Home > Uncategorized > February 8 – Marcus Garvey

February 8 – Marcus Garvey

A big thank you again to Nell Ryder for guest-authoring yesterday’s post on Nina Simone!!

And now, from guest-author to reader-recommendation, we shift our focus to a slightly more controversial figure in Black History.  This individual, brought to my attention by another friend and colleague (that would be you, Aidan), sought “to unite all people of African ancestry of the world to one great body to establish a country and absolute government of their own.”

J. Edgar Hoover, then-head of the FBI, called him an “undesirable alien.”  W.E.B. Dubois called him “without doubt, the most dangerous enemy of the Negro race in America and in the world… either a lunatic or a traitor.”  And US Senator Theodore Bilbo, a segregationist and white supremacist, lent him his support by proposing the US deport 12 million Black Americans to Liberia at the federal government’s expense “to relieve unemployment.”

Who was this polarizing person in Black History?

Marcus Mosiah Garvey, Jr. was born in Jamaica in 1887 to a working class family.  He developed a love for reading at a young age, and would quit school at age 14 to begin working in a series of printing houses and newspapers across Jamaica, Costa Rica and Panama.  Then, at the age of 25, Garvey left for London to study Law and Philosophy at Birkbeck College.  Based on his own travels and work experience, he began to see the abuse of the Africans as a worldwide issue, and came to believe that the only way for those of African descent to improve their condition was by coming together in an effort to reclaim Africa from colonial powers and establish a great, self-sufficient African homeland.

With that ultimate goal in mind, Garvey returned to Jamaica and set to work. In just 5 short years, he:

  • Formed the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities (Imperial) League (UNIA-ACL) to unite Africa and its Diaspora into “one grand racial hierarchy.”  This organization’s membership would soon number in the millions.
  • Moved to New York and embarked on a 38-state speaking tour to promote the social, political and economic freedom of Blacks.
  • Established and published the Negro World weekly newspaper which had a readership of over 500,000 per week at its peak, and which was banned in colonial territories.
  • Incorporated the Black Star Line, a shipping line modeled after the White Star Line to transport goods and eventually African Americans throughout his envisioned African global economy.
  • Initiated a number of businesses including grocery stores, restaurants, laundries, publishing houses and the Negro Factories Corporation, intended “to manufacture every marketable commodity.”
  • Began the groundwork for The Liberia Program to develop the African nation of Liberia into a Homeland and base of operations for Africans across the world, complete with colleges, universities, industry and transportation.

Of course, all of Garvey’s accomplishments were not without controversy or conflict.  His methods and his politics rubbed many people, Black and White, the wrong way, and he made numerous enemies along the way.  Some suspected him of mismanagement of funds, others accused him of fraud. Many were unsettled by his radicalism, and many bristled at his informal alliance with the Ku Klux Klan, a group he claimed was “better friends of the race than all other groups of hypocritical whites put together.”

In an attempt to neutralize his influence, the FBI, the US Postal Service and the Attorney General launched an investigation into Garvey’s dealings, but failed to find any evidence of criminal activity.  Not to be deterred, they fabricated a Mail Fraud charge, and in a trial fraught with false testimony and bunk evidence, delivered a guilty verdict and had him thrown into the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary for 2.5 years, until President Coolidge commuted his sentence and had him deported to Jamaica. He then returned to London where he lived and worked until his death.

Garvey died on June 10, 1940, but the circumstances and location of his death are still debated.  He was initially buried in London because of war-related travel restrictions, but exhumed in 1964 and his body repatriated to Jamaica where he was buried a National Hero.  His legacy is his Pan-African philosophy, which has since inspired numerous groups and movements ranging from the Nation of Islam to the Rastafarians, who see him as nothing less than a prophet.  Suffice it to say, this was a complicated man, both in life and in death.

thanks for reading,


“Look for me in the whirlwind or the storm, look for me all around you, for, with God’s grace, I shall come and bring with me countless millions of black slaves who have died in America and the West Indies and the millions in Africa to aid you in the fight for Liberty, Freedom and Life.”
– Marcus Garvey

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