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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Forgotten Man Shaped Africa With His Words




At one point in Time magazine's Person of the Century poll, Adolf Hitler led the pack with 21 percent of the vote. Pope John Paul II was third, Mohandas Gandhi fourth and Martin Luther King Jr. fifth.


Who was in second place, with 19 percent? Elvis Presley. Only in the United States of Daffydom could Presley even be on the list at all. Not that he didn't achieve anything. He was a Mississippi white boy who got in touch with his Negro side and, in so doing, helped millions of his white countrymen get in touch with theirs. But whatever his achievements, Elvis was part of the sordid history of white musicians and businessmen ripping off black America's musical legacy for their own aggrandizement.


Elvis died 22 years ago on Aug. 16. Perhaps there is a touch of irony in the date of Elvis' death. He died one day before the birthday of Marcus Garvey, a man who should have been on Time magazine's list but didn't make it.


Americans - black, white, Hispanic, Asian - are a notoriously provincial lot. Only an American mind could place Elvis Presley as the No. 2 Person of the Century but leave Marcus Garvey off the list.


For those of you who want to know who Garvey was, the short answer is that he had just as much impact this century as Hitler and Gandhi. Garvey led the greatest mass movement of black people America has ever known. The Universal Negro Improvement Association was nationalist in outlook and international in scope and influence. At one point his organization had chapters in Cuba, Panama, Trinidad, Costa Rica, South Africa, and the Gold Coast - today known as Ghana.


Nervous British colonial officials tried to ban the UNIA's newspaper - Negro World - from its Caribbean and African colonies. The paper was downright incendiary, the Brits feared, and they blamed its contents for uprisings in Dahomey, Kenya, British Honduras, Trinidad and Cuba. Two African students named Kwame Nkrumah and Jomo Kenyatta were inspired by Garvey to return home and start the first campaigns to end British colonialism in Africa. Nkrumah became the first prime minister of Ghana, Kenyatta the first head of state in Kenya.


That is the clearest evidence of Garvey's influence. It is because of him, more than any other person, that the map of the African continent today shows independent nations free of European colonialism. That should put him ahead of Elvis, who changed our listening habits, and King, who helped change U.S. civil rights laws. It is a rare person who - through organizational, oratorical and editorial skill - can change the map of an entire continent.


Gregory Kane contributed this comment to The Baltimore Sun. Juliet Butler is on vacation. Growing Pains will resume next week.