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The Life and Activities of Marcus Garvey

Marcus Garvey, who lived between 1887 and 1940, is widely known as the founder, organizer and charismatic leader of one of history’s largest movements involving the black people, the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) (Marable & Mullings 239). A Jamaican by birth, Marcus Garvey was a printer and journalist, having worked in Central America, the Caribbean, as well as Great Britain. Under the inspiration of the renowned activist, Booker.T. Washington, he launched the Universal Negro Improvement Association in New York, USA, a movement that brought together masses of poor and working class blacks in a struggle against racial segregation. He was endowed with a natural ability for public speaking and demonstrations, the abilities that helped him to capture a popular imagination among the black population. Through the UNIA, Garvey established a widespread network of organizations throughout the Caribbean, United States and Africa. He was under constant harassment from US and British authorities who continually undermined his organizations, culminating in his arrest at Atlanta in 1925 and subsequent deportation to Jamaica in 1927. His deportation marked the decline of UNIA and Garvey’s final return to Britain, where he died in London in 1940. He was married to Amy Jacques Garvey, with whom he had two sons; Marcus Garvey Jr. and Julius Winston Garvey (Marable & Mullings, p. 259, Taylor, pp. 113 -121).

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Marcus Garvey’s early life

Marcus Garvey was born Marcus Moziah Garvey on August, 17 1887, to Malchus Moziah Garvey , a renowned mason and his wife Sarah Richards, a gentle and very sincere woman. His other siblings were Rosana, Truman and Indiana, but only Marcus and Indiana grew up into adulthood, the other two having died at infancy. Marcus Garvey’s father is said to have been a self-educated and extravagantly proud man and had made a very large collection of very precious books that the young Garvey loved to read. By the age of around 12 years, Marcus Garvey is had developed some very good mimetic skills that he used to amuse those in his peer group, while causing fury to his then 62 year old father. Garvey’s father was a real disciplinarian and one time when Garvey and others were convicted for breaking windows at a local church, he refused to pay the 1 pound fine and asked the Jury to send the boy to the reformatory. This incident really strained relations between young Marcus and his father (Grant, p. 10).

The young Marcus Harvey had a role model early in life; his uncle Joseph Richard who had leased a 50 acre farm on which the young Marcus offered his services. Uncle Joseph, as Marcus referred to him was a very hard-working Christian man and to the young man, a picture of real benevolence. As well as helping his uncle with the farm’s book-keeping, Marcus also benefited from his uncle’s generosity of paying his school fees at a local elementary school, something his own father had been unable to do. But unfortunately, his uncle soon after lost the farm back to the Landlord and the young Marcus had to look for employment because the lack of funds restricted his progress in education. In 1901, he got a position as an apprenticeship at Afred ‘Cap’ Burrowes, the local printer and also his godfather. He later relocated to Port Maria in 1904 where Alfred Burrowes had opened a new branch for his printing work. But Port Maria did not satisfy the young Garvey’s hunger for metropolitan life and after one year’s saving, Garvey moved to the larger town of Kingston. Soon after, he was lucky to get employment at P.A. Benjamin Manufacturing Co.’s printing division at Kingston (Grant, pp. 11-13).

Marcus Garvey’s brush with city life and exposure to politics

At 18 years of age, Garvey was already on his path to a white collar job, thanks to a recommendation note he had received from Burrowes. He immediately attracted his employer’s attention and rapidly advanced to a foreman’s position a job with a modest but reasonable pay, which until then was reserved for the Englishmen. At this early age, he portrayed a love for arguments and would often find himself trying to resolve various conflicts at no one’s invitation although. Marcus Garvey was aggressive and his major principles revolved around personal self-improvement and a great zeal for communal work. Even after advancing to the lower managerial ranks at P.A. Benjamin’s, Garvey retained his membership at the local trade union and in November 1908, he defied the expectations of his employer to join print workers in a massive strike demanding for better payment and improvement of the current working conditions. This move cost him his very precious job but after having shared in the plight of the common worker at the hands of the Jamaican employers (Grant, pp. 20-24).

Living at Kingston also exposed Garvey to the country’s political life and raised in him a greater awareness of the increasing differences that continued to exist between different classes. The living conditions of the poor and the high level of injustice towards them triggered in him an interest in political life than he had experienced before. Luckily, and in the midst of all these disappointments, Garvey got another job at the local government printers though on temporary terms. On 20th April 1920, Garvey got elected to the position of first assistant secretary of the National Club., the first political organization in Jamaica to challenge British rule at national level. One of the organization’s major goals was to see towards the removal of Governor Olivier from office and they also published a local pamphlet, The Struggling Mass, an activity Garvey was more than to take part in. During the same period, he enrolled for language improvement classes under the tutorship of one Robert J. Love, a radical black journalist and very devote campaigner for social change. Under the influence of Love, Garvey began to participate in public-speaking competitions in the town and although he took no prizes home, the activity helped to get him more recognition in the print industry, and by early 1910, Marcus Garvey’s first weekly magazine, Garvey’s Watchman, tolled out of the printing press. He really struggled to keep it in circulation but worsening economic conditions forced him to call off publication after a round of only three issues (Grant, pp. 24-25).

