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Marcus Garvey: Who Was He?

“GOD and Nature first made us what we are, and out of our creative genius we make ourselves what we want to be.  Follow always that great law.  Let the sky and GOD be our limit and ETERNITY our measurement.”  [Marcus Garvey]

Today marks the one-hundred-twenty-third birthday of one of our most remarkable leaders – Marcus Mosiah Garvey.

Marcus Garvey was born on August 17, 1887 in Jamaica.  He was one of eleven children.  Unfortunately, nine of his siblings died during childhood, leaving him and his older sister, Indiana surviving into adulthood.

There were three aspects of his life that were critical in the development of Mr. Garvey’s character as a man.

First, at the early age of fourteen, he was an apprentice in the printing industry in his godfather’s shop, and later with his uncle, who published a newspaper in Kingston, Jamaica.  Through these experiences, Mr. Garvey learned how, and proceeded to communicate his ideas to millions of people of color throughout the world.

Secondly, he was an avid churchgoer, but not solely for religious purposes.  He went to church also to study the oratorical styles of preachers, in an attempt to enhance his own speaking skills.  In all aspects, his powerwful speaking ability allowed him to become a phenomenal grassroots leader.

Thirdly, but not least, was his travel outside of Jamaica between 1910 and 1914 throughout various countries in the world.  In every place he went, he noticed that Black people wer severely mistreated and were at the bottom of the ‘totum pole,’ and he wondered why.  While he was living in London, England, he read Booker T. Washington’s autobiography, ‘Up From Slavery,’ which made it clear to him that he was destined to be a leader for Black people.  His travels and Booker T. Washington’s book raised various questions in Garvey’s mind, as he indicated in one of his speeches, “Where is the Black man’s Government? Where is his king and kingdom? Where is his president, his country, and his ambassador, his army, his navy, his men of big affairs? I could not find them, I will help to raise them up.”

Garvey returned home to Jamaica in 1915, and organized the Universal Negro Improvement and Conservation Association and the African Communities League, later called the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA).  The purpose of this group was: To uplift the status of Black people in Jamaica,; “To establish a universal confraternity among the race, to promote the spirit of race pride and love, and to establish Commissionaries or Agencies in the principal countries of the world for the protection of all Negroes, irrespective of nationality, and to strengthen the imperialism of independent African states.”

Garvey used the motto, “One God! One Aim! One Destiny!,” in initiating his Pan-African movement that he hoped would affect the living conditions of Black people he had encountered during his travels.  However, he was not successful in Jamaica.  In 1915 he sent a letter to Booker T. Washington, inquiring of establishing such a movement in the United States.  Mr. Washington welcomed this with open arms.  Unfortunately, Booker T. Washington died before Garvey was able to make his trip to the United States.  In March of 1916, when Garvey arrived in New York City, he was received by a large number of Blacks – some who had migrated from Southern states, and others who were immigrants of the West Indies.  Through his following, Garvey made the UNIA operational in New York in 1917.

Marcus Garvey challenged Blacks to rid themselves of their second-class status by no longer looking or thinking of themselves as being second-class citizens.  He reminded them of the glories of our African past.  He used religious symbols, including a Black Madonna with child, Black Angels, Biblical Saints, and Bible passages that referred to Africa (specifically Psalm 68:31 – “Princes shall come out of Egypt; Ethiopia shall soon stretch out her hands to GOD.”).  He built racial pride and solidarity,  In one of his speeches, he said, “Up, up, You mighty race! You can accomplish what you will!  The Negro was not at the bottom because he was held in contempt by Whites, he was held in contempt by Whites, because he was at the bottom.”

By 1919 Garvey had two million followers, and by 1923 he had six million members of the UNIA.  In a speech that he delivered on June 6, 1928 at the Royal Albert Hall in London, England, he stated that he had eleven million members residing in Africa, the United States, South and Central America, Canada, and the West Indies.  He had also established Liberty Halls – UNIA meeting places in cities across the United States.  In 1918 Garvey began circulation of UNIA’s magazine, ‘The Negro World,’ and by 1922 more than two hundred members were receiving this magazine.  Additionally, he published this magazine in French and Spanish for West Indian immigrants who had not learned the English language.

Some of Garvey’s followers incldued Author – James Weldon Johnson, and Pastors Earl Little (Father of Malcolm X) and George Alexander McGuire, an Episcopal Priest.  McGuire was not a member of UNIA, but he and Garvey agreed on one thing: “No constructive program for the Negro can be effective which underestimates the hold his religious institutions have upon him.” [Marcus Garvey]

Another one of Garvey’s most entrepreneurial accomplishments was his establishment of the ‘Negro Factories Corporation,’ in 1919.  He also opened a chain of restaurants, clothing stores, steam laundries, and print shops that employed over a thousand Black people by 1922.  Also in 1919, Garvey formed the ‘Black Star Line,’ a steamship company that would transport Blacks to Africa so that they could build up the continent.  Unfortunately, although he had raised enough capital for this business ($610,000.00), this venture was not successful because he was not able to maintain a positive negotian relationship with the Liberian government, where his passengers would resettle.  He also was arrested and indicted for mail fraud in 1922, for supposedly improperly using the mail system to solicit and receive funds for the ‘Black Star Line.’  The U.S. Government convicted him to five years in prison.  However, after several months of appeals, he was released after two years.  His sentence was commuted by then President Calvin Coolidge on the premise that he would be deported to Jamaica.

After leaving prison, Marcus Garvey made his home in London, England and remained active with the UNIA.  He was never allowed to reenter the United States, even though he held two UNIA conventions in 1936 and 1938 in Toronto, Canada.  Marcus Mosiah Garvey died in London, England on June 10, 1940.

“Liberate the minds of men and ultimately you will liberate the bodies of men.” [Marcus Garvey]

I wonder what Marcus Garvey would say today of the status of African-American is he was here.  What do you think?


2 Responses to “Marcus Garvey: Who Was He?”

  1. I don’t know if this blog is still active, but thanks for reminding people what a potent and majestic force Marcus Garvey was for our people. Definitely a great entry!

    • Thanks for responding to this blog. Yes it is still active, however, I/We have not been posting regularly or as we should. We will begin posting again more frequently very soon. Thanks so much again.

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