The Right Excellent Marcus Mosiah Garvey is one of only seven Jamaican nationals to have earned the distinction of becoming a National Hero. He was also a hero in the hearts and mind of many people globally. Garvey exemplified selflessness in every sense of the word and conveyed through his relentless efforts, his fight to eradicate oppression of all forms toward his race. Garvey’s advocacy won over many admirers and followers who bought into his concept of being systematically liberated economically, politically and socially. This blog highlights Garvey’s quest to empower the Black race by his assemblage of the largest mass movement which ultimately propelled him to the status that he holds today, generations after his passing.
Marcus Garvey was born on August 17th, 1887 in St. Ann’s Bay. Born to parents Marcus Garvey Sr. and Sara Jane Richards, Garvey was what we refer to in Jamaica as the last child or the wash belly of 11 children. His father had a career as a stone mason and his mother was a farmer and a domestic helper. Garvey Sr. can be accredited as the one who had the greatest impact on his personality and ambition. It’s the same indomitable spirit that they both shared that Garvey would use later on in his life as he was challenged often externally with his plans. Garvey’s love for reading had much to do with his father setting up a library as home where his curious mind led him to become an avid reader.
Due to financial stress within his family, young Garvey was forced to drop out of school at the age of 14. However, he was able to compensate for his absence by embarking on his first experience in the working world by becoming a printer’s probationer. It was around this time of his life that Garvey started becoming vocal as his awareness about racial injustice grew. He started partaking in union activities as well as going on strike for his company to pay higher wages to his co-workers. It was one of Garvey’s most powerful moments but despite him being granted a pay increase, he opted to break ties with his co-workers when they were refused. Taking action didn’t produce the change that Garvey wanted, but it was a stepping stone for better things to come as these experiences only accelerated the passionate side of him, pertaining to these social injustices.
A couple years later Garvey visited Central America where he got the opportunity to work as a newspaper editor and decided to use the medium to write about migrant workers on plantations and the exploitation that they faced. He would later move to London and attend Birkbeck College for a short tenure. While there, he worked for the Orient Review and African Times which corresponded with his Pan African beliefs.
Upon returning to Jamaica and having gained much perspective as a result of his exposure from traveling and witnessing the conditions where people of color stood in society internationally, Garvey established the Universal Negro Improvement Association (U.N.I.A) to help combat the ill-treatment of his people. The formation of the U.N.I.A came from the idea of having Africans become independent of a society that he felt was flawed and was not in favor of his race. Garvey’s objective was to unify all Africans around the world to inaugurate a country and government of their own. For Garvey’s organization to implement their plan, he felt it was imperative that he travel to the United States because the support he was receiving in Jamaica wasn’t enough for his vision to come to fruition. Garvey reached out to Booker T. Washington, an American educator and founder of the Tuskegee institution Birkbeck College, for help with growing his U.N.I.A movement in Harlem and New York, where he had settled. During his time there he emphasized his separatist philosophy of social, political, and economic freedom for Blacks. Moving beyond merely practicing what he preached to his small group of supporters, Garvey founded the Negro World newspaper as a means of spreading his message.
With the U.N.I.A popularity growing exponentially, it became evident in 1919 that they didn’t place any limitations on themselves and they launched a shipping company called the Black Star Line. Its purpose was to transport Blacks to Africa, as Garvey firmly believed in repatriation. Simultaneously, Garvey kicked off the Negroes Factories Association, a succession of companies that would try to regulate a viable economy for Blacks only. This would entail assisting Black owned businesses who employed Blacks with producing and selling goods.
By the summer of August 1920, the UNIA had gained a cult following which quickly grew to 4 million members and the UNIA kept an International Convention at Madison Square Garden in New York City. The event brought in an audience of 25,000 that consisted of people from all over the world. The focal point of Garvey’s speech was for Africans to be proud of their culture and history. The audience felt his words were sublime, but not all concurred, particularly a few Black elite leaders. They thought his separatist philosophy was conflicting and consequently his stance created a lot of tension. W.E.B. Du Bois, deemed Garvey’s leadership as detrimental to the Black race while Garvey felt that W.E.B. was aligning himself with the Whites.
Du Bois wasn’t the lone enemy that Garvey had to contend with, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover was intent on trying to assassinate Garvey’s character. Hoover went far and beyond to get inside information on the UNIA and even made history in the process by hiring the first Black FBI agent to befriend Garvey and the UNIA to spy on him. The spies that were assigned placed foreign matter into the fuel that caused some erosion of the movement but vandalizing the office of the Black Star Line made matters worse.
Quite possibly an effort to execute the stratagem, Marcus Garvey and three of his associates from the UNIA were charged with mail fraud relating to the Black Star Line. What was peculiar about the case was that the trial records held evidence that was not thoroughly assessed. They also claimed that the shipping line’s books carried inaccurate accounting. Garvey was of the impression that he was being blacklisted and tried to plead his case but was unsuccessful in doing so. Garvey was deported back to Jamaica in 1927 after serving time in prison.
Post prison saw Garvey continuing where he left off with his movement in Jamaica before moving on to London, but his influence was significantly tamed due to his absence while being incarcerated for four years. In what looked like Garvey taking drastic measures, he decided to partner with White supremacist Senator Theodore Bilbo of Mississippi to orchestrate a reparation scheme. They worked under the Greater Liberia Act of 1939 where they decided to deport 12 million African-Americans to Liberia at the expense of the federal government to attenuate unemployment. Though it may have coincided with Garvey’s plans, the decision was a deceptive one. There was a hidden agenda behind it. Senator Bilbo only approved of it because he saw a great patriotic benefit. Because Garvey believed in an all-Black country and the African continent was the destination of his choice, he agreed with the move. Senator Bilbo on the other hand saw it fitting as it was an opportunity for him to steer the plan, which would eventually turn America into an all-White country.
Marcus Garvey died in London in June 1940 due to health complications. Having to abide by travel prohibitions as a result of World War 2, an inurnment was done in London. In 1964, two years after Jamaica’s independence, he was disinterred and taken to Jamaica where he would become a national hero and buried at a shrine in the National Heroes Park.
Marcus Garvey may never have thought that his work and dedication would have created such an impact or to have been bestowed with the highest honor issued by his country, that of National Hero. This designation is given to Jamaican nationals who rendered distinguished service.
Garvey’s philosophy and beliefs resonates to this day. He believed strongly in his back to Africa movement because he saw where there was unwillingness by the White elite across nations to co-exist with Blacks, especially where there is a perceived threat. Though there has been a vast improvement in the life and welfare of Blacks since we now have more rights and privileges than we did then, in a general sense the power is still very much unbalanced. To site the simile often used in sports: Blacks are the players while the Whites are the owners of the teams. History shall absolve him.
Tarik Daley is a Researcher and Blogger