between segregation and separation?
- What effects does segregation have on the black community?
- What does Pickens's article suggest about segregation's effect on the white psyche?
- According to Pickens, why can't separate institutions be equal?
- What is the "Negro problem," according to Garvey?
- Compare Garvey's beliefs about social equality with those of Booker T. Washington, W. E. B. Du Bois, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X.
- Why did Garvey seek the support of white Americans?
- How do we make sense of Garvey's talk of "the brotherhood of man" and his efforts to create a separate black territory?
- What might the United States be like had Garvey's vision of race relations been widely accepted?
- How do we reconcile Pickens's argument that the race problem is the greatest where segregation is the greatest with Garvey's argument that the race problem is a consequence of integration?
||What constitutes segregation?|
||How did African Americans experience it?|
||What is the difference between segregation and separation?|
||What are the consequences of segregation? Separation?||
|Pickens: || 6
|Garvey: || 5|
|Van Leeuwen: || 8|
|TOTAL ||19 pages|
William Pickens, The Heir of Slaves: An Autobiography, 1911, in Documenting the American South, from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Library
William Pickens, "The Kind of Democracy the Negro Expects," address, 1919, in blackpast.org, from Dr. Quintard Taylor, University of Washington-Seattle
The Marcus Garvey and Universal Negro Improvement Association Papers Project, from the UCLA African Studies Center
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Image: Drinking fountain on the county courthouse lawn, Halifax, North Carolina, April 1933. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division.