The Life and Theories of Marcus Garvey
The 1920’s were a period of struggle for African-Americans. Slavery was abolished, but blacks were still oppressed and were in no way equal to whites. However, at this time blacks were starting to make some progress toward racial equality. The Harlem renaissance started the first real sense of African-American culture through art, jazz, dance, and literature. There was also at this time the beginning of strong African-American movements to further the black race. A prominent movement was led by W.E.B Dubois that focused on educating blacks to create equality. On the other end of the political spectrum was Marcus Garvey, who led the movement for blacks to unite as a race against oppression. Marcus Garvey’s background had a strong impact on his beliefs, which acted as a catalyst for his life’s work. Garvey’s involvement had a strong influence on the black population and the African-American civil rights movement of the 1920’s.
Marcus Garvey was born and raised in St. Ann’s Bay, Jamaica. Garvey wasn’t aware of any racial segregation during his young life. Garvey was raised in segregation of whites and blacks, but he had a few white childhood friends. However, at age 14, Garvey was called "nigger" by one of his white friends and was told that his white friends were not allowed to see him anymore (Sewell 18). This was his first taste of racism; Garvey’s eyes were opened to all of the racism surrounding him. After that, he was no longer close to any white people, and racism and inequality became prevalent forces in Garvey’s life. St. Ann’s Bay was an impoverished town made up of peasants (Stein 24). Garvey’s parents were intellectuals, but there was no work for them in the industrial country of Jamaica. The Garveys were forced to work as laborers. Marcus and his sister, Indiana, were also forced to work in order for the family to have enough money to survive. Garvey had to quit school and begin working when he was 14 (Sewell 18).
By 1910, Garvey had made a name for himself in Jamaica as an accomplished printer, writer and politician. Garvey joined The National Club, the first organization in Jamaica which introduced anti-colonial thinking into Jamaica (Sewell 21). The inequality that Marcus Garvey encountered in the world outside of lower school in Jamaica was full of inequality and hatred for the black man. Garvey decided to leave Jamaica to see if blacks were treated the same way in other countries. Garvey spent the next two years, from 1910-1912, traveling around Central America experiencing the black condition in several countries (Sewell 18). He experienced the same condition around Central America as he found in Jamaica. So, he traveled to England to see if he found the same. In England, Garvey was pleasantly surprised. The blacks in England were not segregated, like in the west (Stein 29). Garvey took courses at Birbeck College in England. However, he studied a lot on his own, visiting museums and following black leaders in England (Stein 29).
Many of his ideas were developed during his stay in England (Stein 30). Garvey identified closely with the Pan-African movement in England. The main principle of this movement was "to unify people of color against imperialism all over the world" (McKissack 79). Garvey returned to Jamaica in 1914 and founded the United Negro Improvement Association. The UNIA reflected Garvey’s beliefs and it was the tool he used to promote them. The objectives of the UNIA included:
To establish a universal confraternity among the race.
To promote the spirit of race pride and love.
To reclaim the fallen race.
To promote a conscientious Christian worship among the native tribes of Africa.
To establish universities, colleges and secondary schools for the further education
and culture of the boys and girls of the race.
To conduct a worldwide commercial and industrial intercourse. (Stein 30)
Garvey’s doctrine centered on the ideas of uniting the black race, educating all blacks, creating a strong economy that blacks could count on and promoting Christianity to all blacks. The focus was on self-help. As Garvey stated in the UNIA papers project:
"As the Jew is held together by his religion, the white races by the assumption and the unwritten law of superiority, and the Mongolian by the precious tie of blood, so likewise the Negro must be united in one grand racial hierarchy."
Marcus Garvey moved to the United States in 1916, after the UNIA was established in Jamaica. Garvey started a branch in Harlem to promote his ideas in the United States (UCLA). Garvey’s ideas, after 1916, remained the same but he started advocating the ideas of black nationalists; that some blacks should move back to Africa, in order to protect Africa from imperialism (Stein 14). Garvey took action to begin to take blacks back to Africa. He started the Black Star Shipping Company in 1919. The company took two boatloads of people to Liberia, but had to stop after management problems. This has been coined the "back to Africa" movement. (UCLA) However, Garvey’s intent with the "back to Africa" movement was not to lead all blacks back to Africa. Rather, he thought that a strong African center of black power would protect blacks all over the world from imperialism (Dumenil 297).
The UNIA in the United States attracted a very large following. The membership was in the millions (McKissack 86). The ideology of the UNIA attracted a strong working class following. The fraternal feeling and self-help ideas attracted many blacks that felt as if whites would never change to the point of equality. (Stein 72). The working class felt the pressure of oppression most of all African-Americans. There was a small following from the black intelligentsia, but the majority of them followed W.E.B. Dubois and the NAACP (Stein 80). The religious content of the UNIA also appealed very strongly to people. UNIA meetings were structured like church services with prayers, services, and singing. Garvey told followers to "reject the white image of Jesus and God" (Dumenil 184). The religion gave followers an even stronger sense of brotherhood and pride. The UNIA also had a women’s chapter, so it attracted a strong women’s following as well (Dumenil 296). The UNIA appealed broadly across the African-American community through the use fraternity, religion, ideology, and an appeal to women.
Marcus Garvey grew up in poverty, surrounded by the struggle of blacks to gain political, economic, and social equality. He devoted his life’s work to end of these struggles. He developed a set of beliefs that influenced many people and encouraged many blacks to put forth extra effort to get ahead. Marcus Garvey and the UNIA is the largest African-American movement to date (Dumenil 296).
Dumenil, Lynn. The Modern Temper. New York: Hill and Wang, 1995.
Garvey, Marcus. The UNIA Papers Project. http://www.isop.ucla.edu/mgpp/lifesamp.htm. 1925
McKissack, Patricia and Frederick. W.E.B Dubois. New York: Franklin Watt, 1990.
Sewell, Tony. Garvey’s Children: The Legacy of Marcus Garvey. Trenton:Africa World Press, Inc., 1990.
Stein, Judith. The World of Marcus Garvey: Race and Class in Modern Society. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1986.
UCLA. http://www.isop.ucla.edu/mgpp/facts.htm. 1995