Marcus Garvey (17 August 1887 – 10 June 1940)


Many are familiar with Marcus Garvey through numerous references to him in Reggae music since he’s a prophet in the Rastafarian religion. However, those of us in the US who value civil rights should be particularly thankful for Garvey’s legacy, for his life and the ideas he promoted were an influence on Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. among many others and the organization he founded, the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League, continues his work to this day. This biography is from the Marcus Garvey Foundation:

The Honorable Marcus Mosiah Garvey was born in St. Ann Bay in the parish of St. Ann on the north coast of the island of Jamaica on 17 August 1887. He described it like this, “I was born in the beautiful Parish of St. Ann, near the falls of the Roaring River. I grew up with nature and drank much of her inspiration.” He developed an interest in playing cricket early in life. Apprenticed to his godfather who was a printer, young Marcus early evinced an interest in the printed word. He read widely and was always anxious to discuss current events as well as history. At the age of eighteen he was already a foreman at P.J. Benjamin’s Printing Shop in Jamaica’s capital city of Kingston. He could be seen grounding with his brethren at Victoria Pier on Sunday nights. Garvey joined the printer’s trade union and gained a reputation as courageous, dedicated and highly concerned young leader. At the age of twenty-three he embarked upon a most significant journey that carried him to both Latin America and Europe. He found employment on the docks of London, Liverpool and Cardiff like many West Indians and Africans at the time.

Meeting Duse Mohammed Ali, an Egyptian editor and publisher of the African Times and Orient Review, made a lasting impression on Marcus Garvey. Duse Ali later became active in the UNIA and later a newspaper publisher in Nigeria. Five days after he returned to Kingston, Jamaica, Marcus Garvey founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association, a mass based organization designed to unite people of African ascent around the world. Those who joined Garvey in founding the UNIA shared with him an interest in working hard to overcome conditions of oppression. The organization’s motto is “One God, One Aim, One Destiny.” Seeking the advice and assistance of Booker T. Washington, a well-known leader in the Black world community and at the helm of Tuskegee Institute, Marcus Garvey arrived in the U.S.A. several months after Washington’s death. He traveled from city to city spreading the word of Pan African unity. On May 10, l916, he kicked off the lecture tour at St. Mark’s Roman Catholic Church Hall on 138th Street and reportedly visited 38 states in a year. The cities Garvey visited later were to become major sites of UNIA activity. From those formative years at Liberty Hall on West 138th Street, this mass movement engulfed the African world, increasing from a few to millions worldwide. It wasn’t long before the establishment of the Negro World, Negro Factories Corporation, grocery stores, markets, steamships, and steam laundry companies occurred. The launching of the Black Star Line in 1919 and the successful First International Convention of the Negro Peoples of the World in 1920 catapulted this organization on to the world stage. Between World Wars I and II the UNIA rose and declined, never to be rivaled by another black mass movement.

Currently, the UNIA lives not only in its present form, but also in the memories of so many around the world. It is clear that the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League served as the model and foundation for 20th century Pan African movements.

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