By Spy Uganda
Molefi Kete Asante, professor and chair of the Africology and African American studies department at Temple University in Philadelphia, describes Marcus Garvey a professional journalist as probably “the most significant African political genius that has ever lived.”
“He infused the idea of black self-sufficiency in all of the societies and communities in the black world —the idea of ‘you can organize and create institutions that fight for your own liberation,’” Asante says. He says Garvey is also responsible for symbols such as the red, green and black Pan-African flag.
Experts say Garvey’s philosophies of black nationalism and Pan-Africanism – movements that called for people of African descent to unify and establish an independent nation in Africa – helped pave the way for the civil rights movement. Garvey’s quest for black self-reliance, they say, would be felt for generations.
“He infused the idea of black self-sufficiency in all of the societies and communities in the black world — the idea of, you can organize and create institutions that fight for your own liberation.”
Molefi Kete Asante, professor and chair of the Africology and African American Studies department at Temple University
Garvey, who was born in Jamaica in 1887, believed that white society would never treat black people equally. He founded the anti-colonial Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League in Jamaica in 1914. The organization is commonly known by the abbreviation UNIA.
The association created a societal model of black nationalism and Pan-Africanism through political, economic and social means, says Robert Hill, a research professor of history at UCLA and a Garvey expert. The UNIA also established the Universal African Legion, a paramilitary group, as well as the Black Cross Nurses, a group modelled after the Red Cross that provided health care to black communities. Garvey also established the Black Star Line steamship company, which transported passengers and goods to Africa.
The organizations moved to New York City’s Harlem neighbourhood when Garvey immigrated to America in 1916.
Garvey as a journalist and publisher also shared his ideas by creating the Negro World newspaper in 1918. The publication served as the voice for the UNIA, with circulation reaching all the way to Africa.
After the move to Harlem, Garvey’s movement swelled. By the early 1920s, the UNIA had more than 700 branches in 38 states. At the peak of the movement, Hill says, Garvey had a following in the hundreds of thousands.
Asante says Garvey took inspiration from such figures as Booker T. Washington, founder of the Tuskegee Institute, who sought to improve education for African Americans; the leaders of the Haitian Revolution, including Toussaint L’Ouverture and Henri Christophe; and the maroons, escaped slaves who established free communities in Jamaica.
Still, Garvey was a target of criticism, including from black leaders in the USA, says Rupert Lewis, professor emeritus in political thought at the University of the West Indies in Jamaica. Lewis says some believed that Garvey’s ideas for resettlement were utopian and financially impractical.
After World War I, the FBI closely followed Garvey. On its website, the FBI acknowledges seeking to “deport him as an undesirable alien.” In 1922, Garvey was convicted of mail fraud in connection with a stock sold to keep his Black Star Line from bankruptcy. After serving three years of his sentence, Garvey was released and deported to Jamaica.
Garvey’s movement waned in the USA after his deportation, but his influence remains, historians, say.
“If you go on the streets of Jamaica, there are lots of images of Garvey on the walls,” Lewis says, adding that Garvey, who died in 1940, is commonly mentioned in the country’s music.
Hill of UCLA says the Rastafari movement, a religion dating back to the 1930s and practised throughout the Caribbean, reflects Garvey’s influence.
Even Martin Luther King Jr. described Garvey as the “first man of colour in the history of the United States to lead and develop a mass movement.”
“You could claim that Garvey is the father of African independence,” Hill says. “I’d be willing to make that claim, and he’s regarded as such by many, many people in Africa.”