Marcus Mosiah Garvey, Jr., ONH (17 August 1887 – 10 June 1940), was a Jamaican political leader, publisher, journalist, entrepreneur, and orator who was a staunch proponent of the Black nationalism and Pan-Africanism movements, to which end he founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League (UNIA-ACL). He founded the Black Star Line, part of the Back-to-Africa movement, which promoted the return of the African diaspora to their ancestral lands.
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Prior to the twentieth century, leaders such as Prince Hall, Martin Delany, Edward Wilmot Blyden, and Henry Highland Garnet advocated the involvement of the African diaspora in African affairs. Garvey was unique in advancing a Pan-African philosophy to inspire a global mass movement and economic empowerment focusing on Africa known as Garveyism. Promoted by the UNIA as a movement of African Redemption, Garveyism would eventually inspire others, ranging from the Nation of Islam to the Rastafari movement (which proclaims Garvey as a prophet). The intent of the movement was for those of African ancestry to “redeem” Africa and for the European colonial powers to leave it. His essential ideas about Africa were stated in an editorial in the Negro World entitled “African Fundamentalism”, where he wrote: “Our union must know no clime, boundary, or nationality… to let us hold together under all climes and in every country…”
Marcus Mosiah Garvey, Jr. was born in St. Ann’s Bay, Jamaica to Marcus Mosiah Garvey, Sr., a mason, and Sarah Jane Richards, a domestic worker. Of eleven siblings, only Marcus, the youngest, and his sister Indiana survived until maturity. His family was financially stable given the circumstances of this time period. Therefore, Garvey’s father could afford to maintain a large library, and it was from his father that Marcus gained his love for reading. He also attended the elementary schools in St. Ann’s Bay during his youth.While attending these schools, Garvey first began to experience racism. When he was younger, he used to be friends and play with his white neighbors. However, when they reached their teenage years, they began to shun him. Sometime in 1900, Garvey entered into an apprenticeship with his uncle, Alfred Burrowes, who also had an extensive library, of which young Marcus made good use.
In 1910 Garvey left Jamaica and began traveling throughout the Central American region. He lived in Costa Rica for several months, where he worked as a time-keeper on a banana plantation. He began work as editor for a daily newspaper titled La Nacionale in 1911. Later that year, he moved to Colón, Panama, where he edited a biweekly newspaper before returning to Jamaica in 1912. After years of working in the Caribbean, Garvey left Jamaica to live in London from 1912 to 1914, where he attended Birkbeck College taking classes in Law and Philosophy, worked for the African Times and Orient Review, published by Dusé Mohamed Ali, and sometimes spoke at Hyde Park’s Speakers’ Corner. Garvey’s philosophy was influenced by Booker T. Washington, Martin Delany, and Henry McNeal Turner. It is said that Dusé Mohamed Ali influence shaped Garvey’s speeches, and led him to organize the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) in Jamaica in 1914 (Vincent, 1971). It has been suggested that the UNIA motto, “One God, One Aim, One Destiny”, originated from Dusé Ali’s Islamic influence on Garvey (Rashid, 2002). Garvey named the organization the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities (Imperial) League. The UNIA held an international convention in 1921 at New York’s Madison Square Garden. Present at the convention were many organizations such as the Universal Black Cross Nurses, the Black Eagle Flying Corps, and the Universal African Legion. Garvey was able to gather more than 50,000 people together in support of his cause. The UNIA had 65,000 to 75,000 members paying dues to support his funding. The national level of support in Jamaica helped Garvey to become one of the most influential leaders of the 20th century in Jamaica.
After corresponding with Booker T. Washington, Garvey arrived in the U.S. on 23 March 1916 aboard the S.S. Tallac to give a lecture tour and to raise funds to establish a school in Jamaica modeled after Washington’s Tuskegee Institute. Garvey visited Tuskegee, and afterward, visited with a number of black leaders. After moving to New York, he found work as a printer by day. He was influenced by Hubert Harrison. At night he would speak on street corners, much as he did in London’s Hyde Park. It was then that Garvey perceived a leadership vacuum among people of African ancestry. On 9 May 1916, he held his first public lecture in New York City at St Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery and undertook a 38-state speaking tour. In May 1917, Garvey and thirteen others formed the first UNIA division outside Jamaica and began advancing ideas to promote social, political, and economic freedom for black people. On 2 July, the East St. Louis riots broke out. On 8 July, Garvey delivered an address, titled “The Conspiracy of the East St. Louis Riots”, at Lafayette Hall in Harlem. During the speech, he declared the riot was “one of the bloodiest outrages against mankind”. By October, rancor within the UNIA had begun to set in. A split occurred in the Harlem division, with Garvey enlisted to become its leader; although he technically held the same position in Jamaica.
