Marcus Garvey is one of the most known activists for the rights of blacks in the United States and abroad and is considered one of those figures who shaped the Civil Rights Movement in the XX century. His impact on African Americans was tremendous both in his lifetime and after his death. When Garvey arrived in the United States, he saw the country’s black population in despair and galvanized it into the struggle for their rights and for the improvement in their living and working conditions. His teachings have continued to inspire many African Americans even decades after he passed away.
Garvey and the UNIA
Marcus Garvey was born in St. Anne’s Bay, Jamaica, on August 17, 1887, of humble parents who had eleven children. After he dropped out of school at the age of 14, he worked in the printing industry for several years and saw the appalling conditions in which the laboring class lived and worked. He was interested in politics and designed several projects to help the poor improve their conditions. In 1912, Marcus Garvey went to England and stayed there for two years during which he showed a lot of interest in the struggle between London and Dublin concerning Ireland’s independence. He was impressed by the writings of Booker T. Washington who believed that African Americans had to improve themselves in order to prove that they deserved the same rights as white Americans. Garvey immediately embraced this philosophy of self-improvement and upon returning to Jamaica he founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) (Leeuwen).
As the UNIA’s president, Garvey encouraged African Jamaicans to work harder and improve themselves in every aspect, show enthusiasm and develop strong personalities. But as the response to his teachings in Jamaica was quite weak, three years later Garvey moved to the United States and established his headquarters in New York. In America He promoted
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black nationalism and, believing that integration with whites was impossible, he began to advocate the idea of establishing in Africa a nation of blacks from all over the world. This message of a brighter future for blacks unified millions of hopeless African Americans around him and made Garvey the most known person in the United States. His Universal Negro Improvement Association included several millions of blacks and ran branches in about forty or so countries around the world. His Negro World newspaper spread his message out to up to 200,000 readers in America. His auditorium in Harlem was called Liberty Hall in which he organized meetings with thousands of his followers. Garvey’s movement gave fresh impetus to the struggle for equal rights in America and taking into account its size and scope it had no precedent in African-American history (Hill).
In 1920, the members of the Universal Negro Improvement Association elected Garvey President of Africa and held the UNIA’s First International Convention in Harlem. Garvey also established the African Legion, the Black Cross Nurses, and several other groups and by proclaiming that black was beautiful he tried to use it in various names of his organizations. At ceremonies, Garvey and his disciples wore pompous military uniforms with guns and swords for which they were ridiculed by other known African American leaders such as DuBois, Johnson, Owen, or Randolph. They did not share Garvey’s radical black nationalism and resisted his idea of separation of blacks from whites (Leeuwen).
Garvey also attracted strong criticism for his attempt to cooperate with those whites whose goal was to send all the blacks back to Africa. He even met with the Ku Klux Klan’s leadership announcing that the Klan and the UNIA had one thing in common: to make the United States a country for whites only, and that the Klan would contribute to the process of making Africa a place where only blacks would live (Hill).
Garvey never underestimated the important role that religion played in the African
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American community and succeeded in enrolling many pastors, one of whom, George McGuire, became chaplain-general of the Universal Negro Improvement Association. McGuire wrote the Universal Negro Catechism which explained and promoted Garvey’s teachings. Garvey and his followers viewed God as black emphasizing that only a black God could understand the sufferings of African Americans and help them succeed in this life. What is interesting is that Garvey did not promote paradise in the afterlife but taught how to establish it on Earth (Leeuwen).
Garvey also believed that African Americans had to be successful in economical terms and achieve the same prosperity as white Americans. Black economic success, he preached, was the only way to independence. That is why Garvey established several business organizations such as the Negro Factories Corporation, The African Communities League, or the Black Star Line, a shipping company that would transport blacks to Africa. However, Garvey’s incompetence in business matters and the betrayal of his advisors led to the failure of these enterprises and in 1922 also to his indictment on mail fraud charges (Leeuwen).
He was imprisoned for a five-year-term but this punishment was replaced in 1927 with Garvey’s deportation to Jamaica. The Universal Negro Improvement Association declined in popularity shortly after its leader left the United States. His political activities in Jamaica were unsuccessful, either, and in 1935 Garvey decided to leave for England where he lived until his death on June 10, 1940 (Leeuwen).
