Marcus Mosiah Garvey Jr. is most notably known for his leadership role in the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League (UNIA-ACL), which he founded in 1914, and established the first branch in Jamaica after spending some years in the Caribbean, Central and South America, and London mainly working in the newspaper and printing industry.
Garvey was born in St. Ann’s Bay, Jamaica in 1887. He portrayed a keen likeness to reading as a young boy, as his father and uncle both kept collections of books which he took to use, and later earned the title of master printer as a young man. One of his first endeavors as a printer was the publication of The Watchman.
Garvey’s ultimate objective, through the UNIA-ACL, was to create an independent black nation. His efforts would have, arguably, been successful if certain forces (both internal and external) did not inhibit the progression of the UNIA-ACL.
In 1916, he arrived in the U.S. to lecture and raise capital to establish a school in Jamaica modeled after Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute. Later that year, he moved to New York, and in May of 1917, Garvey and thirteen others established the first UNIA branch in the U.S. Through hard work and leadership, the UNIA grew with great success. By 1919 Garvey had approximately 750,000 followers.
Garvey began to campaign across the U.S. and eventually established 500 UNIA divisions in 22 countries. He had developed an aggressive speaking style over the years, and had earned the admiration of people of all races. His style of action was much different from those of his time and before him. Garvey was noted as calling the black leaders of the time “weak”.
In a time where it was difficult for a man of any color to provide for his family, especially African Americans, the UNIA provided a sense of belonging and fraternity to men, women, and juniors. Uniforms and ranks were given, as well as social programs. Garvey designed the red, black, and green flag for the organization. The Negro World Newspaper was another medium of building community by the UNIA, as it provided essays, poetry, articles, and black history.
Garvey had many critics as well within and outside of the black community. Some leaders did not agree with his seemingly loud representation of the unification of black people. The federal Government at the time considered him a threat to national security. The Justice Department formed the General Intelligence Division, based solely on the activities of the UNIA. It was led by J. Edgar Hoover. The “Africa for the Africans” campaign was arguably the most notable movement that alarmed the U.S. and Great Britain as taking Garvey and the UNIA more serious.
Garvey set up various businesses to employ black people and strengthen the organization. Some businesses were successful and others failed. The UNIA was successful for a short period in creating investment opportunities for members and followers through various funds and stock purchases, such as the Negro Factories Corporation and the Black Star Line. The Black Star Line was, roughly, a business venture to purchase and operate sea vessels for the transportation of goods and eventually African Americans to Africa. It became a proud symbol of the UNIA and its followers as a sign of significant progress.
The Black Star Line was quite possibly a milestone for the height of the UNIA and as the beginning of its descent. The government began to view Garvey as a Nationalist, as he openly portrayed the UNIA as a “government in exile”; giving himself the title of Provisional President of Africa. The movement had all the markings of a government in its infancy. Garvey wrote a Black Declaration of Rights along with other provisional documents.
Eventually, agents made their way into Garvey’s circle of trust. These spies were assigned to get information that may incriminate Garvey. While in the meantime, they sabotaged his efforts to advance the success of the Black Star Line by such actions as damaging equipment and intentionally overestimating a ship at a significantly higher cost for purchase. Some people began to worry about their investments in Black Star Line stock.
One day at Garvey’s Harlem office, a man named George Tyler drew his .38 caliber pistol on Garvey and fired 4 shots during a struggle. Garvey was hit twice; once in the leg and once in the scalp. He survived the shooting and appeared at a gathering the next day. Tyler committed suicide by jumping off the third story tier of the jail while on his way to his arraignment. Tyler supposedly told Garvey that Kilroe sent him before his attack. Edwin P. Kilroe was an Assistant District Attorney whom had many run-ins with Garvey. Others suggest that Tyler was a disgruntled investor.
Garvey gained more critics of his work after he allowed Klu Klux Klan leaders to debate with him at his assemblies. In addition to the misinformation and propaganda against the UNIA, one detrimental mistake contributed considerably to the downfall of the UNIA. A picture of a ship called the Phyllis Wheatley was advertised on a stock brochure for the Black Star Line, although a ship of this name had not yet been purchased by the company. Garvey, along with three other UNIA officers were arrested for mail fraud, which resulted in the overall defrauding of one person for $25, whether or not it was intended.
After 2 years of appeals, and representing himself in court during his four week trial, Garvey was sentenced to 5 years in prison. In 1927 he was pardoned and ordered to be deported to Jamaica, after millions of people signed petitions for his release. Garvey had weak lungs and heart disease. Various officers of government felt that his martyrdom would only make the UNIA stronger. Being an election year, President Coolidge and the Republican Party felt that if Garvey was not released, that black people, being mostly Republican at the time, would vote for another candidate or the other party.
Garvey was finally shipped back to Jamaica, with a large crowd bidding him farewell at the harbor and as he also rightfully received a hero’s welcome when he arrived in Jamaica. His achievements continued in Jamaica as he presented the Petition of the Negro Race in Geneva, 1928, founder of the People’s Political Party in 1929 and the Edelweiss Amusement Company in 1931. His accomplishments go beyond this article, as Garvey remained a busy and determined delegate in the area of equal rights for black people all over the world.
Garvey suffered from a stroke in January of 1940, where he remained hospitalized until his death in mid 1940 due to a stroke that occurred while reading his premature obituary in the newspaper. The obituary was printed by the Chicago Messenger, which stated Garvey died “broke, alone, and unpopular.” Other reports of his death state he was poisoned on a ship.
Countless tributes and memorials are in Garvey’s name from Jamaica to the U.K. Ironically Garvey never set foot in Africa, despite all of his campaigns, but is nonetheless a prominent historical figure their and around the world. Marcus Garvey told black people that “their history did not begin with slavery,” and gave them strength in a time of utmost degradation and apathy towards an entire race. Despite his subjective faults, Garvey led for change, and is arguably the impetus for the change that has occurred with respect to Civil Rights for African Americans and black people across the world. This goes to show us all, no matter what the race, that unity is the key to overcoming any type of oppression. The Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League still exists and thrives today.
”The pen is mightier than the sword, but the tongue is mightier than the
both put together.”