Marcus Garvey: A Life and History
Marcus Mosiah Garvey, Jr. is best known as a core supporter and founder of Black nationalism and the Pan-Africanism movement. Born in Jamaica, he was—amongst other occupations—a journalist and orator who helped found the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League (UNIA-ACL). His particular perspective and style in promoting Pan-Africanism came to be known as Garveyism. Garvey founded the Black Star Line, which strongly supported the Back-to-Africa movement and promoted the return of the African Diaspora back to their family’s ancestral origin.
Marcus Mosiah Garvey, Jr. was born to Marcus Mosiah Garvey, Sr. and Sarah Jane Richards in St. Ann’s Bay, Jamaica, on August 17th, 1887. His father was a mason, while his mother worked as a domestic worker. Garvey’s parents were able to provide a financially stable life for their children, as Garvey had ready access to his father’s large library, as well as his uncle’s library. Although Garvey had ten siblings, his sister Indiana, and himself were the only two children of the family to survive their childhoods.
As a young student in St. Ann’s Bay, Garvey first experienced racism in elementary school. Segregation between black and white students were more notable in the classroom.
Leaving Jamaica and UNIA
In 1910, at the age of 23, Marcus Garvey left Jamaica for Central America. It was during this time that Garvey was introduced to journalism, which would become a lifelong occupation for him. In Costa Rica, he worked as a timekeeper on a banana plantation for several months. In 1911, he began to work as an editor for La Nacional, a daily newspaper. He returned briefly to Jamaica in 1912, only to move to London to attend Birkbeck College from 1912-1914. There, he studied law and philosophy and worked for the African Times and Orient Review. Garvey began to sharpen his ideas connected to Black nationalism and in 1914, he founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) in Jamaica. This eventually became to be known as the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities Imperial League. In the spring of 1917, Garvey worked with others to form the first UNIA division outside of Jamaica and in 1918, he helped start the widely circulating Negro World newspaper. He was a key editor there and worked pro-bono for the newspaper until late 1920.
The success of UNIA was without question: by 1919, only five years after its founding, the organization had over two million members. The Black Star Line, a shipping line, was incorporated into the UNIA and helped facilitate the African diaspora back to the continent of Africa.
In 1923, Garvey became implicated in mail service fraud tied to the Black Star Line, a charge that was purposely mismanaged by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (then the Bureau of Investigation). It is now clear through a series of memorandums between J. Edgar Hoover, the director of the BOI at this time, and his assistants that Garvey was to be set up in order to be deported or imprisoned. Garvey was found guilty and sentenced to five years in prison. His sentence was eventually commuted a year by President Calvin Coolidge; Garvey was released in 1927 and deported back to Jamaica.
Acrimonious Relationship with Du Bois
W.E.B. Du Bois, an equally famous supporter of the Pan-Africanist movement, and Marcus Garvey had a notoriously friction-filled relationship. Du Bois heavily criticized Garvey and described him as “either a lunatic or a traitor.” Garvey, on the other hand, believed that Du Bois was prejudiced against him because he had darker skin. Garvey described Du Bois as a “mulatto” and a “white man’s nigger.”
Garvey’s Later Years
In 1928, Garvey presented the League of Nations with a petition that outlined abuses that Africans had endured due to the Atlantic slave trade. A year later, he established Jamaica’s first modern political party, the People’s Political Party (PPP). In 1931, Garvey launched another company, the Edelweiss Amusement company, which helped artists earn their living through their craft. Several years later, in 1935, Garvey left Jamaica for London, a trip he had made years ago as a young man. He passed away in London, 1940.
For those interested in learning more about Marcus Garvey, as well as Black nationalism, here are some helpful links.
- Afronet: Afronet is an African American portal site that provides current information about the African American and African experience.
- The Basis of Black Power: This links to a powerful paper written by Black Panther’s leader Stokely Carmichael for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. The paper coined the term “Black Power.”
- Black Nationalism: An excerpt from chapter nine of The Black Experience in America by Norman Coombs.
- Black Press USA: This is the only national website featuring news exclusively from African-American journalists and Black community publications.
- Footsteps African American History: A magazine that celebrates the heritage of African Americans.
- International People’s Democratic Uhuru Movement: Pan-African nationalist group with chapters throughout the United States. The site describes the group’s platform, current campaigns and membership information.
- The Marcus Garvey and UNIA Papers Project: This project is a research effort of the Coleman African Studies Center at UCLA. The website discusses Garvey’s life and role in popular history, as well as African nationalism.
- Mathaba.Net – Black: This is a directory of Black nationalist websites.
- W.E.B. DuBois: A biographical sketch from the Stamp on Black History project.
- W. E. B. DuBois: A collection of articles including excerpts from the Dead Sociologists’ Society and “The Autobiography of W.E.B. DuBois: A Soliloquy on Viewing My Life from the Last Decade of Its First Century.”
Marcus Garvey, circa 1925, leader of Harlem’s Black Nationalism Movement, in New York City.