Impact of Marcus Garvey
Despite some eccentricity, Marcus Garvey’s activities made a tremendous impact on the lives of most blacks in the United States. When Garvey first came to America in 1916, he saw that, like in other countries, African Americans here lived in appallingly difficult conditions and did not enjoy the same civil rights as white citizens did. Many African
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Americans bravely fought in Europe during World War I hoping that after the war they would win respect of white Americans and would be acknowledged as equal citizens. But when the war came to an end, blacks were deeply disillusioned with American society as despite their dedicated military service whites treated them in the same way they did before the war. The struggle for equal rights by America’s black population was not led on a large scale and racial tensions regularly ended in race riots in major American cities. Morale among hopeless African Americans was quite low and no way out could be seen ahead (Leeuwen).
The importance of Marcus Garvey was that he succeeded in stirring up American blacks as well as blacks in other parts of the world to revolt against racial prejudice. He made them perceive themselves as human beings just like whites and reversed the defeatist way of thinking among African Americans. By his bold and daring behaviour Garvey gave blacks back their self-respect, self-confidence, and inspiration (Marcus Garvey).
Garvey celebrated the African past and encouraged blacks to be proud of their history and the color their skin was. For African Americans he was a messiah who emphasized that they belonged to a mighty and glorious race (Leeuwen). By appealing in this way to their sense of pride, Garvey preached that their goal was not the integration with whites, but the achievement of economic, cultural, and political prosperity that would bring them acknowledgement and equality. He promised to all the blacks around the world a land where they would live happily and would not be abused or vilified (Marcus Garvey).
In this sense, Garvey boosted the morale of black America and his ideals, however utopian they might appear, brought hope to the hopeless. Garvey’s greatest achievement was that he succeeded in unifying millions of America’s both rural and urban blacks around a lofty cause, raised the issue of racial prejudice, and made both black and white communities reconsider their attitude to racial discrimination in America (Marcus Garvey).
Marcus Garvey’s ideals played an important role in the striving of blacks around the
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world against oppression in his lifetime, and their importance and influence were even greater during the decades that followed his death. After World War II came to an end, many African leaders of the movement for independence reconsidered Garvey’s ideas and used them in their political struggle. Until 1945 the Pan-African Congresses had been mainly concerned with matters such as the improvement in the education system in African colonies which would enable the Africans to rule their countries when they eventually became independent. But the Fifth Pan-American Congress held in Manchester in 1945 differed from the previous ones in a radical way. First and foremost, the Congress hosted black representatives not only from Africa, but also from the United States, Canada, and the Caribbean Islands who drew up a program whose goal was the immediate independence of African colonies. The participants followed different ideologies but what united them were Marcus Garvey’s teachings (Clarke).
Some of those conveners later returned to Africa and led their countries toward independence. One of them was Dr. Kwame Nkrumah who became Prime Minister of Ghana and fought for the independence of his nation. Nkrumah stressed on several occasions that he was politically indebted to Marcus Garvey and his teachings. Ghanaian government later also organized the Black Star Line after Garvey’s plans (Clarke).
In the Caribbean Islands, reformers took into account some of Garvey’s ideas while implementing new constitutional reforms. In the United States, Garvey’s teachings set off the struggle for equal rights and many civil rights activists continued his cause after his death gaining important victories such as the abolition of school segregation in 1954, the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955, the introduction of equal education, and others (Clarke). Several groups that became active after WWII, including the Nation of Islam or the Rastafarians, were tremendously influenced by Garvey’s ideals. And some of his theses can be found in later radical figures such as Malcolm X or Stokely Carmichael (Leeuwen).
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Scholars and researchers hold different views on the historical role of Marcus Garvey. For some of them, he was a demagogue and for others a precursor of the later Civil Rights Movement in the United States and similar movements in other parts of the world. But all agree that he made an important impact on many of his contemporaries and inspired the future prominent figures all of whom have had one thing in common: the struggle for equal rights and opportunities for all people, regardless of the color their skin is.
Clarke, J. H. Impact of Marcus Garvey. Retrieved May 19, 2008 from the World Wide Web: http://www.swagga.com/marcus.htm
Hill, R. A. Marcus Garvey: Life and Lessons. Retrieved May 19, 2008 from the World Wide Web: http://www.international.ucla.edu/africa/mgpp/lifeintr.asp
Leeuwen, D. Marcus Garvey and the Universal Negro Improvement Association. Retrieved May 19, 2008 from the World Wide Web: http://nationalhumanitiescenter.org/tserve/twenty/tkeyinfo/garvey.htm
Marcus Garvey. Retrieved May 19, 2008 from the World Wide Web: http://www.marcusgarvey.com/wmview.php?ArtID=531