Garvey next set about the business of developing a program to improve the conditions of those of African ancestry “at home and abroad” under UNIA auspices. On 17 August 1918, publication of the widely distributed Negro World newspaper began. Garvey worked as an editor without pay until November 1920. Since he was the editor, he used Negro World to help the UNIA to grow. By June 1919 the membership of the organization had grown to over two million. On 27 June 1919, the Black Star Line of Delaware was incorporated by the members of the UNIA, with Garvey as President. By September, it obtained its first ship. Much fanfare surrounded the inspection of the S.S. Yarmouth and its rechristening as the S.S. Frederick Douglass on 14 September 1919. Such a rapid accomplishment garnered attention from many. During the first year, the Black Star Line’s stock sales brought in $600,000. This caused it to be successful during that year. However, the next 24 months were tragic. This was a result of mechanical breakdowns amongst the ships, incompetent workers, and poor record keeping. Also, the officers were eventually accused of mail fraud.
Edwin P. Kilroe, Assistant District Attorney in the District Attorney’s office of the County of New York, began an investigation into the activities of the UNIA, but apparently didn’t find any evidence of wrongdoing or mismanagement. After being called to Kilroe’s office numerous times, Garvey wrote an editorial on Kilroe’s activities for the Negro World. Garvey was arrested and indicted for criminal libel in relation to the article, but charges were dismissed after Garvey published a retraction. While in his Harlem office at 56 West 156th Street on 14 October 1919, Garvey received a visit from George Tyler, who told him that Kilroe “had sent him” to get Garvey. Tyler then pulled a .38-caliber revolver and fired four shots, wounding Garvey in the right leg and scalp. Garvey was taken to the hospital and Tyler was arrested. The next day, it was revealed that Tyler had committed suicide by leaping from the third tier of the Harlem jail as he was being taken to his arraignment.
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By August 1920, the UNIA claimed four million members, however, this is not completely accurate due to poor record keeping. That month, the International Convention of the UNIA was held. With delegates from all over the world in attendance, 25,000 people filled Madison Square Garden on 1 August 1920 to hear Garvey speak. Over the next couple of years, Garvey’s movement was able to attract an enormous number of followers. Reasons for this included the cultural revolution of the Harlem Renaissance, the large number of West Indians and finally their slogan “One Aim, One God, One Destiny,” interested Black soldiers from the first World War.
Another of Garvey’s ventures was the Negro Factories Corporation. His plan called for creating the infrastructure to manufacture every marketable commodity in every big U.S. industrial center, as well as in Central America, the West Indies, and Africa. Related endeavors included a grocery chain, restaurant, publishing house, and other businesses.
Convinced that black people should have a permanent homeland in Africa, Garvey sought to develop Liberia. The Liberia program, launched in 1920, was intended to build colleges, universities, industrial plants, and railroads as part of an industrial base from which to operate. However, it was abandoned in the mid-1920s after much opposition from European powers with interests in Liberia. In response to suggestions that he wanted to take all Africans of the Diaspora back to Africa, he wrote, “We do not want all the Negroes in Africa. Some are no good here, and naturally will be no good there.”
At the age of thirty two in 1919, Garvey married his first wife, Amy Ashwood. She was his former secretary who had also saved Garvey in an assassination attempt. After four months of marriage, Garvey separated from her. He remarried in 1922, to Amy Jacques, who was his new secretary at the time. They had two children together and Amy Jacques played an important role in his career by becoming a lead worker in Garvey’s movement.
