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The Marcus Mosiah Garvey Story
Marcus Mosiah Garvey was born in St. Ann’s Bay, Jamaica, on August 17, 1887, the youngest child of a stonemason (one who prepares stones for building). He went to the local elementary school, and at the age of fourteen became an apprentice (working to gain experience) in the printing trade. In 1903 he went to the capital, Kingston, to work as a printer. He soon became involved in public activities and helped form the Printers Union, the first trade union in Jamaica. In 1907 he took part in the unsuccessful printer’s strike, where organized workers refused to work unless certain demands were met. This experience influenced the young Garvey in both his political and journalistic passions. He soon began publishing a periodical called the Watchman.
In 1910 Garvey began a series of travels that transformed him from an average person concerned about the problems of those with less opportunity, to an African nationalist determined to lift an entire race from bondage. He visited Costa Rica, Panama, and Ecuador, and worked as an editor for several radical newspapers. After briefly returning home, he proceeded to England, where contacts with African nationalists stimulated in him a keen interest in Africa and in black history. In each country he visited, he noted that the black man was in an inferior position, subject to the ever-changing ideals of stronger races. His reading of Booker T. Washington’s (1856–1915) “Up from Slavery” at this time had a great effect upon him. Also, at this time Garvey met Duse Mohammed Ali, a Sudanese-Egyptian and strong supporter of African self-rule. Garvey began writing for Ali’s small magazines and was introduced to other black activists. At this time, I was also reading “up From Slavery” by Booker T Washington
Connecting the future with the past, today.
On his return to Jamaica in 1914 from England, Garvey formed the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League (UNIA-ACL). These organizations were intended “to work for the general uplift of the Negro peoples of the world,” and would become the centrepiece for his life’s work. Garvey was content at first to preach accommodation to the system of colonial rule. He aspired to open an industrial and agricultural training school modelled on Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute. Garvey was not unique in this, however, since other blacks, in particular mission-educated blacks in West Africa and South Africa, were attempting to do the same thing under the influence of Washington’s Tuskegee. After writing to acquaint Washington with his efforts in Jamaica, Garvey was invited by Washington to come to the United States. Washington died in 1915, however, before Garvey could leave Jamaica.
Upon his arrival in America in the spring of 1916, Garvey still made a pilgrimage to the world-famous Tuskegee school in Alabama to see first-hand the monument to Washington’s memory. If Garvey went to Tuskegee to pay his respect to the great Washington, who had been such an inspiration, as well as to pay homage to the beacon of black progress and achievement that was Tuskegee Institute, the visit also marked, in historical terms, a changing of the guard. Garvey’s whole political outlook was about to undergo a radical transformation as a result of what he would encounter in America. Up to that point, he had been a follower of Washington in espousing racial accommodation as well as the eschewal of politics. Arriving totally unheralded and unknown in America, Garvey was about to become his own man. He would take the black world by storm, and it would never be the same afterward.
Garvey came to the United States at the dawn of the militant “New Negro” era. Black discontent, punctuated by East St. Louis’s bloody race riots in 1917 and intensified by post-war disillusionment, reached record heights by 1919 with the Red Summer of nationwide racial disturbances. Not long after his arrival, Garvey quietly organized a chapter of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), which functioned as a benevolent fraternal organization. Within a few years of this humble beginning, Garvey rose rapidly to become the best-known, most controversial, and for millions, the most attractive and compelling of a new generation of black leaders.
Drawing on a gift for electrifying oratory, Garvey melded Jamaican peasant aspirations for economic and cultural independence with the American gospel of success to create a new gospel of racial pride. “Garveyism” evolved into a religion of success, inspiring millions of blacks worldwide who sought relief from racial dispossession and colonial domination. The UNIA gave this doctrine of racial enterprise a tangible symbol that captured black imaginations when it launched the Black Star shipping line.
By 1920 the UNIA had hundreds of divisions worldwide. It hosted elaborate international conventions and published the Negro World, a widely disseminated weekly that was soon banned in many parts of Africa and the Caribbean. The movement’s dynamic core was Harlem, which Garvey and the UNIA helped make the cultural capital of the black world. During the 1920s the six-block radius surrounding 135th Street and Lenox Avenue contained the UNIA’s international headquarters as well as the cradle of the movement, Liberty Hall, and the offices of all major UNIA affiliated enterprises. UNIA restaurants, shops, and storefront factories spread throughout Harlem, and Garvey and many UNIA officers lived there. During the annual UNIA international conventions, the streets boasted colourful parades led by a regal Garvey, poised in an open car and wearing the plumed hat that became his indelible trademark.
