Marcus Garvey

Marcus Garvey

Marcus Garvey was born in St. Ann's Bay, Jamaica, on 17th August, 1887. After seven years of schooling he worked as a printer. He became an active trade unionist and in 1907 was elected vice president of compositors' branch of the printers' union. He helped lead a printer's strike (1908-09) and after it collapsed the union disintegrated.

In 1911 Garvey moved to England and briefly studied at Birbeck College where he met other blacks who were involved in the struggle to obtain independence from the British Empire. Inspired by what he heard he returned to Jamaica and established the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) and published the pamphlet, The Negro Race and Its Problems. Garvey was influenced by the ideas of Booker T. Washington and made plans to develop a trade school for the poor similar to the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.

Garvey arrived in the United States on 23rd March 1916 and immediately launched a year-long tour of the country. He organized the first branch of UNIA in June 1917 and began published the Negro World, a journal that promoted his African nationalist ideas. Garvey's organization was extremely popular and by 1919 UNIA had 30 branches and over 2 million members.

Like the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) Garvey campaigned against lynching, Jim Crow laws, denial of black voting rights and racial discrimination. Where UNIA differed from other civil rights organizations was on how the problem could be solved. Garvey doubted whether whites in the United States would ever agree to African Americans being treated as equals and argued for segregation rather than integration. Garvey suggested that African Americans should go and live in Africa. He wrote that he believed "in the principle of Europe for the Europeans, and Asia for the Asiatics" and "Africa for the Africans at home and abroad".

Garvey began to sign up recruits who were willing to travel to Africa and "clear out the white invaders". He formed an army, equipping them with uniforms and weapons. Garvey appealed to the new militant feelings of black that followed the end of the First World War and asked those African Americans who had been willing to fight for democracy in Europe to now join his army to fight for equal rights.

In 1919 Garvey formed the Black Cross Navigation and Trading Company. With $10,000,000 invested by his supporters Garvey purchased two steamships, Shadyside and Kanawha, to take African Americans to Africa. At a UNIA conference in August, 1920, Garvey was elected provisional president of Africa. He also had talks with the Ku Klux Klan about his plans to repatriate African Americans and published the first volume of Philosophy and Opinions of Marcus Garvey.

After making a couple of journeys to Africa the Black Cross Navigation and Trading Company ran out of money. Garvey was a poor businessman and although he was probably honest himself, several people in his company had been involved in corruption. Garvey was arrested and charged with fraud and in 1925 was sentenced to five years imprisonment. He had served half of his sentence when President Calvin Coolidge commuted the rest of his prison term and had him deported to Jamaica.

Marcus Garvey
Marcus Garvey

In 1928 Garvey went on a lecture tour of Britain, France, Belgium, Switzerland and Canada. On Garvey's return to Jamaica he established the People's Political Party and a new daily newspaper, The Blackman. The following year Garvey was defeated in the general election for a seat in Jamaica's colonial legislature.

In July, 1932, Garvey began publishing the evening newspaper, The New Jamaican. The venture was unsuccessful and the printing presses were seized for debts in 1933. He followed this with a monthly magazine, Black Man. He also launched an organization that he hoped would raise money to help create job opportunities for the rural poor in Jamaica.

The project was not a success and in March, 1935, Garvey moved to England where he published The Tragedy of White Injustice. Marcus Garvey continued to hold UNIA conventions and to tour the world making speeches on civil rights until his death in London on 10th June, 1940.

Primary Sources

(1) Marcus Garvey, Pittsburgh Courier (12th April, 1930)

From early youth I discovered that there was prejudice against me because of my colour, a prejudice that was extended to other members of my race. This annoyed me and helped to inspire me to create sentiment that would act favorably to the black man. It was with this kind of inspiration that I returned from my trip to Europe to Jamaica in 1914, where I organized the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League.

When I organized this movement in Jamaica it was treated with contempt and scorn by a large number of the highly coloured and successful black people. In Jamaica the coloured and successful black people regard themselves as white. This is also true of the other British West Indian islands. The result is that racial movements tending to the betterment of the Negro have to undergo great difficulties. Such difficulties I encountered with the new organization. I labored in Jamaica with the hope of making the movement successful for two years. Seeing how difficult it was to succeed with only a limited amount of money at my disposal, I communicated with Dr. Booker T. Washington of Tuskegee. He encouraged me to go to the United States on a lecture tour and promised me his help. Unfortunately he died before I was able to reach America.

(2) Philip Randolph met Marcus Garvey in 1916 while making a speech on behalf of the Socialist Party. He later recalled his impression of Garvey as a political leader.

I was on a soapbox speaking on socialism, when someone pulled my coat and said, "There's a young man here from Jamaica. I said, "What does he want to talk about?" He said, "He wants to talk about a movement to develop a back-to-Africa sentiment in America."

