Marcus Garvey: Leader of the People


Marcus Garvey is one of the most controversial figures for black people in the diaspora in the 20th Century. Between 1916 and 1921 he built the largest black movement in black history.

Marcus Garvey was born in St Ann’s Bay, Jamaica in August 1887 in a small town in Northern Jamaica. His father had been a slave and often liked being alone as he internalized his feelings and felt that the world was against him. So Marcus grew up mostly around his mother who wanted more for him and steered him towards reading and education. As a boy he spent more time reading and dreaming of giving speeches to large crowds. It was at age 14 that he became aware of being black and what it meant in Jamaica; that he was not good enough.

At that age he became a printers apprentice and learned the power of the published word. In 1914, he read “Up from Slavery”, a very defining moment in his life because the book explained to him the issues faced by black people everywhere. It was then that he decided he would unify black people and become their leader. He met his wife Ashwood while she was delivering a speech and he immediately felt like she was the woman for him because of her passionate speech. That began their long and tumultuous relationship.

Garvey founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association modelled on Booker T Washington’s Tuskegee Institute. Marcus Garvey was a great visionary but his management skills were less than stellar.

In the spring of 1916, Garvey left for Harlem, New York. Upon arriving he found a place to stay with a Jamaican family then started working for a printer. At that time his goal was to still build the institute in Jamaica and he felt that this would give him an opportunity to raise money for that purpose. His first opportunity to give a speech was organized by A. Philip Randolph and even though the speech did not go very well he was able to redeem himself. He continued to tour at least 38 states to raise money for his Jamaican Institute and experienced for himself the life and plight of the black man in America which resembled his experiences in Jamaica.

On July 2, 1917 hundreds of black people were killed in the East St Louis race riots. W.E.B. DuBois the then leader of the NAACP called for a silent march, however Garvey immediately seized on this moment because he felt it was not the right time to be silent. He described the current black leaders as weak and subservient. Garvey believed black people everywhere lacked unity which led him to open his first United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) office in the US.

Garvey preached that blacks had a glorious past other than what they had been led to believe. He helped to change the perception of Africa from the untamed jungle into something that was part of black heritage and to be cherished. He attracted thousands of black people and his Sunday meetings were half political rallies and half religious revival. Families would spend the day being inspired and listening to his words. He often taught pride in African history and that the salvation of the black race was in organizational unity. Garvey was so inspiring that he made black people see physical beauty in themselves. In a sense he helped to build their self- esteem.

Any black person could join the UNIA for 35 cents as long as they were of African descent. For their membership they got a uniform which became a symbol of pride and unity. The UNIA was divided into different sectors, women and the youth had their own sectors as well. In the summer of 1918 Garvey decided to start promoting black business and started the Negro World Newspaper and then the Negro Factories Corporation. UNIA businesses at their peak employed about 1,000 people in Harlem and often Garvey appointed inexperienced people to run organizations because he valued loyalty over competence. It is said that he did not take dissent very well and any sign of it often meant the suspected party was removed immediately. As a result some of his businesses did not do very well and some of his investors were disgruntled including one who shot him while at the UNIA offices.

At the end of 1919, Garvey had about 750,000 followers and he quickly became a target of the US government. The message of “Africa for the Africans” also quickly made him a target of the Europeans who had colonized most of Africa especially the British. He constantly declared “Africa for the Africans”. The UNIA was in 22 countries and copies of the Negro World Newspaper were often smuggled into countries like Kenya and young boys would be used to disseminate the message to different villages. As a result the US Justice Department picked a young J. Edgar Hoover to find a way to get rid of Garvey. Hoover hired the first full-time black agent to infiltrate the UNIA.

Meanwhile Garvey unveiled his latest project which was to develop a shipping line to cater to black people’s travel and movement of goods as black people were often treated as second class citizens. His black shipping company was called, “Black Star Line”. He believed blacks could have their own economy and the shipping line would move goods from different countries to increase black commerce. In order to finance the shipping company he sold shares and within months he dumbfounded his critics with the purchase of the first ship which was to be named the SS Frederick Douglas. Later he discovered that the Captain of the ship and the advisors had betrayed him and led him to purchase the ship for 6 times its true worth.

He married Ashwood but after only four months they were separated. It is said he often resembled the characteristics of his father and liked to be alone. He rarely spoke except when it was about UNIA business. Meanwhile the UNIA took in thousands of dollars everyday and on August 1, 1920 he held the International Convention of Negro of the World in Madison Square Garden and 25,000 delegates from different countries came to represent their constituents. It was at this convention that Marcus Garvey proclaimed himself, “Provisional President of Africa” and announced the “Black Declaration of Rights” which called for human rights for the black race. Marcus Garvey was at the time the head of the largest black movement and other black leaders such as A. Philip Randolph and W.E.B. DuBois believed he was destructive to black people. DuBois even called him the most dangerous person to black people.

It was the criticism of other black leaders that offered a basis for the US government to step up surveillance and 8 federal agencies began working on his case and made every effort to destroy his movement. The agent hired by Hoover quickly gained access in to the UNIA and became a close confidant. By 1921 the Black Star Line was nearing bankruptcy and Garvey decided to sell stock to raise money for another ship but made the mistake of using a photoshoped picture that made it seem like he has already purchased the ship. The US government went after him for federal mail fraud knowing that their ultimate aim was to deport him. Stubborn Garvey fired his attorney and represented himself in court which he did not do very well. Ultimately his conviction was based on one letter and for defrauding him of $25.

In February 1925, Marcus Garvey was convicted and sentenced to 5 years. However on November 18, 1927 after 2 years and 9 months in prison he was pardoned by President Coolidge who had him departed immediately to Jamaica from the port in New Orleans. He resettled in Jamaica with his wife Amy Jacques. However the American court confiscated all his properties in the US and Jamaica and it forced him to file for bankruptcy. His followers in the US dwindled quickly as one could lose their job if their employer found out they were a member of the UNIA.

Garvey decided to move to the United Kingdom were he suffered a stroke in January of 1940. After reading a story from a US newspaper proclaiming that he has died he suffered another stroke and on June 10, 1940 he died.  


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