The Queen of Black Nationalism: the Story of Mittie Maude Lena Gordon


Black nationalism, despite offering a practical plan by which Black people can attain their freedom, is often criticized. Most of these criticisms, such as that Black nationalism is unrealistic, too radical, or that it is inherently violent, need not be too thoroughly addressed. This opposition is due to fear that empowered Black people will utilize their power like their oppressors have. Fortunately for everyone, Black people have no interest in dehumanization. We do have a strong interest in halting the dehumanization we experience, and we won’t stop working until we do, because we’re humans. 

Other criticisms are not so easily disposed of. Especially that one leveled by Black women: that nationalism relegates them to be oppressed within their own nation. In theory, it does not. Any true nationalist knows a nation is nothing without women: their needs and interests are one with the nation, because they are the nation. Black men need Black women, yes, and Black women need Black men. Without this balance the nation dies. Yet in practice, nationalism has relegated women to stand behind the men. Nationalism, long wrapped in Christian and Islamic theology, is viewed as sexist for its view of Black women as primarily homemakers and childbearers. Even after its secularization, Black nationalist organizations practiced sexism. Additionally, history has analyzed Black nationalism as a Black male project, overlooking the critical contributions made by women throughout the movement. 

Movements must grow and change; Black nationalism is no exception. There is no Black nationalism without Black women who are free to live how they choose. Black nationalism can bring that freedom, but only if nationalists commit themselves to building a Black community that is safe, equal, and loving to Black women. We can start by filling the void of Black nationalist women in the historical record and challenging political conventions with the inspiring story of Mittie Maude Lena Gordon. 

Universal Negro Improvement Association: the Root of Nationalism 

Before Mitte Maude Lena Gordon’s work can be approached, the course and mission of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) must first be clearly understood. The UNIA was a mass organization founded by Marcus Garvey in 1914 in Kingston, Jamaica. Its mission was to develop African people everywhere. Garvey’s charisma and rare message of African solidarity, self-sufficiency, and pride resonated deeply with Black people in the United States, especially throughout northern urban ghettos, and they helped him build the largest Black nationalist organization to date. 

Mittie Maude Lena Gordon, born in 1889 in post-Reconstruction Louisiana, was immediately drawn to the UNIA and Garvey’s message of African identity and power. She was homeschooled by her father, who emphasized in his teachings a love for herself, her people, and Africa. Throughout her childhood, she experienced firsthand the powerlessness of Black people throughout the south as her father, a preacher, traveled from state to state for church events. At the tender age of nine, she even witnessed a lynching. These experiences coupled with a strong, historically accurate self-identity, eventually led Gordon to join the UNIA as a young woman after moving to Chicago during the first Great Migration. 

Unfortunately, she joined the group as it was declining. Infighting, FBI sabotage, and “organizational bloat” was increasing. This all came to a head when Garvey was wrongfully convicted of mail fraud and sent to prison–subsequently he was pardoned and deported back to Jamaica. Nevertheless, Gordon rose through the ranks as the organization was falling. Eventually chosen by Garvey to lead the Chicago branch, Gordon attended the consequential Sixth International UNIA convention held in Jamaica. At this meeting, Garvey failed to consolidate his power in the UNIA, fracturing the organization into two, one headquartered in Kingston and the other in Harlem. Gordon also faced opposition to her leadership by male leaders, who often challenged Garvey when he chose a woman for leadership. 

The Founding of the Peace Movement of Ethiopia

After experiencing this mess of a convention, Gordon returned to Chicago doubtful of Garvey and the UNIA’s ability to achieve her primary goal: returning American Africans back to Africa. She found the UNIA disorganized and too focused on its economic development projects. Like other nationalists of the period, her solution to the race problem was for Black people to go home. Modern Black nationalists reject this position; we refuse to abandon the investment and struggle we’ve made in this country–first involuntarily and later underpaid–and believe instead in building economic and political power, developing our nation, right here. Nonetheless, like any good nationalist, Gordon did not wait for someone else to make repatriation happen. She organized it herself.

Gordon, like many Garveyites, was a small-business owner. She owned a restaurant on Chicago’s south side that she used as an operating base to organize her new organization. After a meeting that included about fifty people, the Peace Movement of Ethiopia was born in December 1932. Ostensibly, Gordon mixed Islamic and Christian doctrine to serve as the religious basis of the organization. But PME was distinct from other nationalist organizations, such as Moorish Science Temple and the Nation of Islam, as members were not required to subscribe to the organization’s religious creeds. This practical secularism predates a Black nationalism popularized by Malcolm X on return from his pilgrimage to Mecca.

Growth During the Depression 

Gordon took her message of God-inspired Black liberation to the streets of Chicago, where she became well-known throughout for her fiery speeches propagating emigration as the solution to the woes of African Americans. The message, which she delivered with unique intensity and sincerity, resonated with working-class Black people suffering through the Great Depression. “When Wall Street catches a cold, Harlem gets pneumonia.” Nowhere was this adage more true than Depression Era Chicago. The city received hundreds of thousands of Black migrants from the south directly before its economic collapse, which only intensified the effects of that collapse. Amidst great poverty, these working-class migrants took solace in the idea of a promised land across the Atlantic, and PME quickly grew. 

