A century ago, this Jamaican founded the most powerful organization in modern black history. His legacy lives to date and he remains the tutelary figure of Pan-Africanism.
At the origins of a commitment
Marcus Mosiah Garvey was born on August 17, 1887 in St Ann’s Bay, Jamaica. He is one of the two children who reached adulthood out of 11 siblings. His father was a literate Christian who conveyed the taste of reading to him. At the age of 14, he was working in a printing press and at an early stage, he felt the need to fight against injustice and inequality. In 1907, he took part of the first strike of the unions of the Jamaican printers, which led to his blacklisting and then dismissal.
He went to work in Central America and South America where he discovered, horrified, the conditions of black employees in the region and those from the West Indies. He says “ The Negro is marginalized everywhere, and forcibly maintained at the bottom of the social ladder of humanity as a result of the color of their skin. Without the least consideration, neither for his human qualities, nor for what could be his intelligence or his gifts. Nowhere does the Negro enjoy the least human dignity; everywhere, he is a serf, a slave”
Garvey organized African workers and gave voice in dissident newspapers. He was later expelled by Costa Rican authorities and returned to Jamaica where he continued his activism.
The birth of a thought
He left for London, capital of the British Empire, where he thought he could make more impact. He was giving speeches in the street. In his journey, he was impacted when reading ‘’ Up from slavery ‘’ of the African-American activist Booker T. Washington. He came out convinced that scientific and economic emancipation is fundamental to raise the Black world.
As he was in contact with some Africans of the continent, the terrible injustice committed by the colonizers in Africa came on the top of his concerns. He took law and philosophy courses and was under the tutelage of the Black Egyptian Dusé Ali Muhammad who gave him basics of African history. Garvey learned that Egypt and Carthage were Black civilizations.
With refined ideas and boosted by the African historical consciousness, he founded the UNIA-ACL – Universal Association for the Advancement of Negro-League of the African community -. The purpose of his movement: to liberate Africa from colonialism and to make the continent a political, economic, industrial, military empire and the Promised Land for all Africans in the world. The motto was one aim, one God, one destiny. It is in the United States that he will give the UNIA all his power.
UNIA, the culmination of Garveyism
Marcus Garvey discovered that USA is a land of contrast: a racism of extreme violence and a country of opportunity where Blacks succeed the best. He traveled 38 states and his great charisma hit the mark. With his fiery speeches, he racked up supporters and laid the groundwork for UNIA in the black neighborhood of Harlem in New York.
The project of a strong Africa, renewing its position as the civilizer of humanity, managed to federate. Memberships flocked from everywhere. In 1921, the UNIA counted the astronomical figure of 6 million members and would have had 1100 sections in 40 countries. Its newspaper The Negro’s World was dispatched throughout the Americas in several languages.
Garvey said in the early editorials of Negro’s World: “Africa must be liberated, and we must all dedicate our lives, our energy and our blood to this sacred cause.”
He created the Black Star Line shipping company that collected a staggering sum of $ 10 million from small black investors, even the poorest contributed. Very quickly, the company owned three cargo ships used to convey its goods, but also to serve the project aiming to bring Blacks back to Africa. Wherever his ships were berthing, crowds of Blacks were coming to cheer them. Garvey’s boats carried 4,000 tons of construction equipment and experts laying the groundwork for construction sites in Liberia. The goal was to build a city that would challenge Western megacities.
In 1919 Garvey founded the Negro Factories Corporation which enabled the creation of chains of food stores, restaurants, dyeing shops, garment workshops, fashion stores, hat factories, black doll factories, laundries, hotels, publishing houses … Between 1920 and 1924, the UNIA and its economic subsidiaries, schools, all run by blacks, probably employed of some thousands of people.
Marcus Garvey laid the foundations of a unique African State with himself as the elected President. During his international conventions, he gathered thousands of delegates from Americas, Europe and Africa. He provided the Nation with a flag in 1920, an elite, an embryo of land and air forces. Nurses of the African Black Cross paraded in front of him. He adopted the “Declaration of Black Peoples Rights around the world”.
