Black History Month - Feb. 25 - Marcus Garvey & the UNIA

I know no national boundary where the Negro is concerned. The whole world is my province until Africa is free.--Marcus Garvey

A discussion of the black political philosophy of the 1900s would be incomplete without understanding the role played by Marcus Mosiah Garvey and the UNIA. Marcus Garvey was born in St. Ann's Bay parish of St. Ann in the British colony of Jamaica on August 17, 1887. He was the youngest of his father's 11 children, nine of who died in childhood. Garvey attended infant and elementary schools in St. Ann's Bay and was considered a bright student. He also received private tuition from his godfather Mr. Alfred Burrowes, who ran a printery. At 14, Garvey was apprenticed to Mr. Burrowes to learn the printing trade.

As a youth Garvey inherited an interest in books from his father, a skilled mason, who was widely read and held a private library. This interest grew under his apprenticeship as Mr. Burrowes also had an extensive book collection. Garvey was said to have made full use of these resources, reading often and endlessly. He also came into contact with the many persons who stopped at the "printery" to discuss politics and social affairs with Mr. Burrowes.

Around 1906 Garvey left St. Ann's Bay for Kingston to look for work. He worked at first with a maternal uncle, then moved on to P.A. Benjamin Limited where he worked as a compositor in the printing section. By the age of 20, in 1907, he had become a master printer and foreman at this company. His first experience in labor organization came with a strike in late 1908 when printers, represented by the Typographical Union, went on strike for better wages.

Marcus Garvey at UNIA parade, in full regalia

Though offered increased wages, Garvey joined in the strike that unfortunately proved unsuccessful, ending his career. Blacklisted, he was unable to find a job in a private "printery" but found employment at the Government Printing Office. Garvey left Jamaica to work in Costa Rica as a timekeeper on a banana plantation, in about 1910.

His observations on the hard labor of fellow Caribbean blacks greatly moved him. He left Costa Rica and traveled throughout Central America, working and observing the working conditions of blacks throughout the region. He visited the Panama Canal Zone and saw the conditions under which many West Indian black laborers lived and worked. He went on to Ecuador, Nicaragua, Honduras, Colombia and Venezuela. Everywhere he looked, blacks and people of color seemed to be experiencing great hardships and oppression.

Garvey returned to Jamaica distressed at the situation in Central America, and appealed to Jamaica's colonial government to help improve the plight of black West Indian workers. He was for the most part ignored. Determined, in 1912 Garvey went to London, again working and observing the conditions of blacks in other parts of the British Empire. There he learned a great deal about African culture and also became interested in the conditions of blacks in the United States.

Garvey returned to Jamaica in 1914 bolstered with the belief that black prosperity could only come from black independence from the white world - economic, militarily, and political. Convinced that some form of "racial unity" was the only way to improvement for blacks, Garvey launched, on August 1, 1914, the Universal Negro Improvement and Conservation Association and African Communities League. President of the organization, he championed the slogan "One God! One Aim! One Destiny!" The association sought to unite "all the people of African ancestry of the world into one great body to establish a country and Government absolutely their own."

Among the objectives of the association, which became known as the UNIA, were: to promote the spirit of black pride and love; to administer to and assist the needy; to reclaim "the fallen of the race;" to establish universities, colleges and secondary schools for the further education and culture of the black boys and girls; to conduct a worldwide commercial and industrial intercourse.

Garvey with UNIA leaders at NY Convention, including diplomats from Liberia

Garvey left for the United States in 1916 to undertake a lecture tour of that country and to meet the famous Booker T. Washington. However Washington died while Garvey was en route, prolonging his stay. In the United States Garvey found that his message was popular. Garvey's ideas of black empowerment through nationalism and "Africa for the Africans at home and abroad," attracted multitudes to the UNIA. Soon everyone knew of the UNIA and its colorful flag: "Red for the color that must be shed for their redemption and liberty; Black for the color of the noble and distinguished race to which we belong; and Green for the luxuriant vegetation of the Motherland."

Garvey and his followers soon became known for grand parades and pageantry that attracted and appealed greatly to the black masses in the US and abroad. By 1920, the association claimed over 1,100 branches in more than 40 countries. Most of these branches were located in the United States, which had become the UNIA's base of operations. There were, however, offices in several Caribbean countries, Cuba having the most. Branches also existed in places such as Panama, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Venezuela, Ghana, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Namibia and South Africa. At one point Garvey proclaimed his organization's membership at 6 million--reaching even Australia. Modern estimates place it actually at 1 million. If either of these numbers can be relied upon, then no black organization before or since could boast such a massive following.

But Garvey was not simply a talker and man of pageantry. Like Booker T. Washington he was shaped by a culture of hard labor, and advocated an industrious form of black self-dependence. When communities clamored for medical services, Garvey oversaw the creation of the Black Cross Nurses. Seeing a need for black dolls for children, Garvey and the UNIA opened a black doll factory. And there were numerous other uniformed auxiliary groups: the African Legion, The Universal Motor Corps, etc.

In 1919 he started the Negro Factories Corporation, which sought to, "build and operate factories in the big industrial centers of the United States, Central America, the West Indies and Africa to manufacture every marketable commodity." A chain of grocery stores, a restaurant, a steam laundry, a tailor and dressmaking shop, a millinery store and a publishing house, were started.