Garvey is known as a leading political figure because of his determination to fight for the unity of African Americans by creating the Universal Negro Improvement Association and rallying to gather supporters to fight. With this group he touched upon many topics such as education,the economy and independence. An important aspect of his career was his thoughts on Communism. Garvey felt that Communism would be more beneficial for Whites by solving their own political and economic problems but would further limit the success of blacks rising together. He believed that the communist party wanted to use the African American vote “to smash and overthrow” the capitalistic white majority to “put their majority group or race still in power, not only as Communists but as white men” (Jacques-Garvey, 1969). The Communist party wanted to have as many supporters as possible, even if it meant having Blacks but Garvey discouraged this. He still had the idea that communists were only White men who wanted to manipulate Blacks so they could continue to have control over them. Garvey says “It is a dangerous theory of economic and political reformation because it seeks to put government in the hands of an ignorant white mass who have not been able to destroy their natural prejudices towards Negroes and other non-white people. While it may be a good thing for them, it will be a bad thing for the Negroes who will fall under the government of the most ignorant, prejudiced class of the white race” (Nolan, 1951).
On 4 October 1916, the Daily Gleaner newspaper in Kingston published a letter written by Raphael Morgan, a Jamaican-American priest of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, together with over a dozen other like-minded Jamaican Americans, who wrote in to protest against Garvey’s lectures. Garvey’s views on Jamaica, they felt, were damaging to both the reputation of their homeland and its people, enumerating several objections to Garvey’s stated preference for the prejudice of the American whites over that of English whites. Garvey’s response was published a month later, in which he called the letter a conspiratorial fabrication meant to undermine the success and favour he had gained while in Jamaica and in the United States.
While W. E. B. Du Bois felt that the Black Star Line was “original and promising”, he added that “Marcus Garvey is, without doubt, the most dangerous enemy of the Negro race in America and in the world. He is either a lunatic or a traitor.” Du Bois feared that Garvey’s activities would undermine his efforts toward black rights.
Garvey suspected that Du Bois was prejudiced against him because he was a Caribbean native with darker skin. Du Bois once described Garvey as “a little, fat black man; ugly, but with intelligent eyes and a big head” Garvey called Du Bois “purely and simply a white man’s nigger” and “a little Dutch, a little French, a little Negro … a mulatto … a monstrosity”. This led to an acrimonious relationship between Garvey and the NAACP. Garvey accused Du Bois of paying conspirators to sabotage the Black Star Line in order to destroy his reputation.
Garvey recognized the influence of the Ku Klux Klan, and in early 1922, he went to Atlanta, Georgia, for a conference with KKK imperial giant Edward Young Clarke. According to Garvey, “I regard the Klan, the Anglo-Saxon clubs and White American societies, as far as the Negro is concerned, as better friends of the race than all other groups of hypocritical whites put together. I like honesty and fair play. You may call me a Klansman if you will, but, potentially, every white man is a Klansman, as far as the Negro in competition with whites socially, economically and politically is concerned, and there is no use lying.” Leo H. Healy publicly accused Garvey of being a member of the Ku Klux Klan in his testimony during the mail fraud trial.
After Garvey’s entente with the Klan, a number of African-American leaders appealed to U.S. Attorney General Harry M. Daugherty to have Garvey incarcerated.
In a memorandum dated 11 October 1919, J. Edgar Hoover, special assistant to the Attorney General and head of the General Intelligence Division (or “anti-radical division”) of The Bureau of Investigation or BOI (after 1935, the Federal Bureau of Investigation), wrote a memorandum to Special Agent Ridgely regarding Garvey. In the memo, Hoover wrote that:
“Unfortunately, however, he [Garvey] has not as yet violated any federal law whereby he could be proceeded against on the grounds of being an undesirable alien, from the point of view of deportation.”
Sometime around November 1919 an investigation by the BOI was begun into the activities of Garvey and the UNIA. Toward this end, the BOI hired James Edward Amos, Arthur Lowell Brent, Thomas Leon Jefferson, James Wormley Jones, and Earl E. Titus as its first five African-American agents. Although initial efforts by the BOI were to find grounds upon which to deport Garvey as “an undesirable alien”, a charge of mail fraud was brought against Garvey in connection with stock sales of the Black Star Line after the U.S. Post Office and the Attorney General joined the investigation.
