Born at 32 Market Street in St Ann’s Bay in August 1887, the Right Excellent Marcus Mosiah Garvey was one of the most powerful black rights activists of the twentieth century. His outspoken denunciations of colonialism and racism and his concrete efforts to unite and empower the African diaspora influenced politicians, musicians and academics alike. Rastafarians call him a black prophet, and his philosophies form the basis of their faith.

Early years

Reputedly of Maroon descent, Garvey was the son of a master stonemason with an uncompromising attitude, who pursued multiple lawsuits against those who had slighted him on racial grounds. Though lack of funds ended the young Garvey’s formal schooling at fourteen, he continued to study privately and spent long hours in his father’s library. Prodigious from an early age, Garvey was made foreman of his uncle’s printery at eighteen. But small-town living offered scant opportunities, and in 1906 he moved to Kingston and found work as a printery foreman – a significant coup when supervisors were usually white. As an activist in the fledgling trade union movement, Garvey was disturbed at the injustice meted out to black workers, and he left in search of better prospects in Costa Rica. There, he worked on a banana plantation and set up workers’ newspapers to publicize the deplorable conditions for West Indian migrants. During a stint in England in 1912, he read up on black nationalists at Birkbeck College, and Booker T. Washington’s seminal text Up From Slavery informed Garvey’s increasing militancy.

The Universal Negro Improvement Association

In 1914, Garvey returned to Jamaica and formed the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) “to champion Negro nationhood by redemption of Africa; to make the Negro race conscious, to advocate self-determination, to inspire and instill racial love and self-respect”. But Jamaica’s middle classes weren’t ready for such radicalism, and Garvey immigrated to the US in 1916 to seek a more sympathetic audience. Black Americans identified so strongly with him that by 1920 the UNIA had become the largest black pressure group ever to exist in the US, with a membership of millions. Though outlawed in most of the colonies, Garvey’s self-published Negro World achieved the largest circulation of any black newspaper in the world. With the financial backing of thousands who bought shares, Garvey formed the Black Star Line Shipping Company to foster trade links between black nations and enable repatriation to the African homeland.

Activism and the Black Star Line

Though known principally as a “Back-To-Africa” advocate, Garvey was equally concerned with improving the situation of blacks wherever they found themselves. His assault on post-colonial nihilism was his greatest achievement, countering feelings of inferiority and powerlessness fostered during enslavement, and advocating black pride by emphasizing the historical achievements of Africans: “Up you mighty race, you can accomplish what you will”. Garvey was regarded as a subversive by white America, and his supporters saw his 1922 two-year imprisonment on a trumped-up mail-fraud charge as an attempt to muzzle the message. Pressure from UNIA members secured his release, but in 1927 he was deported back to Jamaica on a wave of publicity. A loss of momentum ensured that the Black Star Line foundered, and Garvey never recaptured his early success. Tiring of constant battles with authority, he moved the struggle to the UK, where he died in obscurity in 1940. His importance was only recognized posthumously – in 1964 his remains were returned to Jamaica and interred in Kingston’s National Heroes Park. In the 1970s, reggae music inspired a resurgence of Garveyism in Jamaica, with Rastafarian musicians like Burning Spear immortalizing his life and work. Today, Marcus Garvey’s ideas remain central to the Jamaican national consciousness.

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