The Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) had at least thirty-four divisions in Georgia during the early to mid-1920s.
Black Georgians read its newspaper, the Negro World, and contributed generously to many UNIA causes. The UNIA’s Jamaican founder, Marcus Garvey, had a significant following in the South, particularly in rural areas among tenant farmers and sharecroppers, for his programs of economic independence, racial separatism, and African redemption. His ideas also found strong support in urban areas with large Black populations, in the Caribbean, and in Africa.
Oscar C. Kelly of Dawson and C. L. Halton of Baxley were early organizers for Garvey’s group in Georgia. In 1920 both Black men attended the UNIA’s first international convention, held in Harlem in New York City, and signed the “Declaration of Rights of the Negro Peoples of the World,” which was composed at that seminal meeting. The UNIA’s Leader of American Negroes, the Reverend J. W. H. Eason of North Carolina, organized several areas in the southernmost part of Georgia during 1921, with the help of Brunswick’s F. W. Ware, the designated state organizer. Black clergymen played an important role in promoting and organizing UNIA divisions in Georgia. Brunswick hosted one of the largest divisions in the state; its membership had grown to 600 by the beginning of 1921.
Georgia UNIA divisions formed in Adel, Alma, Atlanta, Baker County, Baxley, Brunswick, Camilla, Center Hill (Colquitt County), Charity Grove (Worth County), Clyatville, Columbus, Coverdale, Damascus, Decatur, Fitzgerald, Gardi, Haylow, Howell, Jesup, Kimbrough (Webster County), Limerick, Moultrie, Oakfield, Patterson, Pelham, Pooler, Powellton (Worth County), Ray City, Savannah, Shingler, Sylvester, Ty Ty, and Waycross.
Southwest Georgia, the heart of the state’s Black Belt, held the highest concentration of organizations promoting the ideals of Garveyism. Worth County contained five divisions, the most of any Georgia county. The Reverend Eason drew a crowd of 10,000 for a UNIA rally outside of Pelham in May 1922.
Garvey first visited Georgia in March 1917 to raise money for a UNIA-sponsored school for industrial education in Jamaica. By the time of his second appearance, Garvey had vastly expanded his plans and organization to include stock sales in the Black-owned Black Star Steamship Line, a vast program of economic uplift, the promotion of racial pride and separatism, and the wresting of Africa from the control of white imperialist nations. The most salient of these goals to Blacks in rural Georgia were the ideas of racial separatism and the redemption of Africa.
Other important visits to Atlanta during Garvey’s career included a highly controversial meeting with the Ku Klux Klan’s acting imperial wizard, Edward Young Clarke, in 1922. Garvey described the private meeting in detail to an audience of confused supporters in Harlem. The text of this address was later transcribed in the Negro World. According to Garvey, both leaders agreed that sexual relations between the races and miscegenation, or the mixing of the races, were repugnant. Garvey sought Clarke’s approval of Black men’s efforts to prevent such relationships, even if it required using force against whites. This uncorroborated explanation won over most southern UNIA supporters but permanently alienated most of America’s Black leaders of the day.
A few years later, Garvey spent almost three years in the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary after a conviction for mail fraud. In 1927 his five-year sentence was commuted by U.S. president Calvin Coolidge, and he was deported to Jamaica. The UNIA in Georgia faded after his departure, but the ideals of Garveyism, such as pride in Blackness and a tendency to rely on self-defense rather than legal protection, persisted. Cynicism about white leadership for Black organizations also influenced later strategies for the human rights struggle that Blacks faced in subsequent decades.
Garvey moved to London, England, in 1935 and died there on June 10, 1940. He is buried in the National Heroes Park in Kingston, Jamaica.