Marcus Garvey was a self-taught Jamaican social activist and black nationalist. He founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) in 1914 and moved to Harlem in 1916, where he promoted black economic independence through his newspaper and businesses. His “Back to Africa” movement made him a lightning rod among black leaders and the FBI alike, and some historians have interpreted his conviction of mail fraud in 1922 as a politically motivated prosecution. He served two years of a four-year sentence in Atlanta before being deported to Jamaica in 1927. He later moved to London and died in 1940. (George Grantham Bain / Library of Congress)
Photo: George Grantham Bain / Library of Congress
Photo: George Grantham Bain / Library of Congress

Marcus Garvey’s audacious Pan-Africanism inspired black nationalism

During the month of February, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution will publish a daily feature highlighting African American contributions to our state and nation. This is the fifth year of the AJC Sepia Black History Month series. In addition to the daily feature, the AJC also will publish deeper examinations of contemporary African American life each Sunday.

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Marcus Garvey, born at the end of the 19th century, envisioned a world in which black people owned farms and shops, printed newspapers, operated factories and piloted steamships. Miraculously, he brought that dream into reality.

He was a dynamic speaker and a natural leader. He told black people they had a glorious history and tremendous potential. “I am the equal of any white man,” he told them. “I want you to feel the same way.”

Millions were inspired by his call for unity, creating an international network of followers.

Then, as quickly as his empire rose, it crumbled. Three years after the Black Star Line was incorporated, Garvey’s shipping line folded; his ships sank, or were sold for scrap. He was imprisoned for mail fraud, then deported.

Some of his troubles came from harassment by the Bureau of Investigation, the nascent FBI, run by a young J. Edgar Hoover, who infiltrated Garvey’s organizations and worked steadily to bring him down.

But many of his troubles came from his own faults, which included a towering ego and a lack of business sense. Plus he was plagued by an inability to find trustworthy colleagues.

While Garvey is often overlooked in contemporary accounts of black history, the arc of his life was spectacular. “This was the largest black movement of the 20th century,” said Spelman College assistant professor Asia Leeds.

Garvey’s concept of Pan-Africanism continues to influence.

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He is a national hero in Jamaica, where every August 17 is celebrated as Marcus Garvey Day. According to Garvey’s biographer Colin Grant, when Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King visited Jamaica in 1965, they placed a wreath on Garvey’s grave. King said, “He 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.”

He rose to that role from humble beginnings in St. Ann’s Bay, Jamaica. His father was a stonemason; his mother a domestic worker. He was the youngest in a blended family of 10 children.

Garvey became an apprentice printer at age 14. He read widely as a young man, including “Up From Slavery,” by Booker T. Washington, with whom he corresponded. Washington died just before Garvey immigrated to the U.S. in 1916.

In America he rapidly opened new chapters of his Universal Negro Improvement Association, traveled around the country, and established the Negro World newspaper, which eventually claimed a circulation of 500,000. He suggested the creation of factories manufacturing dark-skinned dolls for children of color, and the vertical integration of black-owned farms and markets to keep the means of production of the food supply in the black community.

Membership in UNIA swelled and the group staged yearly parades featuring thousands of UNIA “soldiers” along with female Black Cross nurses, all in uniform. At the UNIA-organized First International Conference of the Negro Peoples in Harlem, Garvey filled Madison Square Garden with 25,000 followers and was named “Provisional President of Africa.”

The title was a fantasy. Garvey had never been to Africa, nor would he ever go there. Still, his Pan-African movement was persuasive. “There was something so powerful about the cultural, psychological aspects of Garveyism,” said Leeds, co-director of Spelman’s African Diaspora Studies.

Garvey’s business ventures were, in some ways, equally fantastic. In 1919 he acquired the SS Yarmouth (renamed the Frederick Douglass) by selling stock in his venture, the Black Star Line, at $5 a share. The consensus was that Garvey overpaid for the 30-year-old vessel, which required $11,000 in repairs on its third voyage. After its fourth voyage it was cut apart and sold for scrap.

Garvey bought two more ships for the line, a Hudson River excursion boat and a yacht, but was charged with mail fraud for selling shares in a ship that the Black Star Line didn’t own.

Marcus Garvey was fond of ceremonial garb, and wore this Prussian-inspired uniform during a 1922 parade through Harlem. By this time he had announced his new self-appointed title, “Provisional President of Africa.” (AP Photo)
Photo: The Associated Press

Garvey’s ability to mobilize ranks of uniformed African Americans in a semblance of a militia made him a dangerous man, as far as the U.S. government was concerned. Hence he was targeted. But Garvey blamed many of his problems on other black organizations such as the NAACP, and traded barbs with its leader, W.E.B. DuBois.

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DuBois said Garvey was “without doubt the most dangerous enemy of the Negro race in America and in the world,” while Garvey wrote in Negro World that DuBois was a “reactionary under (the) pay of white men.”

Garvey enraged DuBois and others by meeting with the Ku Klux Klan in Atlanta to talk about segregating blacks from whites by creating an all-black nation in Africa. “There was a juncture, a point of connection between the ideologies,” said Emory University professor Walter Rucker.

While Garvey rejected the white patriarchy, he replaced it with a patriarchy of his own design. He depended on women as officers in his organizations, but women were seen as helpmates, not colleagues, said Leeds. Yet women, including his first wife, Amy Ashwood, and his second wife, Annie Jacques, found a way to use UNIA to carve new space for themselves and feminist ideas.

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The mail fraud trial took place in 1923, and Garvey represented himself in court. He was a poor advocate. After the guilty verdict, Garvey accused “damned dirty Jews” of bringing about his conviction. His appeals ran out in 1925, and he was imprisoned in the Atlanta Penitentiary. In 1927, President Calvin Coolidge commuted Garvey’s sentence and had him deported to Jamaica.

Garvey never recovered his previous stature. His newspaper did not survive past 1933. He moved from Jamaica to London, where he died in 1940 of a stroke.

Lionized in reggae music, Garvey’s Pan-Africanism lives on in Rastafarian culture. His example inspired the black nationalism of the Nation of Islam.

And he is celebrated in Africa in subtle ways, where his tri-color Pan-African flag was adopted by Biafra and Malawi, and his Black Star Line is recalled with a black star at the center of the flag of Ghana.

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