Newsgroups: soc.culture.african
Subject: Marcus Garvey (1887-1940)
Date: 11 Nov 2003 20:49:22 -0800
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Marcus Garvey (1887-1940): The Greatest Black Leader of the 20th Century

By Baruti M. Kamau, Editor-in-Chief Barutiwa News Service (BNS), 11 November 2003

During my early teens, I was in search of a hero whom I could identify with racially. I was particularly looking for a remarkable Black man’s example I could look to for inspiration in pursuit of my ambition. This quest brought me into contact with the saga of Jomo Kenyatta, the first President of Kenya, Kwame Nkrumah, the first President of Ghana and Elijah Muhammad, Founder of the Nation of Islam. My careful perusal of these astounding men’s background made me aware of one common factor in their development: they were all admirers and followers of the Honorable Marcus Garvey in the early 1920’s and 30’s. Jomo Kenyatta, Kwame Nkrumah and Elijah Muhammad gave their respect to Marcus Garvey’s pervasive influence in their distinct nationalist ideologies. Indeed, one of Garvey’s greatest achievements was the mass movement he engendered among Black peoples throughout the United States, South America, Africa and the Carribean against Caucasian colonialist and imperialist rule. No Black leader of the 20th century has been able to successfully organize, unite and lead an international mass movement of Black people’s against Caucasian rule this century as effectively and vividly as Marcus Garvey did. Hence, I see Marcus Garvey as the major Black figure of this century; somewhat of a Black Diaspora Superman. It is from this perspective that I write my article.

Marcus Garvey was born in Jamaica at St. Ann’s Bay on August 17, 1887. His family were sharecroppers who were direct descendants of African slaves who rebelled against the British slave regime in the early 19th century. Garvey was proud of his heritage, and considered his ancestors superior to the docile and passive Negroes who were reluctant to defy their English masters. Garvey’s childhood was rooted in the peasant experience; although he did manage to receive an adequate education. Special thanks to his father’s personal library. Four years after leaving school, at the age of 18, Garvey moved to Kingston where he became the first 18 year old Black foreman printer of Jamaica. He later lost his job when he consented to lead his workers in a strike against inferior working conditions. As Garvey became increasingly immersed in the political life of Kingston, he decided to do some international traveling to observe the universal condition of the Black race. At the age of 23, in 1910, Garvey ventured into Costa Rica where he worked on a United Fruit Company banana plantation. During his sojourn in Costa Rica he started his first newspaper entitled La Nacion where he first demonstrated his ability to embroil himself in local issues. In his paper La Nacion Garvey called for improved working conditions for Black people and urged Black workers to fight for better conditions. He was soon arrested by local authorities and expelled from the country. Garvey continued traveling throughout Latin America where he agitated among Black workers for improved working conditions. Not surprisingly, Garvey found himself in London, England enhancing his knowledge of the universal suffering of Black peoples. And proved again his propensity to involve himself in local issues.

Garvey’s stay in England made him aware of the effectiveness of British democracy. He made note of how the British practiced autocratic rule in their colonies and would thus argue for British justice to be extended to his majesty’s subjects. This also reinforced his belief of Caucasian hypocrisy. After four years of traveling throughout Latin America and Western Europe, Garvey found himself destitute and returned home to Jamaica in 1914 with ideas of earning a living and establishing a race uplift organization. In the summer of 1914, Garvey wrote: For the last ten years I have given my time to the study of the condition of the Negro, here, there, and everywhere, and I have come to realize that he is still the object of degradation and pity the world over in the sense that he has no status socially, nationally, or commercially.... Garvey entitled his race uplift organization the Universal Negro Improvement and Conservation Association and African Communities (Imperial) League, later known as the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), which objectives were to establish a central nation for Black people, setting up educational institutions, and to work for better conditions among Negroes everywhere. He succeeded in establishing himself as an agitator and radical in the minds of the Jamaican Caucasian and Negro elite. In the words of Garvey: I had to decide whether to please my friends and be one of the ’black-whites’ of Jamaica, and be reasonably prosperous, or come out openly, and defend and help improve and protect the integrity of the black millions, and suffer.

Approximately two years after founding the UNIA in Jamaica, with varying degrees of success, Garvey arrived in New York on March 23, 1916 to expand his Black nationalist program into the United States. Also by this time, according to Tony Martin, in his superb disquisition on the ideological and organizational struggles of Marcus Garvey and the Universal Negro Improvement Association, Garvey’s sense of mission, his conviction that he had been called upon to emancipate his race, had developed to an uncanny degree. Marcus Garvey’s function as a secular agent of the Divine Will proved itself valid by Garvey’s swiftness in moving onto the American political scene. Within five years of his arrival into the United States at the age of 35, Marcus Garvey was the undisputed leader of the first African American mass movement in this country. Garvey had atleast 3 million followers in the United States, which was one-third of the US Black population at the time. His success rested in his vast knowledge of the Black world, charisma, oratory skills, sincerity and willingness to challenge and administer a blow to White supremacy in all of it complexities. Garvey’s African American followers especially admired his militant stance toward the so-called master race. Garvey said in one Liberty Hall lecture: The first dying that is to be done by the black man in the future will be done to make himself free. And then when we are finished, if we have any charity to bestow, we may die for the white man. But as for me, I think I have stopped dying for him. It was statements like this that irritated and scared the hell out of the US and British governments. A 1920 report called Revolutionary Radicalism written by the Lusk Committee of the New York State legislature explicitly expressed: The most interesting...features of radical and revolutionary propaganda is the appeal made to those elements of our population that have a just cause of complaint with the treatment they have received in this country. The very fact that the negro has many just causes of complaint adds to the seriousness of the propaganda, and we should encourage all negroes loyal to us to organize to oppose the activities of such radicals, which cannot but lead to serious trouble if they are permitted to continue the propaganda which they now disseminate in such large volume. The quotation of the Lusk Committee explains so well why the NAACP and W.E.B. Dubois worked so hard to discredit and ruin the greatest Black leader of this century. The ugly opposition Garvey received from the NAACP and its national spokesman, W.E.B. Dubois, reinforced his feeling that Black people must ostracize and punish the quislings among them. Unfortunately, with the help of the NAACP and W.E.B. Dubois, the United States narrowly succeeded in deporting Garvey from the United States in 1927 after a little more than ten years of impressive and courageous work among the local Black population. Garvey’s legacy continued to live on despite the ideological and political hostility towards his blessed movement. His name and ideas re-emerged in the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s among the Nation of Islam, Black Panthers, the All African Peoples Revolutionary Party and many others. Barutiwa Newspaper credit Marcus Garvey as being the father of international Black nationalism and the greatest Black leader of the 20th century.