In those last weeks of his life, Garvey might have been caught off guard by the surprisingly balanced coverage of papers such as the New York Times, the Daily Worker and the Chicago Defender. Back in the 1920s the Chicago Defender had led a pack of Negro papers in shrilly denouncing Garvey as a menace and disgrace to the black race. Now, on 10 June 1940, the Defender wrote: ‘Endowed with a dynamic personality, with unmatched oratorical gift, Garvey was easily the most colourful figure to have appeared in America since Frederick Douglass and Booker T.Washington. From 1914 to 1921 he dominated the scene with … the powerful Universal Negro Improvement Association. Had Garvey succeeded in his undertakings, he would have been incontestably the greatest figure of the 20th century. Having failed, he is considered a fool.’
A whiff of hypocrisy rose from its pages as it was the Defender’s London correspondent, George Padmore, who had initially spread the rumour of Garvey’s death. Amongst the small circle of exiled Caribbean intellectuals in 1930s London, the rising stars, George Padmore and C.L.R James, had mounted a running campaign against the older man, heckling him at Speakers’ Corner and at political meetings, and seizing every opportunity to harass and pour scorn upon his head. In the 1920s, J. Edgar Hoover had considered Marcus Garvey to be one most dangerous black men in America, but by the time of his death Garvey had retreated from the radicalism and militancy that the FBI boss had so feared. Garvey’s critics in London could not forgive his sharp turn to the right, nor his denunciation of Emperor Haile Selassie for fleeing Ethiopia during the Italian invasion of 1935.
If this tiny coterie of black intellectuals in London, including Garvey, had paused to reflect, they would have realised that they shared a commonality of purpose. Instead, they circled round each other in a narcissistic battle of minor differences. Theirs was a mirror of the many skirmishes Garvey had fought with other black leaders in Jamaica and Harlem throughout his unusual career.
C L R James came publicly to regret his role in Marcus Garvey’s final demise, but it would take two decades before Garvey’s label as a fool was replaced officially with a badge of honour.3 In 1964, Edward Seaga (a future Prime Minister of Jamaica) arranged for Garvey’s remains to be returned for a state funeral and for the visionary, the man they called the Black Moses, to be honoured as Jamaica’s first national hero and one of the most radical and enigmatic figures in 20th century history.