On the back of Gordon’s speeches and tireless organizing efforts by PME leaders, the organization spread across the country. Within two years, there were chapters throughout the midwest in Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Kansas, Missouri, and Minnesota. Gordon’s first political opportunity came with the onset of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal welfare policies. Black experience with welfare can be explained in two concepts: exclusion from those programs (e.g. the Homestead Acts) or entrapment in dependent poverty by political design (e.g. the Great Society programs). The New Deal excluded Black Americans. 

While poverty experienced by the White working class during the economic downturn was alleviated, poorer, less employed Black people went empty handed. Frustration obviously proliferated in these communities. Gordon funneled this frustration into a petition delivered to Roosevelt demanding federal aid for emigration to West Africa. Wisely, she portrayed the issue of emigration in terms of economic rights, which Roosevelt had promised to every American. The petition stated, “we, the subjoined signatories, American citizens of African extraction, individually and collectively join in respectfully petitioning the President to consider our proposal [of emigration].” “Hungry, cold and miserable, the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness in America appears futile. Given an opportunity in our ancestral Africa, “the knowledge of farming and of simple farm machinery and implements, which we have acquired here, would enable us to carve a frugal but decent livelihood out of the virgin soil and favorable climate of Liberia.” 

The petition was spread throughout the organization, whose workers took it to the streets. Within two years, they had amassed 400,000 signatures of American Africans who desired to return to the motherland. In November 1933, Gordon sent the petition to the president. The State Department responded, claiming it was unable to grant the demands made. 

A Deal with the Devil? 

After the petition’s initial failure, Gordon inquired after, “a member of either House that may be on the market.” She soon found the legislative assistance she sought in Senator Theodore Bilbo. Bilbo was known as a “vile purveyor” of white supremacist rhetoric. A senator from the state of Mississippi, he was popular with his constituency for pushing populist economic reform and Black hate simultaneously. The two formed a shaky partnership, but Bilbo promised to introduce an amendment to a budget bill that would provide funds for emigration. The proposal was met with ridicule from the press and civil rights organizations such as NAACP, and it failed. 

This was followed by the introduction of the Greater Liberia Bill of 1939. This bill, sponsored by Bilbo and supported by PME and many Black nationalist organizations, would have provided a detailed plan for emigration. The United States would negotiate with France and England for them to relent their West African colonies in return for the US canceling their World War I debts. African Americans returning would receive 50 acres of land and subsidies until they became self-sufficient. Introduced at a large press conference in Washington with Gordon in attendance, the bill stirred fierce opposition from civil rights groups, but they could not deny the support for the bill amongst the Black working class, as the PME petition had reached 2 million signatures. 

In its first presentation to the Senate, the bill failed. Unfettered, Bilbo planned to galvanize Black support for the bill with the assistance of PME and the UNIA factions. He envisioned an office in Washington, D.C. to coordinate the efforts–he even imagined Black people traveling to the capital and refusing to leave until the bill was passed. He was quite committed to kicking Black people out. Gordon organized more petition drives but refused the collaboration plan Bilbo proposed, knowing an organization can easily be co-opted by outsiders. She had no plans of letting Bilbo take the reins of PME. Garvey similarly refused the plan for the branches of the UNIA he led. Regardless, none of these plans came to fruition.

World War II was looming, and the prospect of American involvement in the war became clear in Washington. Most other legislation was put on the back burner, including the Greater Liberia bill. It would never be reintroduced. In 1942, Gordon would be imprisoned for sedition after being arrested at a PME meeting for comments she made about the war effort. 

Lessons to Learn from Mittie Maude Lena Gordon 

History is important, not because of the narratives that we all know, or should know. It is important because it has pressing implications today. It has many lessons to teach, if we look for them. This is true for everyone, but it is urgent for Black people. Therefore, any discussion of Black history is incomplete without an analysis of how that history should influence us today. 

Gordon’s story is a testament to what an accurate education on self can do for a Black person. She never wavered in her commitment to her people, nor in her true identity, she fought for them consistently because she knew she was fighting for herself. 

But the most important direction left by Gordon’s legacy is political. Our current political analysis is fearful. We are scared to offend others, we are scared to challenge the Democratic Party, we are scared to trust ourselves to solve our own problems. Gordon would be disappointed in her people, who bled to be citizens but remain dependent on the same institutions who fought against them gaining citizenship. It is time for us to get serious about our advancement and development, and pursue both politically, economically, and culturally. They won’t come until we do. No, it will not be easy, but wide is the path that leads to destruction, and narrow is the path that leads to life. 

Sometimes we must skillfully word our petitions like Gordon did when petitioning Roosevelt. Other times, we will have to collaborate with people who have detestable morals, like Gordon did with Bilbo. That is our political reality. Surely, this is preferable over our current state: where we wed ourselves to one side, completely neglect the other, and wonder why neither ever provides us tangible gain. We may do all this and still fail to achieve our main objective, as Gordon did with repatriation. The lesson to learn from these “failures” is not to stop pressing, but the exact opposite. We do not have time to lick our wounds, and we certainly do not have time to allow opposition that has always formed in response to our work to immobilize us. We are being colonized right now. 

If nothing else, don’t forget the political realism Mittie Maude Lena Gordon left behind to us. In the words of abolitionist Maria Stewart, “Sue for your rights and privileges. Know the reason you cannot attain them. Weary them with your importunities. You can but die if you make the attempt; and we shall surely die if you do not.”

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