Marcus Mosiah Garvey (1887-1940), a black man from the West Indies, was the first to forcefully articulate the concept of African nationalism—of black people returning to Africa, the continent of their forefathers, to build a great nation of their own.
Marcus Garvey was born in St. Ann's Bay, Jamaica, on Aug. 17, 1887. He went to elementary school there and at the age of 14 became an apprentice in the printing trade. In 1903 he went to the capital, Kingston, to work as a printer. He soon became involved in public activities and helped form the Printers Union, the first trade union in Jamaica. He subsequently published a periodical called the Watchman.
In 1910 began a series of travels that transformed Garvey from an average person concerned about the problems of the underprivileged to an African nationalist determined to lift an entire race from bondage and debasement. He visited Costa Rica, Panama, and Ecuador. After briefly returning home, he proceeded to England, where contacts with African nationalists stimulated in him a keen interest in Africa and in black history. In each country he visited, he noted that the black man was in an inferior position, subject to the whim, caprice, and fancy of stronger races. His reading of Booker T. Washington's Up from Slavery at this time also had great effect upon him.
On his return in 1914 from England, where he had done further study, Garvey formed the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) and the African Communities League. These organizations were intended "to work for the general uplift of the Negro peoples of the world."
In 1916 Garvey went to the United States to raise funds to carry on the work of his Jamaican organizations. He was immediately caught up in the agitation of the times, and his voice thundered in the evenings on the streets of Harlem in New York City. A New York branch of the UNIA was established, soon followed by branches in other cities in the United States, in Central and South America, and in the Caribbean. The expansion of the UNIA was fostered by its official organ Negro World, a newspaper published in English, Spanish, and French. Published in New York City from 1918 to 1933, it was succeeded by the monthly Black Man, which ran through the 1930s, published after 1934 in London.
The Negro World reached out to black communities all over the world. It even penetrated into the interior of Africa, although it had been banned there by the white rulers. Garvey stressed the need for blacks to return to Africa for the building of a great nation, but he realized that until this was accomplished Africans needed to make themselves economically independent wherever they were. He encouraged blacks to start their own businesses, taking the commerce of their ghettos into their own hands.
Together with the American clergyman Archbishop George A. McGuire, Garvey formed the African Orthodox Church. This was in accordance with one of his basic principles, for he believed that each race must see God through its own racial spectacles. The Black Christ and the Black Madonna were proclaimed at the UNIA convention of 1924.
The Black Star Line shipping company and the Negro Factories Corporation were to be the commercial arms of the Garvey movement. It was the failure of the shipping venture that gave Garvey's enemies their chance to destroy him. Investments in the line were lost, and Garvey was imprisoned in 1925 in the United States. After serving 2 years 10 months of a 5-year sentence, he was deported to Jamaica. Previously, his plans for colonization in Liberia had been sabotaged by the colonial powers who brought pressure to bear on the Liberian government. As a result, the land which had been granted to the Garvey organization for the settlement of overseas Africans was given to the white American industrialist Harvey Firestone, and the expensive equipment shipped to Liberia for the use of Garvey's colonists was seized.
In Jamaica, Garvey attempted to enter local politics, but the restricted franchise of the time did not allow the vote to the black masses. He went to England and continued his work of social protest and his call for the liberation of Africa. He died in London on June 10, 1940.
Marcus Garvey was married twice. His second wife, Amy Jacques, whom he married in 1922, bore him two sons.
The Garvey movement was the greatest international movement of African peoples in modern times. At its peak, in 1922-1924, the movement counted over 8 million followers. The youngest cadres were taken in at 5 years of age and, as they grew older, they graduated to the sections for older children.
Garvey emphasized the belief in the One God, the God of Africa, who should be visualized through black eyes. He told black people to become familiar with their ancient history and their rich cultural heritage. He called for pride in the black race—for example, he made black dolls for black children. His was the first voice clearly to demand black power. It was he who said, "A race without authority and power is a race without respect."
In emphasizing the need to have separate black institutions under black leadership, Garvey anticipated the mood and thinking of the future black nationalists by nearly 50 years. He died, as he lived, an unbending apostle of African nationalism. The symbols which he made famous, the black star of Africa and the red, black, and green flag of African liberation, continued to inspire younger generations of African nationalists.
Further Reading on Marcus Mosiah Garvey
For Garvey's views the definitive work is edited by his widow, Amy Jacques Garvey, Philosophy and Opinions of Marcus Garvey (2 vols., 1923-1925). Her Garvey and Garveyism (1963) is a biography. E. David Cronon, Black Moses: The Story of Marcus Garvey and the Universal Negro Improvement Association (1955), is a well-documented work which, however, fails to assess accurately Garvey's impact. A biographical sketch of Garvey is in Wilhelmena S. Robinson, Historical Negro Biographies (1967). See also E. Franklin Frazier, "The Garvey Movement" in August Meier and Elliott Rudwick, eds., The Making of Black America: Essays in Negro Life and History (1969), and C. L. R. James, A History of Pan-African Revolt (1969).