Marcus Garvey becomes adventurous

At the mid of 1910, Marcus Garvey moved from Kingston to Costa Rica, where another uncle by name Henry Richards secured him a time keeper’s job at a large plantation in Limon division. He however spent only a few months at the job, but long enough to notice the belittling and bullying that his fellow workers received from the authorities, a move that made him identify with the resentful workers. Through the following months, he did casual jobs and after some considerable saving embarked on another journey, this time to Panama. At Panama, Garvey became exposed to the real impact of segregation laws on the blacks and a consequent infection in his lungs added up with his unwillingness to compromise his pride and, in 1911, he returned back to Kingston. After recovery, he once embarked on getting money for another expedition and after he had enough saving, he left Kingston on a steamship, this time destined for England, arriving in London during the spring of 1912 (Grant, pp. 25-32). While in London, Marcus Garvey worked in various establishments although his most influential and fruitful job was at the African Times & Orient Review organization where he had been employed by one Duse Mohammed Ali. It is within the premises of Ali’s organization that Garvey’s employment brought him into contact with of the leading and well known Blacks activists of the time (Adi & Sherwood, p.76).

Back to Kingston, Jamaica

After about two years in London, Marcus Garvey returned to his home country of Jamaica, an exposed man and with a head full of ideas. Back at Kingston, Marcus Garvey and his special friend, the well educated, politicized and articulate young woman by name Amy Ashwood, founded a welfare association which they named Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) (Adi & Sherwood 71, 76). The main aim behind UNIA was to bring together all black people in the world into a great body that would help in the establishment of a government of blacks ruling black country (Adams & Dyson, p. 183). UNIA had a number of policies at hand namely to strengthen unity and the brotherhood of all races, reclaim and promote the fallen racial pride of the black people, help in spreading Christianity and promoting civilization in Africa, as well as establish worldwide industrial and commercial unity; not forgetting the need to set up education facilities that would help reduce widespread illiteracy among the masses (Adi & Sherwood, p. 76).

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Marcus Garvey moves to the USA

The movement did not gain enough popularity in Jamaica and in 1916, Amy and Garvey got separated when Amy joined her parents back to Panama and Garvey moved on to the United States of America. But by early 1919, the pair was back working together when Amy was able to join Garvey in the USA where they jointly worked towards the establishment of UNIA, New York branch. In December of the same year, the pair got married but only to separate soon after before the end of 1920. Two strong wills had probably failed to get compatible and crashed and Amy was also not ready to be under Garvey’s subordination. In 1922, Marcus Garvey married another wife, a Jamaican lady by the name Amy Jacques who took up the position previously held by Ashwood at UNIA (Adi & Sherwood, pp. 71-72).

Garvey was a great admirer of Booker T Washington and his industrial policies which the former found to be very educational. He went to the USA with a determination to spread out his ideas through the Tuskegee Institute established by Washington and a model that Garvey wished to adopt for Jamaica. USA at the time was characterized by widespread segregation, lynching, and several limitations imposed upon the blacks in such a way that the move northwards in search of better life was massive. A lot of organizations had by this time been established to steer the liberation struggle. Unfortunately for Garvey, Washington died before the former got to the USA. He was however well received by a former colleague at Kingston, W.A. Domingo who had settled in the city of New York and the now turned socialist introduced Garvey to colleagues at the Afro-American Liberty League. After a tour of the USA, Garvey was at New York again, this time determined to strengthen UNIA and his wife Amy joined him soon after (Adi & Sherwood, pp. 76-77).

At the USA, Marcus Garvey became the chief spokesman for racial separatism and Black Nationalism, spreading his ideas under UNIA. He took advantage of his organizing and charismatic oratory skills to establish a massive following from the black working-class and poor populations. He differed with Fredrick Douglas and NACCP about an all inclusive pluralistic American society. He had an idea of racial separatism and self-determination for the black people, to press hard for the liberation of Africa as the home for Africans both abroad and at home (Marable & Mullings, p. 239). Garvey’s policies also crashed with those of African American intellectuals who supported integration and who also feared that Garvey would incite the masses and Garvey’s movement led to resentment towards African Americans from the Caribbean. Despite much resistance, Garvey was able to establish UNIA’s New York branch whose membership included communist and socialist colleagues. Soon after, UNIA started publishing a newspaper, the Negro World which advocated black initiative and condemned White superiority (Adi & Sherwood, p. 77).

Marcus Garvey hated to see a cultural assimilation of blacks into the white man’s culture or amalgamation of these two races. He desired an absolute African American society that had its own separate ideas and institutions different from those of the white society (Adams & Dyson, p. 186). Other independent groups were established to help accomplish UNIA’s policies which included women’s organizations such as Black Cross and Motor Corps uniformed nurses and children’s organizations that were much similar to scouts groups. A paramilitary group known as UNIA African Legion was also established with the main duties of protecting the local people and UNIA from racist forces such as Ku Klux Khlan. A number of commercial ventures fostered by UNIA for the purpose of economic self-help lacked proper management due to poor entrepreneurial inexperience and many of them suffered from financial constraints. In 1919 for example, UNIA attempted to alleviate the problems experienced by traders from West Africa by establishing a shipping line that would help them transport goods between Africa, West Indies and the USA. This created a lot of popularity for UNIA among the Africans (Adi & Sherwood, p. 78).