The accusation centered on the fact that the corporation had not yet purchased a ship with the name “Phyllis Wheatley”. Although one was pictured with that name emblazoned on its bow on one of the company’s stock brochures, it had not actually been purchased by the BSL and still had the name “Orion”. The prosecution produced as evidence a single empty envelope which it claimed contained the brochure. During the trial, a man known as Benny Dancy testified that he didn’t remember what was in the envelope, although he regularly received brochures from the Black Star Line. Another witness for the prosecution, Schuyler Cargill, perjured himself after admitting to having been told to mention certain dates in his testimony by Chief Prosecutor Maxwell S. Mattuck. Furthermore, he admitted that he could not remember the names of any coworkers in the office, including the timekeeper who punched employees’ time cards. Ultimately, he acknowledged being told to lie by Postal Inspector F.E. Shea. He said Shea told him to state that he mailed letters containing the purportedly fraudulent brochures. The Black Star Line did own and operate several ships over the course of its history and was in the process of negotiating for the disputed ship at the time the charges were brought. Assistant District Attorney, Leo Healy, who had been, before becoming District Attorney, an attorney with Harris McGill and Co., the sellers of the first ship, the S.S. Yarmouth, to the Black Star Line Inc., was also a key witness for the government during the trial. Of the four Black Star Line officers charged in connection with the enterprise, only Garvey was found guilty of using the mail service to defraud. His supporters called the trial fraudulent.
At the National Conference of the Universal Negro Improvement Association in 1921, a Los Angeles delegate named Noah Thompson spoke on the floor complaining on the lack of transparency in the group’s financial accounts. When accounts were prepared Thompson highlighted several sections with what he felt were irregularities. But while there were serious accounting irregularities within the Black Star Line and the claims he used to sell Black Star Line stock could be considered misleading, Garvey’s supporters contend that the prosecution was a politically motivated miscarriage of justice.
When the trial ended on 23 June 1923, Garvey had been sentenced to five years in prison. Garvey blamed Jewish jurors and a Jewish federal judge, Julian Mack, for his conviction. He felt that they had been biased because of their political objections to his meeting with the acting imperial wizard of the Ku Klux Klan the year before, In 1928, Garvey told a journalist: “When they wanted to get me they had a Jewish judge try me, and a Jewish prosecutor. I would have been freed but two Jews on the jury held out against me ten hours and succeeded in convicting me, whereupon the Jewish judge gave me the maximum penalty.”
He initially spent three months in the Tombs Jail awaiting approval of bail. While on bail, he continued to maintain his innocence, travel, speak and organize the UNIA. After numerous attempts at appeal were unsuccessful, he was taken into custody and began serving his sentence at the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary on 8 February 1925. Two days later, he penned his well known “First Message to the Negroes of the World From Atlanta Prison”, wherein he made his famous proclamation: “Look for me in the whirlwind or the storm, look for me all around you, for, with God’s grace, I shall come and bring with me countless millions of black slaves who have died in America and the West Indies and the millions in Africa to aid you in the fight for Liberty, Freedom and Life.”
Professor Judith Stein has stated, “his politics were on trial.” Garvey’s sentence was eventually commuted by President Calvin Coolidge. Upon his release in November 1927, Garvey was deported via New Orleans to Jamaica, where a large crowd met him at Orrett’s Wharf in Kingston. Though the popularity of the UNIA diminished greatly following Garvey’s expulsion, he nevertheless remained committed to his political ideals.
Garvey’s work was multi-dimensional. Although the press concentrated on the Back-to-Africa concept, it never was a central part of Garvey’s program. He instituted cultural symbols which captured the essence of a nationalistic philosophy; his mind was sharp and geared to the media. As a media manipulator, growing from his years as a journalist and printer, Garvey knew how to communicate with his audience. Garveyism was a popular philosophy, understood from the least to the most sophisticated person in his audience. His sweeping images captivated the journalists who observed the movement. They seemed taken with the eloquence of his symbols and the substance of his messages. Garvey emphasized his belief in the One God, the God of Africa, who should be visualized through black eyes. He preached that black people needed 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.” 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.
