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It’s time to tell the story of Black success, not Black victimhood

“Embracing the legacy of Marcus Garvey: Beyond Martin and Malcolm, let's remember the forgotten champion of Black self-determination. Robert Woodson Sr. and John Sibley Butler shed light on Garvey's vision, from Pan-Africanism to economic empowerment. Today, the Woodson Center and Hidden Star initiative continue the mission, supporting Black entrepreneurs who seek self-reliance, not handouts. It's time to rewrite the narrative—celebrating Black victory, not victimhood. Join the movement for thriving Black enterprise!”


When we remember great black American leaders of the 20th century, we think of Martin and Malcolm. But for far too long, we’ve forgotten about Marcus.

And among those who do remember Marcus Garvey, too few know his real legacy. To some, he was a “Black Moses” who tried and ultimately failed to initiate a radical “back-to-Africa” movement that would unite all Black people under one government.

To others, he was a prophet who foretold the victory of anti-colonialist movements throughout Africa and the diaspora.

But Garvey’s true significance for America today is as one of the first and most successful champions of Black self-determination, exhorting Black Americans to become agents of their own uplift.

He was the first leader to reach and motivate masses of low-income Black men and women with a vision of independence, pride and enterprise.

Even Garvey’s Pan-Africanism was as much about personal empowerment as it was imperial ambition.

He encouraged Blacks to see Africa as a spiritual homeland; not a “dark continent” but a land of great civilizations they could celebrate with pride.

His followers’ modest financial contributions and infectious zeal helped build Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) into an international organization with hundreds of thousands of members in a matter of years.


Garvey was a West Indian immigrant whose vision and principles were akin to those of the American founding.

The “Declaration of the Rights of the Negro Peoples of the World,” proclaimed by UNIA in 1920, can be seen as the intellectual bridge between America’s own Declaration of Independence and the post-World War II independence movements throughout the colonial world, including Garvey’s native Jamaica.

The story of his rise and ultimate betrayal by the civil rights establishment is one of the greatest and most tragic in our history. Garvey could be biting in his criticism of groups such as the NAACP, which had more political clout but far fewer rank-and-file members than UNIA.

In response, leaders including A. Philip Randolph and W.E.B. DuBois denounced Garvey as a demagogue.

Their “Garvey Must Go!” movement, along with the efforts of a hostile young Justice Department investigator named J. Edgar Hoover, effectively ended Garvey’s public career.

He was convicted on trumped-up mail fraud charges and deported as an undesirable alien. Garvey’s enemies saw that his message of economic development put their own influence and livelihoods at risk.

Like the hero of his youth, Booker T. Washington, Garvey recognized that a race-grievance industry that thrives on white guilt is threatened by approaches that stress Black self-determination.

And this political tension endures today: Should Black Americans pursue enterprise as a principled means of delivering themselves from poverty, or commit themselves to profiting off the troubled conscience of white liberals?

We’re living with the results of the “white guilt” model.

Black America has gone from the self-determination of the Garvey era to self-extermination of the present; our communities are wracked by senseless violence and deprived of real, community-based solutions in favor of federal-level programs.

Black schools, which a century ago were capable of outperforming their white counterparts in major cities such as New York and Washington, now struggle to educate at all.

Systemic racism is not the cause of this crisis in low-income, predominantly Black neighborhoods, but rather, systemic betrayal by those governing officials who look like, but don’t look out for, those they serve.

Meanwhile, massive nonprofit organizations get rich off a sea of well-meaning, ill-informed donors who believe their dollars somehow help defeat racism.

But what have these organizations actually built with this windfall? Nothing. In its heyday, both the national leadership and, more importantly, local chapters of UNIA tried their hand at building a dizzying number of business and civic projects, many of which flourished at the neighborhood level.

Unfortunately, Garvey was a great visionary but a disastrous administrator; his poor stewardship only helped his persecutors.

But Garvey’s ideals and the work of UNIA energized a generation of “New Negroes” capable of success in the face of open racism and economic hardship. Garvey’s solutions worked then and they work now.


The Woodson Center is proud to have lent its support to thousands of Black men and women who are agents of their own uplift.

They start and run businesses and community projects that make their neighborhoods, families and businesses safer, more prosperous and more stable. They aren’t victims; they’re entrepreneurs.

The Hidden Star equity initiative is similarly committed to offering financial resources for would-be entrepreneurs.

The men and women who will transform vulnerable communities don’t want a million-dollar handout; they want a couple of lawn mowers, some software, or some help starting their restaurant.

They want safe streets and a chance to make something of themselves.

Garvey’s vision provided hope for poverty-stricken Black communities all over America — and the world.

Hope that they could help themselves, that they could respect themselves. And his hope has been vindicated.

It’s time to tell the story of Black victory, not Black victimhood.

It’s time to build a future where Black Americans have the independence, optimism and pride Garvey saw for them: A future of thriving Black enterprise.

Robert Woodson Sr. is founder and president of the Woodson Center, the editor of “Red, White, and Black: Rescuing American History From Revisionists and Race Hustlers” and author of “Lessons From the Least of These: The Woodson Principles.”

Follow him on Twitter @BobWoodson. John Sibley Butler is the J. Marion West Chair in Constructive Capitalism and professor of management and sociology at the University of Texas at Austin. Follow him on Twitter @JohnSibButler.

Black Wall St. MediaContributor

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