The war with W.E.B. DuBois
The African-American activist W.E.B DuBois is an early actor of pan-Africanism. Though DuBois and Garvey both wanted the emancipation of all Africans in the world, everything was opposing them about the fighting method. DuBois – who was fiercely opposed to Booker T Washington’s submission policy – was the greatest pan-African leader before Garvey.
DuBois was a light-skinned bourgeois academic who advocated black integration in the West and negotiations with the colonizers to liberate Africa. Garvey was a self-taught, dark-skinned man who wanted a frank separation from the whites and was contemplating the possibility of an open conflict. Garvey was completely astonished by the number of whites working with DuBois in the black lobby NAACP.
The clash between the two was nuclear. They were calling each other the biggest danger in the world for the black race. DuBois castigated the Ku Klux Klan support to Marcus Garvey. The racist organization saw in the black leader the one who would make America totally white. Garvey praised the KKK for its frankness regarding its hatred towards the Blacks, an attitude that contrasts with the hypocrisy of whites in general. KKK members went so far that they invested in the Black Star Line.
The shipping company faced management problems and sabotage of US authorities. It began to fall. The UNIA which was growing too fast could not meet the expectations of its members. The European settlers who were exploiting Africa considered Garvey the number 1 enemy. Thus, the authorities built a corruption case against the Black Star Line.
Garvey was sentenced to 5 years in prison for a crime he did not commit, but spent only 3 years thanks to the international mobilization. In 2011 Barack Obama refused to pardon him posthumously. When he was released, despite the UNIA’s state of weakness, Marcus Garvey had lost nothing of his passion and resumed the fight in Atlanta in particular. W.E.B. DuBois, who will later do so much for the African independences, campaigned in the Garvey must go movement which aimed to expel the Jamaican leader from the US. Marcus Garvey was repatriated to Jamaica in December 1927.
The last years
Tireless, Marcus Garvey resumed the political fight in Jamaica and founded the PPP, considered as the first modern political party in the island, under whose banner he was elected MP. Endlessly sabotaged, he continued to chair the UNIA. He left again for London where he supported Ethiopia under the Italian occupation, West Indian workers and clandestinely funded the West African Student Union (WASU).
He created a school of African philosophy to develop the pan-Africanist thought and chaired the UNIA congress in Toronto, Canada in 1937. The giant passed away in 1940 following a stroke. He died at the age of 53, without having ever seen his beloved Africa.
The monumental legacy of Marcus Garvey
Every African in the world carries the legacy of Marcus Garvey. The most visible heirs to his thought were Kwame Nkrumah and Malcolm X. It was Garvey’s writings that awakened the nationalism of Nkrumah, then student in the United States. It is his vision of a united Africa that is at the root of Nkrumah’s fight to found the United States of Africa whose ambition has given birth to the African Union today. It is this vision that has largely made Nkrumah the greatest figure of African independences.
Earl and Louise Little, parents of Malcolm X worked and campaigned for Marcus Garvey. Malcolm X will pay tribute to him, especially for his impact in Caribbean Independences. It was Amy Jacques Garvey, widow of Marcus, who co-organized with W.E.B. DuBois the Manchester Conference in 1945, which launched the effective fight for African independence. At this conference, Jomo Kenyatta, the first president of Kenya, and Nnamdi Azikiwe, the first president of Nigeria, who claimed to be the heir to Garveyism, participated among others.
Garvey inspired Zimbabwean nationalists; advocates of the black cause in South Africa, the great Julius Nyerere, first president of Tanzania; or Kamuzu Banda, Malawi’s first president.
Because of his thinking and achievements, Marcus Garvey is, and for eternity, one of the greatest Africans in history.
The electrifying voice of Marcus Garvey :
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- Great Black leaders, edited by Ivan Van Sertima (Chapter of James G Spady)
- Atlanta Black Star