Marcus Mosiah Garvey, Jr., National Hero of Jamaica (August 17, 1887 – June 10, 1940),
was a publisher, journalist, entrepreneur, Black nationalist, orator, and founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League (UNIA-ACL).Prior to the twentieth century, leaders such as Prince Hall, Martin Delaney, 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 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 to be a prophet). The intention 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:
Garvey was born at 32 Market Street in St. Ann’s Bay, Saint Ann Parish, Jamaica to Marcus Mosiah Garvey, Sr., a mason, and Sarah Jane Richards, a domestic worker and farmer. Of eleven siblings, only Garvey and his sister Indiana, reached maturity. Garvey’s father was known to have a large library, and it was from his father he gained his love for reading. Sometime in the year 1900 Garvey entered into an apprenticeship with his uncle Alfred Burrowes. Like his father, Mr. Burrowes had an extensive library of which Garvey made good use.
Near the age of fourteen, Garvey left St. Ann’s Bay for Kingston where he found employment as a compositor in the printery of P.A. Benjamin Limited. He was a master printer and foreman at Benjamin when, in November of 1907, he was elected vice-president of the Kingston Union. However, he was fired when he joined a strike by printers in late 1908. Having been blacklisted for his stance in the strike, he later found work at the Government Printing Office. In 1909 his newspaper The Watchman began publication, but it only lasted for three issues.
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 entitled ‘La Nacionale’ in 1911. Later that year, he moved to Colón, Panama where he edited a tri-weekly before returning to Jamaica in 1912.
After years of working in the Caribbean, Garvey left Jamaica to live in London from 1912 to 1914. There he attended Birkbeck College, worked for the African Times and Orient Review, published by Dusé Mohamed Ali, and sometimes spoke at Hyde Park’s Speakers’ Corner.
During his travels, Garvey became convinced that uniting Blacks was the only way to improve their condition. Towards that end, he departed England on June 14, 1914 aboard the S.S. Trent, reaching Jamaica on July 15, 1914. The Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) was founded in August 1914 as a means of uniting all of Africa and its diaspora into “one grand racial hierarchy.” Amy Ashwood, who would later be Garvey’s first wife, was among the founders. As the group’s first President-General, his goal was to “unite all people of African ancestry of the world to one great body to establish a country and absolute government of their own.”
According to Garvey, while he was traveling in the la habra, the name of the organization was the result of a conversation he had with a West Indian and his Basuto wife. During the discussion he “further learned of the horrors of native life in Africa.” Following much reflection the following day and night about what he learned, “the vision and thought came” to “name the organization the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities (Imperial) League.”
After corresponding with Booker T. Washington, Garvey arrived in the US aboard the S.S. Tallac to give a lecture tour and to raise funds for establishment of a school in Jamaica modeled after Washington’s Tuskegee Institute on March 23, 1916. Garvey visited Tuskegee, and afterward, a number of Black leaders. After moving to New York he found work as a printer by day. He was influenced by Hubert Harrison, and at night he would speak on street corners, much like he did in London’s Hyde Park. It was then Garvey percieved a leadership vacuum among people of African ancestry, and so on May 9, 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 of 1917 Garvey and thirteen others formed the first UNIA division outside Jamaica and began advancing ideas promoting social, political, and economic freedom for Blacks. On July 2, the East St. Louis riots broke out. On July 8, Garvey delivered an address, entitled “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 the head of the division; although he still 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 August 17, 1918, publication of the widely distributed Negro World newspaper began. Garvey worked as an editor for free up until November 1920. By June of 1919 the membership of the organization had grown to over two million.
On June 27, 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 September 14, 1919. Such a rapid accomplishment garnered attention from many.
One person who noticed was Edwin P. Kilroe, Assistant District Attorney in the District Attorney’s office of the County of New York. Kilroe began an investigation into the activities of the UNIA without finding any evidence of wrongdoing or mismanagement. After being called to Kilroe’s office numerous times without any resolution, 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 October 14, 1919, Garvey received a visit from a man by the name of George Tyler. Tyler told him that Kilroe “had sent him” to get Garvey. Tyler then pulled a .38-calibre revolver and fired four shots, wounding Garvey in the right leg and scalp. Garvey was taken to the hospital and Tyler arrested. The next day Tyler apparently committed suicide by jumping from the third tier of the Harlem jail while he was being taken to his arraignment.
By August 1920, the UNIA claimed four million members. That month the International Convention of the UNIA was held. With delegates from all over the world in attendance, over 25,000 people filled Madison Square Garden on August 1 to hear Garvey speak.
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 Blacks should have a permanent homeland in Africa, Garvey sought to develop Liberia. “Our success educationally, industrially and politically is based upon the protection of a nation founded by ourselves. And the nation can be nowhere else but in Africa.”
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 Americans of African ancestry 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.”
Garvey has been credited with creating the biggest movement of people of African descent. At its zenith, the UNIA claimed over a million members. This movement that took place in the 1920s is said to have had more participation from people of African descent than the Civil Rights Movement. In essence the UNIA was the largest Pan-African movement.
In a memorandum dated October 11, 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 Ridgley regarding Marcus Garvey. In the memo, Hoover lamented the fact that:
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 of 1919 an investigation by the BOI was begun into the activities of Garvey and the UNIA. Towards 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 by the name of 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.