Garvey got up on the platform, and you could hear him from 135th to 125th Street. He had a tremendous voice. When he finished speaking he sat near the platform with a sheaf of paper on which he was constantly writing, and he had stamps and envelopes, ready to send out his propaganda. I could tell from watching him even then that he was one of the greatest propagandists of his time.

(3) James Weldon Johnson of the NAACP described Marcus Garvey in the New York Age in June, 1917.

This was Harlem's first real sight of Garvey, and his magnetic personality, torrential eloquence, and intuitive knowledge of crowd psychology were all brought into play. He swept the audience along with him. He made his speech an endorsement of the new movement and a pledge of his hearty support of it; but Garvey was not the kidney to support anybody's movement.

(4) Herbert Seligman of the NAACP wrote an account of Marcus Garvey for the New York World in December, 1921.

Marcus Garvey is of medium height, his head set close down upon broad shoulders, his slender, longish arms terminating in narrow hands, he presents a sedentary almost studious type - except that one feels the orator if not the actor not far beneath his surface. His manner is easy and his voice agreeable, with a slightly English intonation that falls strangely upon the ears of Americans unaccustomed to natives of the British West Indies.

He has no illusions about the commonplaces that pass for realities in our civilization. In fact, he is quite calmly waiting for the present white civilization to go to pieces, and in fifty years he believes the native population of Africa will have seized their continent because the white governments - England, France, Italy - that now hold African territory will have been overthrown.

(5) During the summer of 1922 Marcus Garvey had a secret meeting with Edward Y. Clarke, Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. The New York Times reported Garvey's comments about meeting on 10th July, 1922)

The Ku Klux Klan is going to make this a white man's country. They are perfectly frank and honest about it. Fighting them is not going to get you anywhere.

(6) Marcus Garvey, Negro World (September, 1923)

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 about.

(7) Letter sent to the Attorney General Harry Daugherty, by Harry Pace and eight other people from New York City ( 15th January, 1923)

As the chief law enforcement officer of the nation, we wish to call your attention to a heretofore unconsidered menace to harmonious race relationships. There are in our midst certain Negro criminals and potential murderers, both foreign and American born, who are moved and actuated by intense hatred against the white race. These undesirables continually proclaim that all white people are enemies to the Negro.

The movement known as the Universal Negro Improvement Association has done much to stimulate the violent temper of this dangerous element. Its president and moving spirit is one Marcus Garvey, an unscrupulous demagogue, who has ceaselessly and assiduously sought to spread among Negroes distrust and hatred of all white people.

The official organ of the Universal Negro Improvement Association, The Negro World, of which Marcus Garvey is managing editor, sedulously and continually seeks to arouse ill-feeling between the races.

Universal Negro Improvement Association is composed chiefly of the most primitive and ignorant element of West Indian and American Negroes. The so-called respectable element of the movement are largely ministers without churches, physicians without patients, lawyers without clients and publishers without readers, who are usually in search of "easy money". In short, this organization is composed in the main of Negro sharks and ignorant Negro fanatics.

(8) Marcus Garvey, Philosophy and Opinions (1923)

The Universal Negro Improvement Association for five years has been proclaiming to the world the readiness of the Negro to carve out a pathway for himself in the course of life. Men of other races and nations have become alarmed at this attitude of the Negro in his desire to do things for himself and by himself. This alarm has become so universal that organizations have been brought into being here, there and everywhere for the purpose of deterring and obstructing this forward move of our race. Propaganda has been waged here, there and everywhere for the purpose of misinterpreting the intention of this organization; some have said that this organization seeks to create discord and discontent among the races; some say we are organized for the purpose of hating other people. Every sensible, sane and honest-minded person knows that the Universal Negro Improvement Association has no such intention. We are organized for the absolute purpose of bettering our condition, industrially, commercially, socially, religiously and politically.

(9) Kelly Miller, Marcus Garvey, Contemporary Review (April, 1927)

Marcus Garvey came to the United States less than ten years ago, unheralded, unfriended, without acquaintance, relationship, or means of livelihood. This Jamaican immigrant was thirty years old, partially educated, and 100 per cent black. He possessed neither comeliness of appearance nor attractive personality. Judged by external appraisement, there was nothing to distinguish him from thousands of West Indian blacks who flock to our seaport cities. And yet this ungainly youth by sheer indomitability of will projected a propaganda and commanded a following, within the brief space of a decade which made the whole nation mark him and write his speeches in their books.

(10) Marcus Garvey, Pittsburgh Courier (12th April, 1930)

Among the many things discussed at the first International convention of the Negro Peoples of the World, held under the auspices of the Universal Negro Improvement Association, was the great need for steamship communication among the different branches of the Negro race scattered in Africa, the Americas and the West Indies. It was in keeping with the need that I founded the Black Star Line in 1919.

