August 17 will mark the 128th birthday of Marcus Mosiah Garvey, the visionary Jamaican-born leader who built the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League (UNIA-ACL) into the largest mass movement for liberation in the history of Africans in America and perhaps the world. As such, I have long advocated that August 17, his birthday, be celebrated as Universal African Flag Day.
An unapologetic Pan-Africanist, Garvey believed that Black people everywhere should unite and fight to liberate Africa, the motherland, from the brutal clutches of European colonialism – Africa should be the base for global Black Power. Hence he said, “I know no national boundary where the Negro is concerned. The whole world is my province until Africa is free.”
At a time when people of African descent were besieged, belittled, marginalized, exploited and oppressed everywhere, Garvey sought to instill a sense of pride in the history and heritage of a great people, noting that: “A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.” He declared that “God and Nature first made us what we are, and then out of our own created genius we make ourselves what we want to be… Let the sky and God be our limit and Eternity our measurement.”
Garvey was determined to rally a beleaguered people and mold them into a formidable force committed to self-reliance, self-determination and nationhood. The UNIA was organized like a nation in-waiting with military, economic/commercial, educational, health, religious and administrative divisions. He also created literature, music, images and symbols, designed to promote pride and unity. For example, the Universal Ethiopian Anthem was adopted as the official song of the organization.
But, the most powerful and lasting symbol of unity that Garvey presented and bequeathed to African people was a flag – red, black and green. Garvey was keenly aware of the psycho-cultural value of symbols to an oppressed/battered people. The impetus to put forth a flag became even more urgent because of the White supremacist song that became very popular in the early part of the 20th century – “Every Race Has a Flag but the Coon.”
The red, black and green was officially ratified as the flag for African people at the 1920 UNIA Convention that led Garvey to proclaim: “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….”
The colors of the flag were meant to have significance for Black/African people globally. Red, for the blood and suffering of African people; Black for the color and culture of our people; Green, for the land stolen from us that we will reclaim to build our nation. The red, black and green flag was meant to be a symbol of Pan African Unity. Indeed, the influence of Garvey was such that the colors appear in the flags of Malawi, Kenya and Ghana in Africa and St. Kitts and Nevis in the Caribbean.
In the 1960s, when Black Power, Black nationalism and Pan Africanism reemerged as a dominant force in the Black freedom struggle in the U.S., the Red, Black and Green was frequently in full flourish at rallies and demonstrations. And, it was common to see sisters and brothers with buttons, hats, scarves and clothing with the colors of the flag in the design. The colors of the Black Liberation Flag, as it came to be known, were in. It was a symbol of Black pride, unity, resistance and the struggle for self-determination and independence.
I wrote an article years ago proposing that Garvey’s birthday be declared Universal African Flag Day. I noted that in New York on the day of the Puerto Rican Day Parade, the Puerto Rican flag is on prominent display throughout the city. The same applies for the Parades of Dominicans, Colombians and other Latino nationalities in New York. And, at some of the largest pro-immigration reform demonstrations a few years ago there was a sea of Mexican Flags – so much so that it provoked a backlash by opponents of reform, who labeled the demonstrators un-American.
My initial calls for Garvey’s birthday to be declared Universal African Flag Day, as an act of Kujichagulia/Self-determination, did not get much traction. But, sparked by the Black Lives Matter Movement, there is a new spirit of resistance in the air.
I am renewing the call for August 17th to be affirmed as Universal African Flag Day. It is only appropriate that we request that President Obama exonerate Marcus Garvey of the trumped up charges of which he was convicted as one of the first victims of the FBI. Marcus Garvey’s life and legacy matter to Black/African people. Therefore, we are obligated to fight to clear his name. So, sisters and brothers let’s do it. Fly the Flag and Fight for the Exoneration of Marcus Garvey! #FlytheRedBlackandGreenAugust17
Ron Daniels is President of the Institute of the Black World 21st Century and Distinguished Lecturer at York College City University of New York.To send a message, arrange media interviews or speaking engagements, he can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org .