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. 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, the prosecution was a politically motivated miscarriage of justice, based on the above mentioned false statement testimony and regret by Hoover that Garvey had committed no crimes.
When the trial ended on June 23, 1923, Garvey had been sentenced to five years in prison. 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 February 8, 1925. Two days later, he penned his well known “First Message to the Negroes of the World From Atlanta Prison” wherein he makes 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.
In the end, as Professor Judith Stein has stated, “his politics were on trial.”
Garvey’s sentence was eventually commuted by President Calvin Coolidge. Since Garvey had been convicted of a felony and was not a US citizen, federal law required his immediate deportation. 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. A huge procession and band converged on UNIA headquarters.
While W. E. B. Du Bois expressed the Black Star Line was “original and promising,” he said Garvey was “a lunatic or a traitor.”
Garvey suspected Du Bois was prejudiced against him because he was a Caribbean native with darker skin. 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 to destroy his reputation. Du Bois was, nevertheless, a strong supporter of Pan-Africanism.
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.”
After Garvey’s entente with the Ku Klux Klan, a number of African American leaders appealed to U.S. Attorney General Harry M. Daugherty to have Garvey incarcerated.
Garvey travelled to Geneva in 1928 to present the Petition of the Negro Race, which 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 Councillor for the Allman Town Division of the Kingston and St. Andrew Corporation (KSAC). He lost his seat, however, because of having to serve a prison sentence for contempt of court, but in 1930, he was re-elected, unopposed, along with two other PPP candidates.
In April 1931, Garvey launched the Edelweiss Amusement Company, which he set 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, where he lived and worked until his death in 1940. During these last five years, he remained active and in touch with events in war-torn Ethiopia (then known as Abyssinia) and the West Indies. 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 at 355 College St., in Toronto, Canada to train UNIA leaders. He continued to work on the magazine The Black Man.
In 1937, a group of his American supporters, called the Peace Movement of Ethiopia, openly collaborated with Mississippi Senator Theodore Bilbo in the promotion of a repatriation scheme introduced in the US Congress as the Greater Liberia Act.
On June 10, 1940, Garvey died after two strokes, putatively after reading a mistaken, and negative, obituary of himself in the Chicago Defender. Because of travel conditions during World War II, he was interred at Kensal Green Cemetery in London.
In 1964, his remains were exhumed and taken to Jamaica. On November 15, 1964, the government of Jamaica, having proclaimed him Jamaica’s first national hero, ceremoniously re-interred him at a shrine in National Heroes Park.
Garvey’s memory has been kept alive worldwide. Schools, colleges, highways, and buildings in Africa, Europe, the Caribbean, and the United States have been named in his honor. The UNIA red, black, and green flag has been adopted as the Black Liberation Flag. Since 1980, Garvey’s bust has been housed in the Organization of American States’ Hall of Heroes in Washington, D.C.
Malcolm X’s father Earl Little met Malcolm’s mother Louise at a UNIA convention in Montreal, Canada. He also was the president of the UNIA division in Omaha, Nebraska and sold the Negro World newspaper while his wife Louise was a contributor to the Negro World.
Kwame Nkrumah named the national shipping line of Ghana the Black Star Line in honor of Garvey and the UNIA. Nkrumah also named the national soccer team the Black Stars as well. The black star at the center of Ghana’s flag is also inspired by the Black Star Line.
During a trip to Jamaica, Martin Luther King and his wife Coretta Scott King visited the shrine of Marcus Garvey on June 20, 1965 and laid a wreath. In a speech he told the audience that Garvey “was the first man of color to lead and develop a mass movement. He was the first man on a mass scale and level to give millions of Negroes a sense of dignity and destiny. And make the Negro feel he was somebody.”
King was also the posthumous recipient of the first Marcus Garvey Prize for Human Rights on December 10, 1968 issued by the Jamaican Government and presented to King’s widow.
The United States of Africa first saw light in a 1924 poem by Garvey and is still discussed.
There have been pop culture references to Marcus Garvey since he first came on the international scene. Garvey is cited repeatedly in a diverse variety of books, songs and films. He is mentioned particularly frequently in blues, reggae, jazz and hip hop music.
Rastafarians consider Garvey a religious prophet, saint and sometimes even the reincarnation of John the Baptist. This is partly because of his frequent statements uttered in speeches throughout the 1920s, usually along the lines of “Look to Africa, when a black king shall be crowned for the day of deliverance is at hand!”
His beliefs deeply influenced the Rastafari, who took his statements as a prophecy of the crowning of Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia. Early Rastas were associated with his Back-to-Africa movement in Jamaica. This early Rastafari movement was also influenced by a separate, proto-Rasta movement known as the Afro-Athlican Church that was outlined in a religious text known as the Holy Piby — where Garvey was proclaimed to be a prophet as well. Thus, the Rastafari movement can be seen as an offshoot of Garveyite philosophy. As his beliefs have greatly influenced Rastafari, he is often mentioned in reggae music.
Critical of Haile Selassie I in the wake of the invasion of Ethiopia before World War II,Garvey himself never identified with the Rastafari movement, and was, in fact, raised as a Methodist who went on to become a Roman Catholic.
Become an Harlem World Insider - Sign-Up For Our Newsletter!