Having travelled extensively throughout the world and seriously studying the economical, commercial and industrial needs of our people, I found out that the quickest and easiest way to reach them was by steamship communication. So immediately after I succeeded in forming the Universal Negro Improvement Association in America, I launched the idea of floating ships under the direction of Negroes.

Growing up as I did in my own island, and travelling out to the outside world with open eyes, I saw that the merchant marines of all countries were in the hands of white men. Captains and officers of ships were all of the white race, and their very presence in ports, dressed up in the uniforms of their respective company or nation tended to lend a prestige to the white race and compelled an impression upon the black race that aimed to lift the respect for the white race to a higher state of appreciation among the blacks. I thought if we could launch ships and have our own black captain and officers of our race, too, we would be respected in the mercantile and commercial world, thereby adding appreciative dignity to our down-trodden people.

(11) Marcus Garvey, School of African Philosophy (1937)

It must be the mission of all Negroes to have pride in their race. To think of the race in the highest terms of human living. To think that God made the race perfect, that there is no one better than you, that you have the elements of human perfection and as such you must love yourselves. Love yourselves better than anyone else. All beauty is in you and not outside of you, for God made you beautiful. Confine your affection, therefore, to your own race and God will bless you and men will honour you.

(12) Marcus Garvey, Aims and Objects of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (1937)

Africa is the motherland of all Negroes, from where all Negroes in slavery were taken against their will. It is the natural home of the race. One day all Negroes hope to look to Africa as the land of their vine and fig tree. It is necessary, therefore, to help the tribes who live in Africa to advance to a higher state of civilization.

The Negro should not have but one nation, but work with the hope that these independent nations will become parts of the great racial empire. It is necessary, therefore, to strengthen the hand of every free and independent Negro state so that they may be able to continue their independence.

Every community where the Negro lives should be developed by him in his own section, so that he may control that section or part of the community. He should segregate himself residentially in that community so as to have political power, economic power, and social power in that community.

(13) Marcus Garvey, Black Man (December, 1937)

The Negro, primarily, like the Jew, needs money, but he also needs simultaneously a strong nationalism. Let the Negro couple the urge for money with that of nationalism, so that in another hundred years when he arrives he will not have the difficulty the Jew is now having in Palestine, but he will have a formidable and well-established nation to protect him anywhere he happens to find himself with his wealth. There is no better place than Africa, his original home. The Negroes of the world, therefore, should concentrate on making money and in using a part of it for helping to establish an independent nationalism in Africa.

(14) William Patterson, The Man Who Cried Genocide (1971)

A word here about the Garvey movement would be in order. Led by a West Indian, this "home to Africa" program had stirred up wide interest. Marcus Garvey, a short, strongly built Black man with an extremely persuasive voice, had originally supported a plan calling for the unity of Blacks and whites in the United States. Meeting with formidable opposition from white racists, he turned to the idea of building a powerful Black state in Africa. He argued that the United States belonged to white men and that its 17 million Negroes should voluntarily surrender their heritage and get out. They were supposed to forget the blood spilt by their forefathers in five wars and their contributions to building the United States into a world power; to forget the 300 years of unrequited toil as slaves.

It was a fantastic dream - one that the American ruling class joyfully endorsed. In fact, Garvey won the endorsement of the Ku Klux Klan and of other forces of American reaction. It has to be admitted that he was also attempting to create in millions of Negroes a sense of pride in being Black and that, to the degree that he succeeded, a great spurt was given to the Negroes' renaissance.

(15) Paul M. Buhle, A Dreamer's Paradise Lost (1995)

The vastly larger black nationalist movement led by Marcus Garvey had its own socialistic edge. Garvey himself, a Jamaican immigrant who built the Universal Negro Improvement Association into a nationwide group based in Harlem, praised the Bolshevik Revolution and blessed anticolonial movements of many kinds with his endorsement. Among his key political associates, fellow West Indians Cyril Briggs, W. A. Domingo, and Hubert Harrison were outstanding socialists. The Crusader, a monthly in which all three participated, featured black culture, African history, Harlem affairs, radical commentary, and literary contributions from the likes of Paul Laurence Dunbar, Claude McKay, Eugene Debs, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Joining Pan-Africanism to socialism, Briggs's Crusader advocated black self-rule in Africa and the Caribbean and socialism (or, after 1921, communism) within the United States. As late as 1920, Briggs still supported the Socialist Party. Within a year, he and other black radicals had abandoned the rightward-shifting Garvey and transferred their loyalties in the direction of the Communist movement. By that time, though, the underlying momentum of black nationalism was spent.