Nearly one thousand UNIA divisions formed throughout North and Central America, the Caribbean, Africa and Britain, as well as a lone division in Australia. Many divisions still met as late as the 1950s; a few remain active even today. By the late 1920s, however, the movement had begun to unravel under the strain of internal dissension, opposition from black critics, and government harassment. Fiscal irregularities in the shipping line gave the U.S. government—spurred on by the young Central Intelligence Agency director J. Edgar Hoover—the basis for an indictment that sent Garvey to prison. The government later commuted Garvey’s sentence, only to deport him to Jamaica in November.
The Movement Stumbles
The Black Star Line shipping company and the Negro Factories Corporation were to be the commercial strengths of the Garvey movement. But it was the failure of the shipping venture that gave Garvey’s enemies the opportunity to destroy him. Investments in the shipping line were lost, and in 1925 Garvey was imprisoned in the United States. After serving two years and ten months of a five-year sentence, he was deported, or forced out of the country, to Jamaica.
Previously, his plans for colonization in Liberia had been ruined by the colonial powers that brought pressure to bear on the Liberian government. As a result, the land that had been granted to the Garvey organization for the settlement of overseas Africans was given to the white American industrialist Harvey Firestone (1863–1938). And the expensive equipment shipped to Liberia for the use of Garvey’s colonists was seized.
In Jamaica, Garvey attempted to enter local politics, but restrictions at the time did not allow the vote to the black masses. He went to England and continued his work of social protest and his call for the liberation (freeing) of Africa. He died in London on June 10, 1940. Marcus Garvey was married twice. His second wife, Amy Jacques, whom he married in 1922, bore him two sons.
African Redemption, the political program of the UNIA, encompassed the territorial redemption of Africa from colonial rule and the spiritual redemption of the black race. Garvey saw Africa as having fallen from a past greatness that had to be restored for peoples of African descent to resume their rightful place in the world. Such redemption could only be achieved by black peoples themselves.
The impact of Garveyism in Africa was considerable. Garvey himself never set foot in Africa, but for many budding nationalist leaders, it was he who first implanted notions of black self-sufficiency and independence. Garveyism had a special tie with Liberia, the black-ruled country created by free and freed African Americans in the early nineteenth century and the primary objective of Garvey’s Back to Africa campaign. A few Garveyites independently immigrated to Liberia, but the grand UNIA colonization schemes all collapsed in the end. Garveyism also flourished in the Caribbean. More than any other early-twentieth-century political phenomenon, it gave expression to a pan-Caribbean consciousness that crossed insular and political boundaries. Garvey’s teachings functioned as a powerful catalyst for diverse religious interpretations deriving from the notion of black divinity as the spiritual mirror of racial sovereignty. The UNIA program of African Redemption was continuously communicated through the biblical prophecy: “Princes shall come out of Egypt; Ethiopia shall soon stretch out her hands unto God” (Ps 68:31).
At the August 1924 UNIA convention, Bishop George Alexander McGuire, founder of the African Orthodox Church, enunciated the doctrine of a black God and unveiled the black Madonna in Liberty Hall. Various groups proliferated and expanded on the fringes of the Garvey movement or arose from within its fold, such as Black Islam and Rastafarianism, and a major part of Garvey’s legacy was transplanted to the religious sphere.
The Garvey movement was the greatest international movement of African peoples in modern times. At its peak, from 1922 to 1924, the movement counted more than eight million followers. The youngest members of the movement were taken in at five years of age and, as they grew older, they graduated to the sections for older children.
Garvey emphasized the belief in the One God, the God of Africa, who should be visualized through black eyes. He preached to black people to become familiar with their ancient history and their rich cultural heritage. He called for pride in the black race—for example, he made black dolls for black children. His was the first voice to clearly demand black power. It was he who said, “A race without authority and power is a race without respect.”
In emphasizing the need to have separate black institutions under black leadership, Garvey anticipated the mood and thinking of the future black nationalists by nearly fifty years. He died, as he lived, an unbending leader of African nationalism. The symbols which he made famous, the black star of Africa and the red, black, and green flag of African liberation, continued to inspire younger generations of African nationalists.