Through UNIA, Garvey met with a lot of resistance from the Whites and other Blacks who felt that his policies were racist. In 1924 for example, a well planned expatriation of about 30 thousand families to Liberia failed to take off when hostility developed between Liberia’s President King and UNIA. The USA in particular had very special interests in Liberia and was against such a resettlement. But this did not stop the spread of the magazine, Negro World to other parts of Africa such as Cameroon, Congo, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Uganda, Kenya Nyasaland and as far south as South Africa where UNIA had established several branches. The news about UNIA’s liberation for the African people had spread out far and wide. In places like Britain where the Negro World had been banned, seamen helped to smuggle it in gladness of anxious and expectant readers (Adi & Sherwood, pp. 78-79).

Back to Jamaica and off to London again

In 1922, Marcus Garvey was convicted of mail fraud, tried and subjected to a five year jail term. In 1927, after completing his jail term, the famous UNIA leader was deported back to his native Jamaica. Back to an impoverished country that had hardly recovered from the effects of the first world war, Garvey established another association, People’s Political Party (PPP) whose policies were aimed at alleviating the poor living conditions of the masses; by demanding for better social facilities and services such as secondary schools, libraries, health institutions, and reforms to the land and legal systems among others. Through the party’s newspaper, Black Man, UNIA got another mouthpiece because the Negro World had already been banned in Jamaica (Adi & Sherwood, p. 79). But UNIA failed to gain popularity and Garvey decided to return to London leaving his family back in Jamaica. In May 1937, after some stay in London, Garvey was finally able to send tickets for his wife and children to join him in London where they arrived on 21st June, 1937. They lived and worked together for UNIA, their devotion to the party often putting them into very great financial difficulties. Amy did not like the situation in London and a health complication in her second son gave her good ground to take her children back to Jamaica, leaving Garvey alone in London (Taylor,  pp. 129-147).

The man known as Marcus Garvey

Garvey exercised an autocratic type of leadership and at no one time was he willing to delegate duties. He was a great admirer of Hitler and Mussolini and greatly stressed the concept of racial purity. He also operated a colorful paramilitary group, the African Legion, all listed factors leading many people to level him as a fascist. Garvey also had a type of high-handedness that helped him to create a long chain of enemies among both the white and black integrationists and made undermined his popularity and widespread support among his fellow African Americans. He was also very inconsistent in his ideas and knew very little about the African continent that he so much wished to liberate. Though he was a very adventurous man and traveled widely, at no one time did Garvey visit Africa and he only had a romanticized view about the continent (Adams & Dyson, p. 187). Marcus Garvey’s letters to his wife from London reflect a man who had a very difficult personal and political life in the last days of his life which were also marked by deep financial trouble. Garvey however still remains a great inspiration for separatists and integrationists a like (Taylor, pp. 130-147).

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Marcus Garvey’s final journey

In the last days of his life in London, Marcus Garvey was unfortunately a sick and forgotten man, partially paralyzed from a previous stroke, and separated from his wife and children who had two years earlier gone back to Jamaica. In a rented house at the West Kingston London suburb, he received the most shocking news in his life time, an early pronouncement of the looming death that eventually led him to his grave. A newspaper headline circulated the news that Marcus Garvey had died in London as a result of which other papers were filled with his obituaries, some of which were not very pleasant to read. Garvey was eulogized while still alive by both friends and foes, while those who still hurt from his policies and ideas strongly vilified him. Despite his secretary’s consideration for his ill health and great efforts to shield him from this wave, Garvey defied the condition of his now very ailing body to go through all the published stories about his death. But for the victim of a very serious stroke, such a move was detrimental to his health and Garvey collapsed in his seat before he could go through the whole pile. Another serious stroke had fallen on this hero and on 10th June, 1887 Marcus Moziah Garvey finally died, this time a very real death (Grant, pp. 1-2).


Marcus Garvey may have died a defeated man, but his legacy lives on and his ideas have continually influenced Pan Africanism and black nationalistic politics among the black people living abroad. Marcus Garvey is famed for successfully creating the only global, All African, anti-imperialist movement through which he promoted Black pride and also promoted self-help for the black race in the midst of widespread persecution by a White supremacy (Adi & Sherwood, p. 76).

Works Cited

  1. Adams, Ian and Dyson.W. R. Fifty Major Political Thinkers. London: Routledge, 2003.
  2. Adie, Hakim and Sherwood Marika. Pan-African History: Political Figures from Africa and the Diaspora Since 1787. London: Routlege, 2003.
  3. Grant, Colin. Negro with a Hat. The Rise and Fall of Marcus Garvey. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.
  4. Marable, Manning and Mullings Leith. Let Nobody Turn Us Around: Voices of Resistance Reform, and Renewal. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003.
  5. Taylor, Ula Y. The Veiled Garvey: The Life & Times of Amy Jacques Garvey. Charlotte: UNC Press, 2002.

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