By William Reed
Aug. 17, 2010 marks the 123rd Anniversary of the birth of Marcus Garvey. The legend of Garvey is based on his leadership toward Blacks’ pride and self-determination. When Garvey died in 1940, European countries dominated the world. But it was his teachings that spurred uprisings and rising expectations among colonies. Though Garvey had passed, it was his ideology that was the basis of the 5th Pan-African Congress agenda in 1945 in Manchester, England. That event was attended by Black legends such as Kwame Nkrumah, W.E.B. DuBois, Kenya’s Jomo Kenyatta and, through the influence of Garvey, marked the first time Africans from Africa, the Caribbean and the United States got together to design programs for the future independence of Africa.
Through his public speeches and newspaper (The Negro World), Marcus Garvey became one of the most significant Black leaders of the 20th century. Born in 1887 and raised in Jamaica, Garvey traveled in Central and South America and England. In 1914, while still in Jamaica, Garvey started the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) and began speaking out in favor of worldwide Black unity and an end to colonialism. Garvey moved to the United States in 1916 and directed the largest mass-based movement among African Americans in history. During his time in America, Garvey’s visions became the procedural and conceptual models toward African American capitalism. He helped start the Black Star Line, which was both a business venture and a part of his “Back to Africa” plan that African Americans should return to Africa and set up their own new country there.
Post-racial Blacks shy away from Garvey. He’s always been a controversial figure: back in the day, he favored fiery rhetoric and elaborate uniforms and was considered “dangerous” by establishment-oriented politicians. He was jailed in 1925 after being convicted of mail fraud (related to the sale of Black Star Line stock), but his sentence was reduced, and he was deported to Jamaica two years later. Garvey eventually returned to London, England, where he died in 1940. His body was sent to Jamaica in 1964, where he is revered as one of the country’s heroes.
Initially, Garvey was a student and admirer of Booker T. Washington and his approach toward business and self-reliance; encouraging former slaves “to work hard, demonstrate good morals and strong character” and not worry about politics as a tool for advancement. Garvey evolved Washington’s approach through use of collective decision-making and group profit-sharing techniques – the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). It was eye-opening for Blacks across America when, in 1919, Garvey purchased an auditorium in Harlem and named it Liberty Hall. From that platform, Garvey and the UNIA established 700 branches in thirty-eight states. “If you want liberty you must strike the blow. If you must be free, you must become so through your own effort.” In his wake, groups such as Father Divine’s Universal Peace Mission Movement in the 1930s and the Nation of Islam of the 1950s and 60s drew members and philosophy from Garvey. Garvey’s theory of racial separation was a stratagem to ensure Black self-reliance based on the philosophy that commerce and industry are the props of economic life. The mantra was, “Without commerce and industry, a people perish.”
Garvey’s economic impact in America included hundreds of profit-generating UNIA businesses, and his never-again-duplicated campaign persuaded Black investors to purchase stock in an international shipping line to carry passengers and freight between America, Africa and the West Indies. The Black Star, incorporated in 1919, was capitalized exclusively by African Americans. The name “Black Star Line” was a riff on the White Star Line, the British shipping company whose most famous vessel was the Titanic. Ownership gave Garveyites pride and hope for prosperous returns. The BSL acquired three steamships, but by 1922, they were lost and the corporation collapsed. The BSL is noteworthy as the first large-scale business venture financed and managed by African Americans.
The “Back to Africa” man actually never set foot there, but many modern-day Liberians are Garveyite descendants.
(William Reed is available for speaking engagements via BaileyGroup.org)