GARVEY, MARCUS MOSIAH Regarded by some as a self-serving charlatan and by others as a "Black Messiah" or a "Black Moses," Marcus Mosiah Garvey was a black nationalist during the early twentieth century who singlehandedly organized the first black mass protest movement in the history of the United States. In the process and as the result of his emphasis upon black pride, racial separation and the resurrection of a great black empire in Africa, Garvey unwittingly became the spiritual father of modern black nationalism. In a sense, modern slogans and movements such as "black is beautiful" and "black power" are simply manifestations of a revived form of Garveyism.
Garvey was born in Jamaica on August 17, 1887. During his youth and into his early twenties, he became convinced that the world-wide plight of black people demanded a solution. As a result of independent study, research and travel, Garvey decided to become a leader of his race in order to unite blacks throughout the world in a nation and government of their own. Toward this end, he established the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) in Jamaica in 1914. In 1916 he traveled to the United States to organize a New York chapter of the UNIA. Two years later, he founded a newspaper, The Negro World, which became the propaganda arm of the UNIA. Coupled with a lengthy speaking-tour throughout the United States, Garvey's editorials in The Negro World succeeded in attracting thousands of converts to the UNIA. In a matter of months, thirty branches of the organization were established in the United States. By 1920, Garvey claimed that he had four million followers and, in 1923, six million. Although these figures were probably exaggerations, even Garvey's most critical opponents admitted that there were at least a half million members in the UNIA at its height.
At the heart of Garvey's ideology was his fervent desire to mobilize the black peoples of Africa, the West Indies, the Americas and elsewhere, for the spiritual, historical and physical redemption of Africa and Africans, at home and abroad. "If Europe is for the Europeans," he declared, "then Africa shall be for the black peoples of the world. The other races have countries of their own and it is time for the 400,000,000 Negroes to claim Africa for themselves." Notwithstanding this pronouncement, it is mistaken to suppose that Garveyism was just another "Back to Africa" movement. Garvey was realistic enough to appreciate the fact that a mass black exodus to Africa, in the physical sense, was impossible. Although he did believe that black intellectuals and leaders had an obligation to return to their ancestral homeland to assist in its development and liberation, his basic argument revolved around the concept of a spiritual return to Africa for the majority of American blacks. He argued that white racism in the United States had created a sense of self-hatred in blacks, and that the only way to purge themselves of this self-hatred and self-contempt was through a spiritual identification with Africa and Africans. By stressing Africa's noble past, Garvey declared that American blacks should be proud of their ancestry and, in particular, proud of their blackness. Concurrently, American blacks must strive to achieve black community pride, wealth, culture and independence in the United States by creating and maintaining a nation within a nation. "The fight for African redemption," Garvey stated, "does not mean that we must give up our domestic fight for political justice and industrial rights."
In 1921, Garvey established a provisional government-in-exile for Africa, with himself as president. In addition, he established a black cabinet, a black army (the African Legion) attired in resplendent uniforms, a corps of nurses (Black Cross Nurses) and even an African Orthodox Church, with a black God and Christ. Earlier, Garvey had created a steamship company, the Black Star Line, which acquired several ships for commerce with and transportation to Africa. The elaborateness of Garvey's organization coupled with his own charismatic personality had a profound effect upon the black urban masses who were drawn to him as if he were a magnet. On the other hand, black intellectuals denounced Garvey as a visionary buffoon and a demagogue. W. E. B. Du Bois, for example, called Garvey's movement "bombastic and impracticable." For his part, Garvey shunned intellectuals like Du Bois as well as the black bourgeois establishment which, in his mind, had betrayed the black race by cooperating with whites. Refusing to accept white donations ("We don't want their money, this is a black man's movement."), Garvey condemned the NAACP as "wanting us all to become white by amalgamation. To be a Negro is no disgrace, but an honor, and we of the UNIA do not want to become white." Garvey's handling of the Black Star Line finally put an end to his meteoric rise. In 1922, he was indicted on mail fraud charges concerning the sale of Black Star stock. Convicted in 1923, he was confined in prison for two years and then, in 1927, deported as an undesirable alien. In his absence, Garveyism (or Black Zionism) in the United States lost much of its appeal. Garvey himself subsequently died in London in 1940. See also: BACK TO AFRICA MOVEMENTS and DARK CONTINENT.