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The importance of organizing in the Black community

Aswad Walker

Marcus Mosiah Garvey, arguably the greatest and most under-appreciated Black leader in history, said, “The greatest weapon used against the Negro is disorganization.”

Garvey, who organized and led the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), a Pan-Africanist movement in the 1920s that boasted over six million members globally, also stated and fully believed that “God is really on the side of the strongest peoples because God made all [people] equal and He never gave superior power to any one class or group of people over another, and anyone who can get the advantage over another is pleasing God.”

Both quotes are Garvey’s plea to Black people to get organized, and to work together through organizations because fighting against organized, institutionalized oppression and injustice can only be done via organized groups.

With the first quote, Garvey’s message and meaning is clear — if we’re disorganized, if we shun the work of getting organized, if we operate amid disorganization, we’re only hurting ourselves, our families and the causes and principles in which we believe.

The second quote may be a little less clear to some regarding its relationship with (dis)organization. What does Garvey mean when he says “God is really on the side of the strongest people?”

What he’s saying is, an organized people is a strong people. An organized people is a people who take seriously God’s charge in Genesis to “have dominion over all of God’s creation” (i.e. taking responsibility for). And the best way to do that is via organization — coming together, working together for common goals.

The challenges for us to heed this call are many. First, from our enslavement to this very day, society has sought to condition us against organization; against working together. We were taught and conditioned and rewarded daily for 246 years of enslavement, and even beyond, for not coming together. So, even if we may want to work together and organize for empowerment, that conditioning is still in us, and something we have to be aware of and actively fight to defeat.

Second, part of that conditioning to shun working together is the history of how this nation treats those women and men who dare work to bring our people together — to register us to vote, to create empowering educational curriculums, to speak truth to power and call out injustice.

Time and time again, we’ve seen the full weight of racist institutions (groups organized to do us harm) be brought down on Blacks willing to bring our people together.

We see how this society gunned down, imprisoned and defamed countless Black women, men and organizations. And we consciously or subconsciously tell ourselves, getting together with other Blackfolk to fight for causes is something not worth our time. It’s literally too dangerous.

Third, coming together to organize and work for a better community, a better education system, a better world, is hard work. It means we have to move out of our comfort zone, compromise, and confront ourselves and others. It means we have to willingly place ourselves in emotionally vulnerable positions if we’re going to really grow and connect with others.

Fourth, organizing and building organizations is thankless work. Oftentimes, the very people you’re giving your time and energy to organize for are the very people who don’t appreciate your commitment; who challenge you to give it up; who don’t believe your efforts will amount to anything. That can be disheartening.

Moreover, the way society is fashioned, the vast majority of us are on what my mentor calls “The Devil’s Treadmill.” We’re so caught up in the rat race of working ourselves to death at the job, coming home with just enough energy to eat and then go to sleep, and then wake up and start the process all over again. The bills, the debt, the stress, the overwork just to be underpaid, it’s literally designed to keep you so worn out that you have little or no time to devote to your own dreams or connecting with others.

All of these are daunting hurdles, but what’s the alternative? Either we come together and organize to create the world we want, or the world otherfolk want, the world that runs off our pain, will run over us.

But even with those many roadblocks, we whose ancestors gave the world, religion, art, science and civilization, have still been able to be world-changers and world-builders and overcomers. If we believe our children, families, communities, hopes, dreams and futures are worth it, we’ll put in whatever effort is necessary to join an organization and give real commitment, and to work through problems and drama to stick with it and stick together, rather than walking away and letting something potentially world-changing fall apart.

I believe we are worth the effort. And I absolutely believe that I’m not alone. Let’s organize, y’all.

Aswad Walker is a lecturer (adjunct professor) in the University of Houston’s African American Studies Department. This piece appeared in the Houston Defender May 5, 2024.

community organizing, Marcus Garvey, opinion