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When we think about the Harlem Renaissance, the arts come immediately to mind. But new political theories were also blossoming during this time. We've talked about Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois, but today we'll get into some other thinkers with different ideas about civil rights, fair labor practices, and Black nationalism.

Clint's book, How the Word is Passed is available now!

Angela Davis, Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude ‘Ma’ Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday (New York: Pantheon Books, 1998).
Keisha N. Blain, Set the World on Fire: Black Nationalist Women and the Global Struggle for Freedom (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018).
Cheryl Wall, Women of the Harlem Renaissance (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995).
Adam Ewing, Age of Garvey: How a Jamaican Activist Created a Mass Movement and Changed Global Black Politics (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2014).
Deborah Gray White; Mia Bay; Waldo E. Martin Jr, Freedom on My Mind: A history of African Americans, with Documents 3rd Edition (Macmillan, 2021).

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Hi, I'm Clint Smith, and this is Crash Course: Black American History, and today we're continuing our exploration of the Harlem Renaissance. In our last episode, we talked about the proliferation of Black artistry across the Harlem Renaissance. Over a million Black people migrated to the North and changed the cultural landscape of New York and other Northern cities, but the Harlem Renaissance wasn't just about the books, the musicians, the singers, and the dancers. It was also about the larger political messages that were conveyed both on the stage and on the page.

As we've discussed, while many contributors to the Harlem Renaissance were indeed artists, much of their work was deeply political, and many of their own political ideologies were shaped by other Black activists and intellectuals of the day. Today, we'll be focusing on those thinkers and activists. Let's start the show.

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Often, we revere the Harlem Renaissance as generally a fun time, full of artistic production, possibilities, and enlightenment, but being Black in early 20th century America was an undoubtedly rough time. Both the systemic and interpersonal manifestations of racism, even in the North, were everywhere. While they were able to create such beautiful work, many artists struggled, and very few could pursue their art full-time. They often worked in unstable and dangerous roles at industrial plants or on seaports, and often for lower wages than their white counterparts. This was the reality for Black folks in urban cities throughout the country. Many may have escaped the violence of the South, but they still had to deal with the enormous amount of injustice in the North.

One aspect of the Harlem Renaissance was the work of Black theorists

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and political thinkers, who debated the most effective ways to help Black communities. Many Northerners were not as keen on Booker T. Washington's rhetoric from the South, which propped up accommodation to segregation and the slow but steady aggregation of Black economic freedom through vocational labor.

Washington rose to prominence as a race leader as the 19th century came to a close, and he championed dignifying and glorifying common labor while remaining separate from white Americans, even if it meant having less rights than white people. But, as we've discussed before, recognizing that Washington was born into slavery and still lived in the South, his views prioritizing peace, safety, and calm seem more understandable.

Still, this class of New Negroes, as they described themselves at the time, just weren't down with any notions of accommodation, segregation, or having to wait for their freedom. Northern labor activist A. Philip Randolph and economist Chandler Owen took time to define what the New Negro was looking for in "The Messenger," an independent magazine they founded in 1917.

They described the New Negro as uncompromising when it came to political equality and universal suffrage, and because economic mobility was difficult for Black Americans, Randolph and Owen also proposed that the New Negro be afforded the same protection through labor unions that their white counterparts had and that they wouldn't have to be exploited by people trying to price gouge them for things that they needed to survive.

During this era, New York City became home to the headquarters of major organizations for Black liberation, like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which was founded in 1909, and the National Urban League, which was founded in 1911. These groups were heavily involved in grassroots activism to combat discrimination and segregation.

The 1920s were the golden era

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for the National Urban League. Under the direction of Executive Secretary Eugene K. Jones, the group boycotted businesses that refused to hire Black people and put pressure on city schools to provide training for Black workers.

The 1920s were also a time of major growth for the NAACP. At the start of the decade, they appointed James Weldon Johnson as the organization's first Black executive secretary and, with his leadership, increased their membership to 100,000 people and 300 chapters nationwide. Meanwhile, Walter White, who would eventually himself become the executive secretary of the organization, investigated lynchings in the South, often passing as white, in the NAACP's unsuccessful effort to pass a national anti-lynching bill.

But the NAACP did win some important victories. In 1917, in Buchanan v. Warley, it convinced the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn city ordinances mandating where Blacks could and couldn't live. In 1926, the Association was also able to successfully defend Ossian Sweet, a Black physician from Detroit, from murder charges after an attack on his home.

Another important moment for Black Americans came with the creation of Negro History Week in 1926. The predecessor to Black History Month, Negro History Week was the brainchild of Carter G. Woodson, who received his PhD in History from Harvard in 1912, becoming only the second Black person to receive a PhD from Harvard, after W.E.B. Du Bois. Woodson was adamant about treating African American history and culture as formal fields of study. Along with other activists, he charged schools and organizations to use this week in February to highlight and honor African American contributions. In the early 1970s, the week extended into a month-long celebration. In 1976, it became federally recognized.

