Marcus Garvey

Marcus Garvey was born on the West Indian island of Jamaica in 1887.  He worked as a printer, labor organizer, and later as a newspaper publisher.  He attempted to expose the racial situation inside Jamaica and give the darker colored Jamaicans fairer treatment.  After becoming dismayed by the living conditions of workers and the exploitation by white and mulatto overseers, Garvey tried in vain to persuade Jamaican officials to intervene.  In 1912, he was exiled from Jamaica to London by the British Colonial government.  There he met Duse Mohamed, a Black Egyptian who was promoting the defeat of European colonialism everywhere.  He worked on Mohamed’s magazine Africans Times and the Orient Review.  There he met Africans and studied about the continent, and became a Pan African nationalist.  Strongly influenced by Booker T. Washington’s autobiography, Up From Slavery, he returned to Jamaica in 1914 and set up an organization called the Universal Negro Improvement Association and the African Communities League (UNIA) to unite people of color all over the world.

            Garvey moved to New York in 1916 and resided in Harlem.  He recruited members during the war years, but was not successful because the economy was in good condition.  However, with World War I (WWI) ending, the race riots of 1919 swayed many African American ex-soldiers to join his organization.  Garvey was able to increase his numbers through his brilliant analysis of the world situation and Blacks in relations to the new economic and political trends.  For instance, WWI, in Garvey’s view, “had been a fratricidal war among Europeans for control over colonies in Africa and throughout the nonwhite world.”  He reasoned that in the future Africans in the Western Hemisphere would find themselves in rapidly declining circumstances.  The unskilled poor Blacks would become obsolete in the work force with advancing technology.  The Black intelligentsia would face frustration in societies that reserved the privilege of advancement for whites.  If left unchanged, Garvey’s world would consume the populations of Africa as the industrialized nations competed over its mineral wealth.  Like Bishop Henry McNeil Turner, central to Garvey’s philosophy was the need to unite all Black people and to give them a racial self-confidence that would enable them to throw off white oppression.

Economic independence was another factor in the UNIA plan.  Garvey was one of the first Blacks to urge his followers to “buy Black—to patronize their own businessmen,” similar to Booker T. Washington’s stress on self-sufficiency.  The UNIA opened several business projects, including the Negro Factories Corporation to assist Black businesses.  Garvey founded the Black Star Steamship Line to serve as a commercial and spiritual tie among Black people everywhere.  Like Bishop Turner’s shipping attempts, the Black Star Ship Line stocks were sold to Blacks only and Garvey promised stock buyers that they would not only be helping their race, but might also make a profit.  Garvey collected enough money between 1919 and 1925 to buy four secondhand ships and to begin trade in the Caribbean.

            For Garvey, the only path to economic independence and Black pride was the redemption of “Africa for the Africans.”  According to Garvey, the Black man must organize the world over and build up for the race a mighty nation of their own in Africa.  In August, 1920, the Garvey movement was at its peak.  In New York City, 25,000 African Americans attended a month-long convention.  Black Nationalism and an African homeland was the focal point.  Garvey was designated the “Provisional President of the African Republic.”

            Garvey was aware that most of Africa was still under colonial rule.  He also felt that Africans would need to be brought into the 20th century.  Using Liberia as a base, Garvey proposed sending a limited number of African Americans (20,000 to 30,000 families at first) with skills, professions and capital to settle in Liberia.  Liberia was the only independent Republic in West Africa at the time and was experiencing a financial crisis and needed funds to pay off a national debt.  Garvey offered the money in exchange for settlement of his people in Liberia.  After 1920, several teams of his representatives visited Liberia to lay the groundwork for his plan.  The United Stated had sent W.E.B. DuBois to represent the State Department and to counter Garvey’s plan.  The British were also concerned about Garvey’s policies on African liberation.  DuBois made the UNIA seem like a threat to the Americo-Liberians (an elite group of descendants of African Americans from North America).  The Americo-Liberians were convinced that Garvey had a secret plan to take over the country, a plan which he in fact did hold.  To the delight of the United States and the European colonial powers which felt threatened by Garvey’s Africa for the African policy, Liberia broke off negotiations and refused to allow any UNIA members to settle in Liberia after accepting five million dollars from the Garvey movement.

            Garvey had promised to liberate Africa through his African Legion and Black Flying Eagles.  Many of the affluent African American leadership opposed Garvey and the UNIA.  The Black elite—businessmen and intellectuals—resented Garvey; similar to the way Bishop Turner was resented.  A. Philip Randolph of the Messenger, a socialist journal, thought Garvey’s Africa would be a reactionary dictatorship, not a democracy.  Robert Abbott, of the influential Chicago Defender, arranged to have Garvey harassed for selling stock in Illinois without a license.  African American Churchmen resented his establishment of an African Orthodox Church, which threatened to win members from them.  W.E.B. DuBois, editor of the NAACP magazine, The Crisis, accused Garvey of being the worst enemy of the Black race.  He attempted to work on a number of Pan African Conferences to bring together intellectual Blacks and upper-class Blacks whose aim was to push for the independence of Africa away from colonial control. The Marcus Garvey Movement was the largest Black movement in the history of America.