Marcus Garvey (1887-1940) is a Jamaican National Hero, whose work included founding the United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), and creating a movement of inspiring blacks in the US and elsewhere to return to their ancestral home of Africa. For some, his suggestions and black separatist attitudes were controversial and for others, his movement and ideas were considered heroic.
Garvey was born in Jamaica, and in early life cultivated an interest in books. He learned early that society tended to discriminate against blacks, and in his teen years, he began to work hard for fair wages for printers, when he became a printer’s apprentice. Though Marcus Garvey was born in Jamaica, he traveled extensively in South America and England. In 1914, he returned to Jamaica, where he began to garner the support of many Jamaican blacks, and he was able to form UNIA.
With UNIA successfully gaining power, Marcus Garvey moved to Harlem in the USA in 1916, and brought a powerful message to many residents there. He argued that blacks had every right to be proud of their race, and that they did not benefit from living in a racist society. This argument prompted Garvey to negotiate with the government of Liberia in order to grant returning black citizens from elsewhere a way to return to Africa. Liberia, however, would not agree to Garvey’s proposals, and the back to Africa movement lost much of its steam because there was not single place for returning African descendants to settle.
Though the back to Africa movement did not see fruition, Marcus Garvey was a powerful voice, and in a way much before his time in demanding equal civil rights for black citizens of countries around the world. He was a strong advocate of black self-help, the idea that blacks needed to not rely on a world that discriminated against them but to aid each other by establishing organizations separate from a governing white society. This can also be viewed as Black Nationalism, and is sometimes thought of as a conservative viewpoint, or alternately a very radical one. Garvey’s work influenced the opinions of leaders like Malcolm X later.
Some black leaders of the time, among them W.E.B. Du Bois, felt that Marcus Garvey created greater problems in attempting to obtain civil rights for blacks. Du Bois took a much different approach, favoring uniting black and white society, and he especially criticized Garvey’s alignment with organizations like the Ku Klux Klan, who essentially wanted to rid America of blacks with a similar “back to Africa movement.”
There was a call for the arrest of Garvey by black citizens of the US, and he was convicted of mail fraud, though most consider the charges to have been manufactured. His sentence was commuted after two years, and he was deported back to Jamaica. He then took up residence in England, in 1935, and lived there until his death in 1940.
To some, Marcus Garvey is an inspiration and a hero. He is almost invested with sainthood by the Rastafarian movement, where some believe he is the reincarnation of John the Baptist. Others find his positions too radical. He is nevertheless an important figure in history, whose voice cried out for African descendants to be considered at their full worth, rather than discriminated against, as was often the case in Garvey’s era.