Thu | Aug 13, 2020

Carolyn Cooper | Garvey’s 1920 convention took New York by storm

Published:Sunday | August 2, 2020 | 12:24 AM

A century ago, Marcus Garvey’s legendary convention of the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League opened in Harlem, New York, on August 1. Emancipation Day in the West Indies was a most appropriate date for the inauguration. Fifty-five years after the abolition of slavery in the US, Garvey fully understood that the aftermath of this depraved institution was deadly. He knew that the liberation of black people from the shackles of racism was an ongoing battle that required collective action.

Garvey conceived the assembly as “The First International Convention of the Negro Peoples of the World”. Approximately two thousand delegates from twenty-two countries attended. The congress was a grand affair lasting for the entire month. On the opening day, there was a spectacular parade. Four mounted police led the procession. Next came the first vice-president of the Black Star Line Steamship Corporation and the secretary of the Negro Factories Corporation, also on horseback. A host of UNIA dignitaries followed in cars, chief among them Marcus Garvey and Gabriel Johnson, mayor of Monrovia, the capital of Liberia.

Then came the foot soldiers. There was the Black Star Line Choir; the Philadelphia Legion; the Philadelphia UNIA band; the Black Cross nurses resplendent in their white uniforms; and UNIA representatives from countries such as Jamaica, The Virgin Islands, Panama, St Lucia, Barbados, Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana, Canada and Nigeria. Approximately 500 cars followed – two mounted police brought up the rear. New York had never seen pageantry like this.


The parade was not just about pomp and ceremony. The placards confirmed the militancy of the Garvey movement: “Down With Lynching”; “Africa Must Be Free”; “The New Negro Has No Fear”; “Toussaint L’Ouverture Was an Abler Soldier Than Napoleon”; “What Will England Do In Africa”? There was this declaration of universal freedom: “The New Negro Wants Liberty, 400,000,000 Black Men Shall Be Free”. In 1920, only Liberia and Ethiopia were independent African countries. Haiti was the first black-led republic.

On the evening of August 1, there was a mass meeting at Madison Square Garden (MSG). Built in 1890, it was the second incarnation of the venue which hosted events such as boxing matches, operas and circuses. The 1924 Democratic National Convention was held there. The main hall, which was the biggest in the world, had permanent seating for 8,000 and floor space for thousands more. More than 25,000 people attended Garvey’s mass meeting.

The choice of Madison Square Garden for the opening of the convention signified the broad scope of Garvey’s vision. Last week, I invited MSG to consider acknowledging the historic event on their website. Garvey’s mission for the liberation of black people anticipated the Black Lives Matter movement. I also asked about the cost of renting the venue in 1920. I got a polite response, but no information.


One of the major accomplishments of the 1920 convention was the adoption of “The Declaration of the Rights of the Negro Peoples of the World” which had 54 statements. The first was, “That nowhere in the world, with few exceptions, are black men accorded equal treatment with white men, although in the same situation and circumstances, but, on the contrary, are discriminated against and denied the common rights due to human beings for no other reason than their race and colour”.

The final statement was, “We want all men to know that we shall maintain and contend for the freedom and equality of every man, woman and child of our race, with our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honour.

“These rights we believe to be justly ours and proper for the protection of the Negro race at large, and because of this belief we, on behalf of the four hundred million Negroes of the world, do pledge herein the sacred blood of the race in defence, and we hereby subscribe our names as a guarantee of the truthfulness and faithfulness hereof, in the presence of Almighty God, on this 13th day of August, in the year of our Lord one thousand nine hundred and twenty”.

The 39th statement was, “That the colours, Red, Black and Green, be the colours of the Negro race”. They were incorporated in the Pan-African flag. Garvey once declared, “Show me the race or the nation without a flag, and I will show you a race of people without any pride.” The Pan-African flag contested the mocking lyrics of the white American racists Will A. Heelan and J. Fred Helf who composed the minstrel song, Every Race Has a Flag but the Coon. That contemptuous term for black people is lodged in the psyche of white racists.

The chorus of the despicable song, which was popular on both sides of the Atlantic, names an array of nations whose unfurled flags proclaim incontestable political power. By contrast, the demeaning symbols on the ideal flag for the Coon would include a chicken, poker dice, a possum, a pork chop, a hambone and a banjo.

The lyrics of the song, Worth His Weight In Gold (Rally Round), composed by David Hinds, lead singer of Steel Pulse, define the meaning of the three colours, as well as the gold of the Ethiopian flag that has been appropriated by Rastafari:

Marcus say sir Marcus say

Red for the blood

That flowed like the river

Marcus say sir Marcus say

Green for the land Africa

Marcus say

Yellow for the gold

That they stole

Marcus say

Black for the people

It was looted from

The independent nation of Ghana adopted the Pan-African flag, inserting a black star. The Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League became a guiding star for Africans on the continent and in the diaspora who demanded the right to collective political power. The call to “rally round the flag” is an affirmation of a global African identity that transcends geographical boundaries. A century ago and no less now!

- Carolyn Cooper, PhD, is a specialist on culture and development. Email feedback to and