A strong proponent of the political philosophy of Pan-Africanism, Garvey put forth a larger goal of uniting the millions of blacks in Africa, the Americas and elsewhere into one vast network of production, trade and political co-operation and eventual independence. In 1919, Garvey started the Black Star Line, consisting of the Yarmouth, Shadyside and Kanawha fleet. The Black Star Line and its successor company the Black Cross Navigation and Trading Company, operated four ships which carried passengers and cargo between the USA and Cuba, Haiti, Jamaica, Costa Rica and Panama. This was the most ambitious venture undertaken by the UNIA, with the eventual hopes of shuttling blacks across the Atlantic to and from Africa.

However, Garvey's movement was not popular with everyone. Other black groups and individuals--from social activists, to black nationalists to communists--vying for power at the time saw Garvey as a threat. Adding to this, Garvey often built up his own power base by verbally attacking and criticizing established black leadership of all stripes. This led to a culture of continuous conflict between his organization and others. When several of his business ventures failed to produce results, many of his detractors believed him either financially inept at best, or a con-artist at worst. The most well-known conflict Garvey faced was against another leading black figure of the day: W.E.B. DuBois.

UNIA flyer advertising travel on Black Star Line, 1924

The animosities between DuBois and Garvey was probably more personal than between he and Booker T. Washington. Ironically enough both DuBois and Garvey were both strong Pan-Africanists. The problems lay in methods of approach and the social culture from which each originated. Though DuBois found Garvey's methods unique, inspiring and worthy of praise, they were in direct conflict with his own professional and intellectual approach. DuBois characterized Garvey as "a hard-working idealist," but believed "his methods are bombastic, wasteful, illogical and almost illegal." Garvey's pro-capitalist separatist stance also ran up against DuBois' emerging socialist, integrationist leanings. T oGarvey, DuBois and the NAACP were dupes and puppets to wealthy white interests, who dominated their leadership boards. To DuBois, Garvey was a foreign outsider who swindled blacks out of money in unrealistic ventures and did outrageous things like pen editorials in a Ku Klux Klan newspaper. Insults between the two men turned so ugly, they focused on skin color differences.

These conflicts proved problematic for both men. It reached the point of climax when black leaders accused Garvey of issuing death threats against them. Though never proven, they simply widened the gulf between Garvey and the established black leadership. Picking on financial troubles brought about by internal strife within Garvey's UNIA, a group of black leaders wrote the federal government accusing Garvey of fraud and other charges. The fall out of the conflict went both ways. DuBois' elaborately planned Pan-African Congress was negatively affected. Many people taking sides, the turnout to the 1923 event was small.

Garvey himself was imprisoned on charges of fraud, no doubt to the glee of many of his enemies. DuBois saw Garvey's imprisonment in fact as proof that the UNIA, while ideal in its approach, was inept and illogical. In the end the losers of the conflict between the two men would be none other than the larger ideals to which both aspired.

Unknown to Garvey at the time, he had much larger enemies than the NAACP or DuBois. So popular was Garvey at his height in South Africa, oppressed blacks there struck fear into the South African colonial government with talk that Garvey would soon arrive with black soldiers to "drive the whites into the sea."  Labeling Garvey both a foreign and domestic threat, he soon became the central target of the FBI's Bureau of Negro Affairs--then headed by a young and aspiring J. Edgar Hoover. The UNIA and Garvey became the targets of deliberate sabotage by informants, who also helped exacerbate the conflict with other black leaders and groups. Negotiations with the semi-independent African state of Liberia were called off by Liberian officials who were told by US agents that Garvey would "take over the country."

Garvey's Black Star Line steam ship company was sabotaged from within: by a mixture of government interference and untrustworthy business partners. Embroiled in financial and legal difficulties, Garvey went abroad to raise funds for his failing steamship company. Meanwhile, the federal government was compiling lengthy charges against him for U.S. mail fraud. Faced with these charges, Garvey was sentenced to a five-year jail term. After having served two years of the sentence, he was deported to Jamaica in 1927. He attempted again to establish a political base but met with little success.

In 1935 Garvey traveled to London. During these last five years in London, Garvey remained active, keeping in touch with events in Ethiopia where war was being waged, and also with events in the West Indies. In 1938, he gave evidence before the West Indian Royal Commission on conditions in the West Indies. In that year also, he set up a School of African Philosophy to train the leadership of the UNIA. He also continued to work on the magazine "The Black Man." He would continue to live and work in London up to his death in 1940. Despite the controversy surrounding his life, he is remembered today as one of the most important and influential figures of twentieth  century black political thought.



Cronon, Edmund and John Hope Franklin. Black Moses: The Story of Marcus Garvey and the Universal Negro Improvement Association. (1969)

Garvey, Marcus. The Philosophies and Opinions of Marcus Garvey (1923)

Lewis, Rupert. Marcus Garvey: Anti-Colonial Champion. (1988)

Martin, Tony. Race First: The Ideological and Organizational Struggles of Marcus Garvey and the Universal Negro Improvement Association. (1976).

PBS. Marcus Garvey: Look for Me in the Whirlwind [documentary] (2000)

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