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Erik Gleibermann | Students can share in MLK-Garvey legacy

Published:Friday | March 30, 2018 | 12:00 AM

Ask someone from the United States to name my country's connection to Jamaica and you'll probably hear about two things: music and sports. My fellow American music enthusiasts might mention Damian Marley's recent collaboration with Jay-Z, while athletic fans might predict Allyson Felix will defeat Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce in the 2020 Olympic 100m final.

We Americans appreciate such popular culture bonds, but we are not able to appreciate - because our schools do not teach it - the history of a deeper social-justice connection between our countries.

April 4 marks the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King's tragic death. King is the leader US students of all races consistently name as the greatest hero in US history. But virtually no US student could tell you that King visited Jamaica in 1965 and publicly extolled your great national hero, Marcus Garvey. Laying a wreath on the leader's grave, King declared, "Garvey was the first man of colour in the history of the United States to give millions of Negroes a sense of dignity and destiny." The aspiration these two inspirational leaders shared is something American and Jamaican students deserve to learn about.


Struggle for Self-worth


We know King primarily for leading concrete struggles to end segregation, eradicate racial discrimination and secure voting rights for black Americans, but King also spoke of the struggle for self-worth that was Garvey's hallmark. In words that could easily be taken for Garvey's, King encouraged every African-American to "boldly throw off the manacles of self-abnegation and say to himself and to the world, I am somebody. I am a person. I am a man with dignity and honour. I have a rich and noble history." I wonder whether King might have kept Garvey in his thoughts during the last three years of his tireless struggle that ended April 4, 1968, when he sacrificed his life.

While visiting Jamaica recently on a journalistic assignment, I spent three days at Waldensia Primary School in Trelawny where Usain Bolt once ran the grounds. I had a class of sixth-graders vote on who they considered the greatest Jamaican and the greatest American hero. The results impressed me. Mr Garvey actually tied Mr Bolt. In the American ballot, Dr King won handily. I then shared King's quote honouring Garvey and we talked about what it means to be a hero.

Several days later, third-formers at Kingston's Mona High School chose almost identically in the same exercise. Garvey was the decided Jamaican winner, while King edged out Barack Obama and Abraham Lincoln, two other leaders who have embodied the dreams of black Americans. It seems students already sense the connection between Garvey and King. Our opportunity is to make it explicit.

In my former years teaching high-school history in San Francisco, I rarely spoke of Garvey. I didn't learn about the King quote until my recent visit to the island. Jamaican readers might wonder how an American teacher in California could make Garvey seem relevant to students three time zones and four generations away. But black students appreciate learning that the very term they use to dignify their racial identification, African-American, can be traced to Garvey's Back to Africa message.

The current superhero blockbuster Black Panther is a futuristic Garveyesque vision, where characters speak in South African Xhosa and the Jabari tribe characters wear hairstyles inspired by Senegalese warriors. But they're not making an unprecedented fashion statement. Young American and Jamaican female students often braid their hair in elaborate Nubian twists and other designs.

In the rich racial array of American schools, the 16 per cent of the country's students who are black will likely connect more easily with Garvey than white, Latino and Asian students, but Garvey can speak to nearly everyone. The US is a nation of immigrants separated from former homelands, while Jamaica, too, has its immigrant story, reflected in your motto 'Out of Many, One People'.


Reconnecting to Lost Roots


Chosen immigration should not be paralleled to enslavement, but many of us in our differing ways can grow similarly by reconnecting to lost roots, whether in Africa or another continent. As a third-generation Russian Jew, I can imagine Garvey urging me to look back and reclaim my East European ancestry.

We Americans sometimes have an egocentric tendency to think other countries should follow our models and not the other way around. Visiting Jamaican schools, I enjoyed reversing the script by sharing the surprising truth that my country's hero saw your country's hero as a spiritual mentor.

In 1922, Garvey declared, "The man, the race of nation that is not prepared to risk life itself for the possession of an ideal, shall lose that ideal." King risked and gave his life for an ideal. Both Americans and Jamaicans 50 years later honour his martyrdom. When King gave his final "I have been to the mountaintop" speech the night before we lost him, he could have been answering his forbear when he impelled us "to give ourselves to this struggle until the end".

- Erik Gleibermann is a social-justice educator and writer in San Francisco. He has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian and other publications. Email feedback to and