Marcus Garvey Biography


(History of the World: The 20th Century)

0111203041-Garvey_M.jpg (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Article abstract: Combining his talents of effective journalism and charismatic oratory, Garvey organized the first black mass-protest movement in the history of the United States.

Early Life

Marcus Moziah Garvey was born in St. Ann’s Bay, Jamaica, British West Indies, on August 17, 1887. His parents, Marcus and Sarah Garvey, were both full-blooded blacks of African descent. As such, the family, including young Marcus, suffered under the racial caste system prevalent in Jamaica at the time—a system which relegated pure blacks to a lower socioeconomic status than either mulattoes or whites. This fact may explain why Garvey subsequently would emphasize black racial purity, denouncing mulattoes as mere pawns or tools of the white man.

During his childhood and adolescence, Garvey was precocious, an avid reader, a gifted speaker, and a bright student. His formal education, however, did not extend beyond his fourteenth year. Family financial difficulties forced him to quit school and accept employment as a printer’s apprentice, an experience which would later prove to be invaluable to his career in journalism and to the movement he came to lead. Nevertheless, Garvey’s failure to complete a formal education seriously influenced his thinking and behavior for the remainder of his life, explaining, in part, his future antagonism toward the intellectual community in general and black intellectuals in particular.

As a young black journalist in the early twentieth century, Garvey became increasingly aware of and concerned with the humiliating plight of fellow blacks throughout the Caribbean. Moreover, through extensive reading, research, and travel, including a trip to England, where he was influenced by a number of African nationalists, Garvey finally came to believe that white discrimination against and exploitation of black people was a serious worldwide problem which demanded an immediate solution. Toward this end, he decided to become a leader of his race in order to unite blacks throughout the world in a nation and government of their own.

Life’s Work

Following his two-year sojourn in England, Garvey returned to Jamaica in 1914, where he established the Universal Negro Improvement and Conservation Association and African Communities League, usually called the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). The initial goals of UNIA centered on universal black unification, the enhancement of black racial pride worldwide, and black development of and control over the continent of Africa. Achieving only moderate success in Jamaica, Garvey decided to seek support for his infant organization in the United States. He arrived in New York on March 23, 1916, and quickly proceeded to establish a branch of the UNIA in Harlem, which had a relatively large West Indian enclave. Two years later, he founded a newspaper, Negro World, which became the propaganda arm of UNIA. Coupled with a lengthy and flamboyant speaking tour throughout the United States, Garvey’s editorials in Negro World succeeded in attracting thousands of native converts to UNIA. In a matter of months, thirty branches of the organization were established throughout the country. By 1920, Garvey claimed to have four million followers and, in 1923, six million. Although these figures were probably exaggerations, even Garvey’s most critical opponents admitted that there were at least a half million members in UNIA at its height.

At the heart of Garvey’s ideology was his fervent desire to mobilize the black peoples of Africa, the West Indies, the Americas, and elsewhere, for the spiritual, historical, and physical redemption of Africa and Africans, at home and abroad. “The faith we have,” he declared, “is a faith that will ultimately take us back to that ancient place, that ancient position that we once occupied, when Ethiopia was in her glory.” Notwithstanding this pronouncement, it is mistaken to suppose that Garveyism was simply another “Back to Africa” movement. Garvey was realistic enough to appreciate the fact that a mass black exodus to Africa, in the physical sense, was impossible. Although he did believe that black leaders had an obligation to return to their ancestral homeland to assist in its development and liberation from white colonialists, his basic argument revolved around the concept of a spiritual return to...

(The entire section is 1807 words.)