Garvey, Marcus (1887-1940)

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Garvey, Marcus (1887-1940)

As an activist who promoted Black pride, Marcus Garvey founded one of the largest mass movements of Black Americans. Garvey's United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) offered new hope for working-class Blacks in the 1920s. At the same time, Harlem Renaissance artists also encouraged racial pride like Garvey, but within that movement opportunities came to only a limited number of creative African American individuals. Garvey's clarion call for Black nationalism resonated primarily among lower-and working-class blacks and inspired numerous Black mass-appeal leaders and movements. The appeal of Garvey himself faded by the late 1920s, but he remained a complex and controversial figure for his views on Black nationalism and cultural militancy, which energized many Black Americans in the post-World War I era.

Although he would become a pioneering Black nationalist in the United States, Garvey grew up in rather inauspicious surroundings in Jamaica. He was born on Saint Ann's Bay, Jamaica, on August 17, 1887. As a young man, Garvey moved to Kingston, where he worked as a printer and editor. After traveling extensively in the West Indies and Central America and living briefly in England, Garvey became convinced that Black people suffered a sort of universal cultural and economic exploitation wherever they lived outside Africa. Garvey worked to resolve this by preaching cultural unification of Blacks worldwide, stressing the idea of going back to Africa. In 1914, Garvey organized the Universal Negro Improvement Association in Jamaica as the organizational arm of his Black nationalist "Back to Africa" Movement. Soon his oratorical skills drew many supporters. By the time Garvey moved to the United States in 1916, the UNIA had become a budding international movement for downtrodden Blacks seeking help in improving their lives as a collective voice. It was the desperate post-World War I Black population of inner-city New York that provided Garvey with the most recruits and support.

By the early 1920s, Garvey had made Harlem the home base for the UNIA. During numerous rallies, parades, and similar demonstrations, Garvey preached a message of racial pride and cultural unity to millions of Blacks throughout the United States and the world. Garvey's then-radical message appealed especially to Black Americans who, as a result of the "Great Migration" of the early twentieth century (which had moved millions of blacks from the rural South to the urban North), could easily spread Garvey's message through their new urban-based culture. Garvey's fervent nationalism became epitomized in his cry, "Up, Up You Mighty Race! You Can Accomplish What You Will!" By the mid-1920s, the UNIA claimed almost two and a half million members and sympathizers, although in retrospect that number seems inflated.

Yet, by the late 1920s, the mass cultural appeal of Marcus Garvey and the UNIA quickly decreased. In 1925, Garvey received a five-year prison sentence for mail fraud, even though the evidence indicated that his subordinates may have committed the crimes without Garvey's knowledge. In 1927, President Coolidge commuted Garvey's sentence and ordered him deported to Jamaica. Without the dynamic Marcus Garvey as its leader, the UNIA quickly disintegrated into a moribund movement. As the Great Depression swept America in the 1930s, Garvey's once forceful movement slipped into anonymity. Garvey sought to resurrect the movement in London in 1935, but gained little success and died a largely forgotten man in London in 1940.

Though Garvey faded from popularity after his incarceration in 1925, his teachings and ideas became a lasting legacy. His emphasis on racial pride, understanding the African heritage, and Black unity shaped the thinking of Malcolm X (whose father was a Garveyite) and the program of the Black Muslims in the 1930s. Garvey's memory also inspired the Black Power movement of the 1960s. Moreover, Garvey's stress on self-reliance is still an important theme among many African-American community leaders. Marcus Garvey remains an undisputed icon of Black pride.

—Irvin D. Solomon

Further Reading:

Cronon, E. David. Black Moses: The Story of Marcus Garvey and the Universal Negro Improvement Association. Madison, University of Wisconsin Press, 1969.

Garvey, Amy Jacques, editor. Philosophy and Opinions of Marcus Garvey, or, Africa for the Africans. London, Cass, 1967.

Hill, Robert A., editor. The Marcus Garvey and Universal Negro Improvement Association Papers, 7 Vols. Berkeley, University of California Press, 1983-90.

Jamaica Library Service. Garvey Centenary, 1887-1987: A Select Bibliography. Kingston, Jamaica Library Service, 1987.

Martin, Tony. Race First: The Ideological and Organizational Struggles of Marcus Garvey and the Universal Negro Improvement Association. Westport, Connecticut, Greenwood Press, 1976.

Stein, Judith. The World of Marcus Garvey: Race and Class in Modern Society. Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 1986.