“Our affiliation with the UNIA was brought about after a thorough understanding that its principles and ideals sought the universal cooperation of Negroes everywhere, and in every line of endeavor.”
by Lyon Blyden
2nd President of Buffalo Division #79 Hon. Arthur L. Lewis
On the 17th of this month UNIA-ACL delegates from Division #433 in Buffalo visited Garveyites from the Toronto Chapter to raise the UNIA-ACL flag at Toronto City Hall. Division Chaplain Dewitt Lee, Emancipation Month Canada and many other local PanAfrican groups came together to organize a beautiful event. The highlight of the event was a visit from Dr. Julius Garvey who was able to participate in this show of universal cooperation on his father’s birthday. A commemorative plaque was unveiled for the former UNIA Hall located on College St.
At one time, millions of Black Americans, and Africans throughout the diaspora, had a “thorough understanding” of the “principles and ideals” that accompanied the colors Red, Black and Green. It was once clearly understood when one was seen wearing these colors or waving the UNIA-ACL flag, that this was a Garveyite. This term was not designated for those who simply liked the colors, attended a few meetings, or agreed with a few quotes from our first President General. Very specifically, this term was, and is designated for members in good standing with the UNIA-ACL Government of the World, as established in 1920.
When President General Marcus Garvey would come to Buffalo to speak, he would be welcomed by the 500-1000 members of Division #79. The pageantry would include a parade of Garveyites all presenting their colors proudly. Black Cross Nurses in all white, the Motor Corps and African Legion marching in step. The Junior Division would greet him in their colorful uniforms, as he and National Organizer Henrietta Vinton Davis, would march to the stage. What was this “thorough understanding” that these Garveyites had?
Researching the origins of the flag and colors show a series of events that culminated in its creation. First, we note the history of Africans as being portrayed as a lower class no matter where we were in the early 1900’s. The Arabic and TransAtlantic slave trades had decimated our people world wide, lynchings and Jim Crow was in full effect.
There was a multitude of racist literature, music and imagery depicting our people as less than human. One that stands out as key to this discussion was ‘Every race has a flag but the coon,’ a song written by Heelan and Helf. An ad called it “A musical hit” in a 1901 Chicago Daily Tribune issue. The New York Times in 1902 had an ad calling the song “One of his greatest hits in April.” It was at this time that Garvey was traveling through Europe, South and Central America and parts of the West Indies, learning and forming relationships. He recalls in his letter from Tombs prison: “My doom, if I may so call it, of being a race leader dawned upon me… I asked, Where is the Black man’s Government? Where is his King and his kingdom? Where is his President, his country, and his ambassador, his army, his navy, his men of big affairs? I could not find them, and then I declared, ‘I will help to make them!’ “
He went on to develop his philosophy and the original structure of the UNIA in Jamaica in 1914..
By 1918, he and 13 officers established the UNIA-ACL in New York. During this time of development an event occurred that was too much for the Garveyites who witnessed it’s aftermath to ignore.
As the tale goes, in the summer of 1919 the body of a 17 year old Black girl was found. She had been brutalized, raped and her body dissected. She was thought to have been the servant of a White couple, who were arrested for the crime, but later released. It was at this site that Rabbi Josiah Ford drafted the unofficial 4th verse of the Universal Ethiopian National Anthem:
Oh, her RED blood they spill’d on the meadow,
Shall always be dear to me;
Her BLACK form that laid on the meadow,
Cried out, “Africa must be free.”
The red and the black tearful given
The GREEN grass did tenderly screen,
And the rain fell, bright teardrops from heaven,
On the Red and the Black and the Green.
In 1920 at the infamous UNIA-ACL Convention, via Declaration #39, it was resolved the colors Red, Black and Green be the colors of this Nation. With the unanimous support of over 20,000 delegates, the Flag of our Nation was created. In a 1921 speech, Garvey gave one of the most influential quotes in all of modern Black history. “Show me the race or the nation without a flag, and I will show you a race of people without any pride. Aye! In song and mimicry they have said, ‘Every race has a flag but the coon.’ How true! Aye! But that was said of us four years ago. They can’t say it now…!”
So we must be clear about the “thorough understanding” of the “principles and ideals” behind the colors of the UNIA-ACL. We must collectively respect the Garveyite commitment to forming and maintaining “a government, a nation of our own, strong enough to lend protection to the members of our race scattered all over the world, and to compel the respect of the nations and races of the earth.” (Garvey 1922)