Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1807
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.
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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.
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 Africa for the majority of American blacks. He maintained that white racism in the United States had created a sense of self-hatred in blacks, and that the only way to purge themselves of self-contempt was through a spiritual identification with Africans and Africa. By stressing Africa’s noble past, Garvey declared that American blacks should be proud of their ancestry and, in particular, proud of their blackness. Concurrently, American blacks should strive to achieve black community pride, wealth, culture, and independence in the United States by creating and maintaining a nation-within-a-nation. The struggle for African redemption, he stated, did not call for blacks to surrender their domestic struggle for political justice and economic independence.
In 1921, Garvey established a provisional government-in-exile for Africa, with himself as president. In addition, he established a black cabinet, a black army (the Universal African Legion), attired in resplendent uniforms, a corps of nurses (the Universal Black Cross Nurses), and even an African Orthodox Church, with a black God and a black Christ. Earlier, Garvey had created the Negro Factories Corporation (NFC), an experiment designed to promote black economic independence by providing loans and technical assistance to aspiring black small businessmen. The NFC reflected Garvey’s acceptance of Booker T. Washington’s late nineteenth century philosophy of black self-help as a stepping-stone to genuine black emancipation. Although the NFC rarely had enough working capital, it did succeed in establishing a number of independent black businesses, including a restaurant, a chain of cooperative grocery stores, and a publishing house.
Garvey’s pet project was his Black Star Line, a steamship company designed to engage in commerce with and transportation to Africa. Garvey was convinced that a black-owned-and-operated “link” with the African motherland would not only promote black self-help and economic opportunity but also visibly enhance black pride and self-awareness. Thousands of urban blacks heeded the call, buying up more than a half million dollars of Black Star Line stock (inexpensively priced at five dollars a share and limited to black investors) during the first year of the company’s existence. The fact that Garvey and his associates purchased (many say were hoodwinked into purchasing) ships that were hardly seaworthy did not detract from the enthusiasm this venture generated among the black urban masses. Financially, however, the Black Star Line proved to be a disaster for the UNIA. The organization was unable to raise enough money to repair steamships which, in some cases, were beyond repair. By late 1921, the company was more or less defunct.
The elaborateness, flamboyance, and, above all, the promise and the dream of Garveyism, coupled with Garvey’s own charismatic personality, had a profound effect upon the black urban masses, who were drawn to their “messiah” as if he were a magnet. On the other hand, black intellectuals denounced Garvey as a buffoon (he often wore elaborate academic gowns and uniforms) and a demagogue. W. E. B. Du Bois, for example, described him as “a little, fat black man, ugly, but with intelligent eyes and a big head . . . the most dangerous enemy of the Negro race in America.” For his part, Garvey shunned intellectuals such as Du Bois, whom he called a “lazy dependent mulatto,” as well as the black bourgeois establishment, which, in his mind, had betrayed the black race by cooperating with whites.
Garvey’s sincere but inept management of the Black Star Line finally put an end to his meteoric rise. In 1922, he was indicted on mail-fraud charges concerning the sale of Black Star Line stock. Convicted in 1923, he was confined in prison for two years and then, in 1927, deported as an undesirable alien. In his absence, Garveyism (or Black Zionism) in the United States lost much of its appeal. Moreover, faced with a decade of economic depression during the 1930’s, most urban blacks became much more concerned with their own personal survival than with the grandiose schemes of a deported Jamaican.
Unable to resurrect the UNIA in Jamaica, Garvey moved to London in 1935. Following several bouts with pneumonia in the late 1930’s, Garvey suffered two severe strokes in 1940. He subsequently died in relative obscurity in London on June 10, 1940. Garvey was fifty-two years old.
Regarded by some as an egotistic, self-serving charlatan and by others as a black messiah or a black Moses, Marcus Garvey proved to be the embodiment of pent-up black nationalism in the United States during the early twentieth century. By organizing the first black mass-protest movement in the history of the United States, and by emphasizing self-help, black pride, racial purity, and the resurrection of a great black empire in Africa, Garvey unwittingly became the spiritual father of many black nationalist movements of subsequent years. Organizations such as the Black Muslims and the Black Panthers and slogans such as “black is beautiful” and “black power” would later emerge as manifestations of a revived Garveyism.
Brisbane, Robert H. The Black Vanguard: Origins of the Negro Social Revolution, 1900-1960. Valley Forge, Pa.: Judson Press, 1970. Contains a well-written, lengthy chapter on the Garvey era, placing Garvey in the mainstream of American black radicalism.
Cronon, Edmund David. Black Moses: The Story of Marcus Garvey and the Universal Negro Improvement Association. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1962. Generally considered the most authoritative, scholarly account of Garvey and Garveyism, Cronon’s book is balanced, well documented, and especially well written. Contains both a bibliographical essay and a list of primary and secondary references.
Garvey, Amy Jacques. Garvey and Garveyism. New York: P.F. Collier, 1970. Useful, firsthand reminiscences by Garvey’s second wife and widow. Especially good for the postdeportation era in the West Indies and London.
Garvey, Marcus. Philosophy and Opinions of Marcus Garvey. Edited by Amy Jacques Garvey. New York: Universal Publishing House, 1923-1925. Reprint. New York: Atheneum Publishers, 1969. This is one of several reprinted volumes of Garvey’s original writings edited by his widow. A supplemental volume (More Philosophy and Opinions of Marcus Garvey) was published by Frank Cass (London) in 1977.
Levine, Lawrence. “Marcus Garvey and the Politics of Revitalization.” In Black Leaders of the Twentieth Century, edited by John Hope Franklin and August Meier, 105-138. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1982. This indispensable essay offers an analytical overview of the Garvey movement and its legacy.
Toppin, Edgar, A. A Biographical History of Blacks in America Since 1528. New York: David McKay Co., 1971. Based on a series of articles originally appearing in The Christian Science Monitor in 1969, Toppin’s work contains both a chronological chapter on black American history during the Garvey era and, more important, a formal biographical essay on Garvey himself.
Vincent, Theodore G. Black Power and the Garvey Movement. Berkeley, Calif.: Ramparts Press, 1971. Stresses the historical link between Garveyism and American black radicalism in general, and shows how Garvey paved the way for subsequent black protest groups in the United States.