DARC Ethiophile Chronicles
On this day
February 8, 1925 Marcus Garvey entered federal prison in Atlanta. Students staged strike at Fisk University to protest policies of white administration.
Born in St. Ann's Bay, Jamaica, in August of 1887, Garvey was the youngest of 11 children. A bright student, he acquired a passion for books at an early age. Family financial problems led to his apprenticeship in the printing trade, where he developed journalist skills. In 1907, participation in a failed printer's strike influenced Garvey to enter politics. Roughly four years later he joined the mass migration of Jamaicans seeking employment in Central and South America. In Costa Rica he contributed to publications that presented the oppressive conditions of black workers. While abroad, Garvey's futile attempts to gain British colonial protection for West Indians promoted his growing racial awareness.
Returning to Jamaica in 1912, Garvey realized that the island offered little opportunity for a young black politician. Traveling to London that same year, he met with black laborers, intellectuals, and businessmen whose descriptions of the injustices suffered under European colonial rule contributed to his gradual path toward racial militancy. The most influential of these acquaintances was a Sudanese-Egyptian actor, journalist, and nationalist named Duse Mohammed Ali. Working for Ali's publication African Times and Oriental Review exposed Garvey to the role of African business and the triumphs of Africa's ancestral past. While in London he read Booker T. Washington's autobiography Up From Slavery. The book's vivid account of racial conditions in America inspired the young Jamaican to become a "race leader."
On the voyage back to his homeland in 1914, Garvey conceived of the plan to create the UNIA and its coordinating body, the African Communities League. On August l, with the assistance of a few colleagues, he officially launched his organization. Adopting the motto "One God! One Aim! One Destiny!," the UNIA offered opportunity to all blacks. The organization's plan of African redemption centered upon the establishment of black educational institutions. Following Booker T. Washington's Tuskegee model, Garvey sought to build Jamaican trade schools that would provide missionaries for "Mother Africa." Black middle-class Jamaicans, however, remained indifferent to his vision. In need of funds and support, Garvey wrote to Washington, who in turn invited him to come to America. Tragically, Washington died in 1915, before the two could meet.
The following year Garvey arrived--at the age of 28--in New York City. Penniless and unknown, he struggled to raise support for his Jamaican educational program. At first, residents of New York City's Harlem were unresponsive to his speeches. Garvey became aware that to gain black support in the U.S. he would have to alter his Jamaican strategy; while his previous orientation had been strictly reformist, Garvey's outlook in America became increasingly revolutionary. He endorsed a broad economic plan for private business and industry. By the end of World War I in 1918, black migration, racial violence, and continuing segregation had provided a climate that vastly benefitted the expansion of Garveyism. The UNIA's economic strategy and publication, Negro World, attracted thousands of new proponents. Rapid success encouraged Garvey to move his base of operations from Jamaica to New York.
On August l, 1920, the first UNIA convention opened with a parade that stretched for miles along Lenox avenue in Harlem. That evening, before a crowd of 25,000 in Madison Square Garden, Garvey boldly announced his plan to build an African nation-state. Sympathizing with the plight of Irish Home Rule and Jewish Zionism advocates, he called upon blacks to seek their own "place in the sun." The highlight of the week-long convention was the adoption of the Declaration of the Rights of the Negro Peoples of the World. Containing a bill of rights, the document proclaimed the equality of the black race and included resolutions for the creation of independent legal and educational systems.
Around the time of the convention, Garvey organized several business enterprises. These included the Negro Factories Corporation, a restaurant, a millinery, a publishing house, and a chain of cooperative grocery stores. But most importantly, he attempted to create a maritime fleet that he hoped would give blacks political power and bring them to the forefront of worldwide trade. Selling shares of five-dollar stock through the mail enabled him to acquire enough capital to purchase three ships for the Black Star Shipping Line. The shipping company contributed to Garvey's growing prominence as an international champion of Pan-Africanism. Consequently, he introduced a plan to transfer his organization's headquarters to Monrovia, Liberia.
