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A Biography of Marcus Garvey

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A Biography of Marcus Garvey

Marcus Garvey in 1924

Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Post-World War I Harlem was an exciting place for African-American culture. Poets like Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen as well as novelists like Nella Larsen and Zora Neale Hurston created a vibrant literature that captured the African-American experience. Musicians such as Duke Ellington and Billie Holiday, playing and singing in Harlem nightclubs, invented what has been called "America's classical music" -- jazz.

In the midst of this renaissance of African-American culture in New York (known as the Harlem Renaissance), a recent arrival from Jamaica, Marcus Garvey, seized the attention of both white and black Americans with his powerful oratory and ideas about separatism. During the 1920s, the UNIA, the foundation of Garvey's movement, became what historian Lawrence Levine has called "the broadest mass movement" in African-American history.

Early Life

Garvey was born in Jamaica in 1887, which was then part of the British West Indies. As a teenager, Garvey moved from his small coastal village to Kingston, where political speakers and preachers entranced him with their public speaking skills. He began studying oratory and practicing on his own.

Entrance into Politics

Garvey became a foreman for a large printing business, but a strike in 1907 during which he sided with the workers instead of management derailed his career. The realization that politics was his true passion prompted Garvey to begin organizing and writing on behalf of workers. He traveled to Central and South America, where he spoke out on behalf of West Indian expatriate workers.

The UNIA

Garvey went to London in 1912 where he met a group of black intellectuals who gathered to discuss ideas like anti-colonialism and African unity. Returning to Jamaica in 1914, Garvey founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association, or UNIA. Among the UNIA's goals were the founding of colleges for general and vocational education, the promotion of business ownership and the encouragement of a sense of brotherhood among the African diaspora.

Trip to America

Garvey encountered difficulties organizing Jamaicans; the more affluent tended to oppose his teachings as a threat to their position. In 1916, Garvey decided to travel to the United States to learn more about America's black population. He discovered the time was ripe for the UNIA in the United States. As African-American soldiers began serving in World War I, there was widespread belief that being loyal and performing their duty for the United States would result in white Americans addressing the terrible racial inequalities that existed. In reality, African-American soldiers, after having experienced a more tolerant culture in France, returned home after the war to find racism as deeply entrenched as ever. Garvey's teachings spoke to those who had been so disappointed to discover the status quo still in place after the war.

Teachings

Garvey established a branch of the UNIA in New York City, where he held meetings, putting into practice the oratorical style he had honed in Jamaica. He preached racial pride, for instance, encouraging parents to give their daughters black dolls to play with. He told African Americans they had the same opportunities and potential as any other group of people in the world. "Up, you mighty race," he exhorted the attendees. Garvey aimed his message at all African Americans. To that end, he not only established the newspaper Negro World but also held parades in which he marched, wearing a lively dark suit with gold striping and sporting a white hat with a plume.

Relationship with W.E.B. Du Bois

Garvey clashed with prominent African American leaders of the day, including W.E.B. Du Bois. Among his criticisms, Du Bois denounced Garvey for meeting with Ku Klux Klan (KKK) members in Atlanta. At this meeting, Garvey told the KKK that their goals were compatible. Like the KKK, Garvey said, he rejected miscegenation and the idea of social equality. Blacks in America needed to forge their own destiny, according to Garvey. Ideas like these horrified Du Bois, who called Garvey "the most dangerous enemy of the Negro Race in America and in the world" in a May 1924 issue of The Crisis.

Back to Africa

Garvey is sometimes said to have headed a "back-to-Africa" movement. He did not call for a widespread exodus from America and other countries to Africa. He did see Africa as a source of heritage, culture and pride. Garvey believed in founding a nation to serve as a central homeland, as Palestine was for Jews. In 1919, Garvey and the UNIA established the Black Star Line for the dual purposes of carrying African Americans to Africa and promoting the idea of black enterprise.

The Black Star Line

The Black Star Line was poorly managed and fell victim to unscrupulous businessmen who sold damaged ships to the shipping line. Garvey also chose poor associates to go into business with, some of whom apparently stole money from the business. Garvey and the UNIA sold stock in the business by mail, and the inability of the company to deliver on its promises resulted in the federal government prosecuting Garvey and four others for mail fraud.

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