Marcus Garvey (1887 - 1940) was a Jamaican-born black nationalist. He became a leading figure in early twentieth century America, but his influence extended much further, circulating the Black Atlantic. He supported segregation of the races in the fight against post-slavery oppression and developed a ‘Back to Africa’ programme, but is most known as the head of the UNIA and leader of what became known as ‘Garveyism’.

Garvey visited South and Central America and Britain between 1910-1912 working for various newspapers. He also attend Birbeck College in London until 1914, taking classes in Law and Philosophy. Back in Jamaica in 1914 he set up the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). In a poor financial state, Garvey went to Harlem in 1916 with the aim to raise money. He intended to use his funds to open a school in Jamaica based on the Tuskgee Institute run by Booker T. Washington in Alabama. However, after seeing the racial situation in the U.S. he decided to stay and focus on improving it.

Garvey embarked on a year-long tour of North America giving speeches and promoting black nationalism. He established the first branch of the UNIA in the United States in 1917, which became increasingly popular and in just a few short years meetings soon attracted thousands of people.By 1919 the organisation had 30 branches and over 2 million members.

In 1917 following the St Louis Race riots, W. E. B Du Bois and the NAACP led a silent march in protest. Garvey announced this was no time to be silent, and encouraged listeners to fight back against  police who had used violence. Although initially on good terms with A. Philip Randolph, Washington, and Du Bois, Garvey argued the other leaders of the black community were too tame, famously saying, “pen is mightier than the sword, but the tongue is mightier than both”.

Garvey also argued that they were not representative of their followers; partially because some, such as Du Bois and Washington, were ‘mixed race’.This attitude reflected his background; in his home country of Jamaica ‘mulattoes’ or ‘mixed race’ people had generally been of higher status than ‘black’ people due to attitudes and practices borne out of racial hierarchies complicit with slavery and colonialism in Jamaica. Social hierarchies of ‘race’ differed in the United States which generally categorised ‘race’ through the binary opposition of black and white, with less emphasis on a hierarchy of skin tones. By the later years of his career, these other major figures condemned Garvey, in part because of such unaligned ideas. Randolph was said to be ‘embarrassed by him’ and Du Bois called him ‘a grand distraction’.

Though initially seeing himself as a Washingtonian, Garvey argued that the development of equal rights as separate black societies was more important than winning the right to be part of a mainstream United States society that did not recognise black people as equals. The aims of the UNIA reflected these ideas by proposing that the black community become economically independent. This was attempted in various ways with the organisation setting up black businesses and investment funds. Its newspaper the ‘Negro World’ was the most successful business venture having 200,000 subscriptions across the world. It was a very influential medium for Garvey from 1918 onwards, and he himself contributed to each edition. At its peak, the UNIA employed 1000 people in Harlem alone. It even founded the Black Star Line in 1919, a black seperatist’s alternative to the prestigious White Star Line. What was so impressive about Garveyism was more

Contributed by: HGF


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