In 1928, Garvey travelled to Geneva to present the Petition of the Negro Race. This petition outlined the worldwide abuse of Africans to the League of Nations. In September 1929, he founded the People’s Political Party (PPP), Jamaica’s first modern political party, which focused on workers’ rights, education, and aid to the poor. Also in 1929, Garvey was elected councilor for the Allman Town Division of the Kingston and St. Andrew Corporation (KSAC). In July 1929, the Jamaican property of the UNIA was seized on the orders of the Chief Justice. Garvey and his solicitor attempted to persuade people not to bid for the confiscated goods, claiming the sale was illegal and Garvey made a political speech in which he referred to corrupt judges. As a result, he was cited for contempt of court and again appeared before the Chief Justice. He received a prison sentence, as a consequence of which he lost his seat. However, in 1930, Garvey was re-elected, unopposed, along with two other PPP candidates.
In April 1931, Garvey launched the Edelweiss Amusement Company. He set the company up to help artists earn their livelihood from their craft. Several Jamaican entertainers—Kidd Harold, Ernest Cupidon, Bim & Bam, and Ranny Williams—went on to become popular after receiving initial exposure that the company gave them. In 1935, Garvey left Jamaica for London. He lived and worked in London until his death in 1940. During these last five years, Garvey remained active and in touch with events in war-torn Ethiopia (then known as Abyssinia) and in the West Indies. In 1937, he wrote the poem Ras Nasibu Of Ogaden in honor of Ethiopian Army Commander (Ras) Nasibu Emmanual. In 1938, he gave evidence before the West Indian Royal Commission on conditions there. Also in 1938 he set up the School of African Philosophy in Toronto to train UNIA leaders. He continued to work on the magazine The Black Man.
While imprisoned Garvey had corresponded with segregationist Earnest Sevier Cox who was lobbying for legislation to “repatriate” African Americans to Africa. Garvey’s philosophy of Black racial self-reliance, could be combined with Cox’ White Nationalism – at least in sharing the common goal of an African Homeland. Cox dedicated his short pamphlet “Let My People Go” to Garvey, and Garvey in return advertised Cox’ book “White America” in UNIA publications.
In 1937, a group of Garvey’s rivals called the Peace Movement of Ethiopia openly collaborated with the United States Senator from Mississippi, Theodore Bilbo, and Earnest Sevier Cox in the promotion of a repatriation scheme introduced in the US Congress as the Greater Liberia Act. In the Senate, Bilbo was a supporter of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. Bilbo, an outspoken supporter of segregation and white supremacy and, attracted by the ideas of black separatists like Garvey, proposed an amendment to the federal work-relief bill on 6 June 1938, proposing to deport 12 million black Americans to Liberia at federal expense to relieve unemployment. He took the time to write a book titled Take Your Choice, Separation or Mongrelization, advocating the idea. Garvey praised him in return, saying that Bilbo had “done wonderfully well for the Negro”. During this period, Evangeline Rondon Paterson, the future grandmother of the 55th Governor of New York State, David Paterson, served as his secretary.
Garvey died in London in 1940 after suffering two strokes, putatively after reading a mistaken, and negative, obituary of himself in the Chicago Defender which stated, in part, that Garvey died “broke, alone and unpopular”. Due to travel restrictions during World War II, his body was interred (no burial mentioned but preserved in a lead lined coffin) within the lower crypt in St Mary’s Catholic cemetery in London near to Kensal Green Cemetery. Twenty years later, his body was removed from the shelves of the lower crypt and taken to Jamaica, where the government proclaimed him Jamaica’s first national hero and re-interred him at a shrine in the National Heroes Park.
In tribute to his many contributions, Garvey’s bust has been displayed in the Organization of American States’ Hall of Heroes in Washington, D.C. The country of Ghana has named its shipping line the Black Star Line and its national soccer team the Black Stars, in honor of Garvey.
In London there are no markings at the cemetery where his body was held for many of those of the African & Caribbean Diaspora to pay tribute to this Jamaican National hero. However a blue plaque was placed outside the house where Garvey once resided at 53 Talgarth Road, Kensington and a second blue plaque was placed outside 2 Beaumont Crescent, London, W14 9LX, the offices of the UNIA where Marcus Garvey and UNIA members conducted their important work.