Despite his emerging popularity, Garvey received widespread opposition among both black and white political, labor, and religious organizations. During the postwar era, a growing fear of Socialist and Communist conspiracies led many to view Garvey's movement as a harbinger of radical black power. In 1919 Garvey was summoned by the U.S. State Department regarding the legality of the B.S.L. operation. Although the investigation failed to produce any evidence against Garvey, the State Department pursued a plan for his eventual deportation.
Harshest resistance arose among black leaders, including Socialist Labor Party spokesman A. Philip Randolph and the African Blood Brotherhood's Cyril V. Briggs. After 1920 Garvey suffered continual attacks from the Negro publications Chicago Defender and Crisis, the journal of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). W.E.B. DuBois, cofounder of the NAACP, was one of the leading adherents to the mounting "Garvey Must Go" campaign. Although he was a black nationalist and Pan-Africanist, DuBois rejected Garvey's segregationist and economic policies. As a result, the two became embroiled in bitter dispute over black progress and African liberation.
In the years following the first UNIA convention, the organization began to decline. After a trip to Central America in 1921 Garvey was denied a visa by the State Department, thereby delaying his reentry into the United States for several months. A year later, federal officials convicted Garvey of mail fraud. Released on bail, he tried to rescue the failing B.S.L. from collapse. Due to the poor condition and exorbitant operating costs of the company's vessels, however, the B.S.L. was forced into insolvency. During the same year, Garvey's meeting with the acting Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) greatly contributed to his faltering status. His statements that the UNIA and the KKK shared a similar policy of racial separation spread outrage throughout the black community. Garvey's demand for a unified African Orthodox church left him almost entirely alienated from conventional black religious denominations.
In 1923 the murder of former UNIA member Reverend James Eason generated further controversy. Eason's death motivated eight of Garvey's enemies to send an incriminating letter to Attorney General Harry Dougherty. The correspondence hastened the State Department's decision to bring Garvey to trial. With Garvey acting as his own defense, the hearing became a forum for his racial beliefs. Unable to adequately defend against the charge of mail fraud, he was incarcerated; six months later he was released on $25,000 bail. In 1924 he attempted to establish a second commercial fleet--the Black Cross Navigation and Trading Company--but facing a shortage of funds, the business soon folded. UNIA efforts to found an independent Liberian republic also proved unsuccessful. In 1925, despite an appeal to the Supreme Court, Garvey was sent to the Atlanta penitentiary. After serving two years, federal authorities ordered his release and immediate deportation.
Upon his return to Jamaica in 1927 Garvey entered local politics. Struggling to form the People's Political Party, he developed a program of national economic, agricultural, labor, and political reform. Although the UNIA's 1929 convention in Kingston, Jamaica, recaptured some of the splendor and enthusiasm of its earlier Harlem era, the organization never again amassed a substantial membership. Under a new charter, Garvey returned the UNIA headquarters to Jamaica, causing widespread fragmentation and desertion among branches in the United States. In 1935, confronted with ensuing political defeat and financial problems, Garvey took up permanent residence in London. But in England his racial program and political aspirations were met with indifference. From 1936 to 1938 Garvey attended conventions in Toronto, Canada, where he set up the School of African Philosophy. After a long period of failing health, he suffered a stroke in 1940 that led to his death in June of that year.
Despite limited success in his lifetime, Garvey has become an international symbol of black freedom. The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., called him "the first man, on a mass scale to give millions of Negroes a sense of dignity and destiny." During its heyday the UNIA claimed as members Black Muslim leader Elijah Mohammed and the father of Malcolm X. In 1964 the Jamaican government proclaimed Garvey a national hero. His legacy served as an integral force in the "Black is Beautiful" consciousness of the 1960's. Indebted to the perseverance and dedication of Garvey's Pan-African struggle, Malcolm X wrote, "Each time you see another independent nation on the African continent you know Marcus Garvey is alive."