But of all the organizations enacting fresh and exciting initiatives to achieve equal rights for Black people,

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the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) was the largest and most militant. Marcus Garvey and his first wife Amy Ashwood Garvey founded the UNIA in Jamaica in 1914, but it failed to gain the traction that they hoped for in their native country.

Garvey immigrated to the U.S. and began doing public speaking in New York City. Garvey was known as what people would call a stepladder preacher, like he'd literally grab a stepladder and preach to anyone who'd listen in the streets of Harlem. Eventually, he was able to pull in mass support from the Black working class, and, in May of 1917, he launched the New York branch of the UNIA, basing the headquarters in Harlem.

The UNIA's militant weekly newspaper, the Negro World, began in 1918 and amassed more than 200,000 readers. Amy Jacques Garvey, Marcus Garvey's second wife, was the editor for the popular women's page and wrote articles that spoke specifically to the concerns of Black women. According to Marcus Garvey, who was known to sometimes exaggerate numbers, by 1922, the UNIA had amassed 1,000 chapters with 4 million members across the United States, Caribbean, Central America, Canada, and Africa, including the parents of the soon-to-be famous civil rights leader Malcolm X.

Marcus Garvey is an interesting figure in Black American history, to say the least, and his story is one that's worth digging into a little deeper. Let's go to the thought bubble.

Marcus Garvey was fueled by an ideology known as Pan-Africanism, which emphasizes the dispersal of African-descended people across the globe due to the transatlantic slave trade, and it's based on the idea that Black people dispersed everywhere across the world experience the same kind of issues, like oppression, and have the same interests, like freedom, and that Black people across the globe

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should join together in their collective fight for liberation. He believed in an end to colonial rule in Africa and the unification of people across the continent.

Garvey's approach differed from those of the NAACP and the National Urban League, organizations who were integrationists. Garvey believed that Black people should live separately from whites and that many of them should take it upon themselves to go back to Africa, where they would have enough land and resources to set up their own nation-state. This approach became known as Black nationalism.

Garvey's life and career were nothing short of animated. A famous photo of him wearing an Afro-centric headdress and military garb was taken at a parade up Lenox Avenue in Harlem. He authored his own Declaration of the Rights of Negro Peoples of the World, and, at the 1920 UNIA Convention, he declared himself the Provisional President of Africa. Garvey's large following and influence even prompted the hiring of the first Black FBI agent, who was tasked with infiltrating the UNIA. J. Edgar Hoover, who would later become the infamous director of the FBI, once referred to Garvey as the "notorious Negro Agitator." Thanks, thought bubble.

This emphasis on Black separatism also led Garvey to some pretty strange allies, like the racist Ku Klux Klan, who, in their own way, agreed with the idea of having Black people leaving the U.S. and settling somewhere else. This relationship, though, with the KKK, in addition to his pretty terrible views on mixed race people, made Garvey an even more divisive figure among other Black leaders. Some even launched a "Garvey Must Go" campaign, because they thought his alignment with the Klan was so abhorrent.

Still, the UNIA did engage in racial uplift and reform on American soil and, in doing so,

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focused their efforts on making conditions better for Black people here. And while the larger goal was creating a new nation-state, local units of the UNIA did cater to their communties' needs, addressing issues like voter registration, healthcare, education.

To help achieve the UNIA's founding member's dream of getting many Black Americans back to the motherland, the Black Star Line steamship company was developed in 1919. Using these ships to bring people to the continent, they helped to unite African-descended people from around the world in a shared place, but it was more than that. The BSL was also created with the intention of serving as an economic tool for Black folks, to give them a place in the global economy by using these ships to transport goods throughout the African diaspora and increase the value and influence of the Black dollar. Garvey wanted to foster the growth of a self-reliant and resilient global Black economy.

A weird thing about Garvey, though, is that, as much as he talked about Africa and how important it was for Black people to return there, some of his own views about African people were pretty terrible. He said that one of the reasons he wanted to get to the continent was to "assist in civilizing the backward tribes of Africa," which itself is a pretty backwards view.

Ultimately, Garvey would sell shares of the ship, which he named Phyllis Wheatley after the first Black American woman to publish a book of poetry, except he didn't actually own the ship, and this gave J. Edgar Hoover and his associates an opportunity to prosecute Garvey, something that they had long been trying to do. During the trial, Garvey fired his attorney and decided to represent himself, and it didn't go well. Garvey was convicted of mail fraud in 1923

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and was given a five-year sentence, and, in 1927, he was deported to his native Jamaica, and, with Garvey having been effectively exiled from the United States, the UNIA collapsed.

Despite the controversy surrounding Marcus Garvey's legacy, his impact has reverberated throughout history. He is credited with coining the phrase "Black is beautiful" and is a major figure in both the history of the Rastafarian movement and the Black Power movement.

The Harlem Renaissance was an historic, world-changing incubator of art and culture, and it existed alongside shifting political sensibilities in the Black community. And while not all Black people agreed on the tactics or even the end goal of their activism, what was clear was that, through art, through literature, through music, through politics, Black Americans were going to more forcefully assert themselves as people who deserved equal civil, social, and political rights. Thanks for watching; I'll see you next time.

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