Marcus Garvey

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Marcus Garvey

Historians familiar with Garvey’s career generally regard him as the preeminent symbol of the
insurgent wave of black nationalism that developed in the period following World War I.

Although born in Jamaica, Garvey achieved his greatest success in the United States. He did so
despite the criticism of many African-American leaders and the covert opposition of the United
States Department of Justice and its Bureau of Investigation (forerunner of the FBI). As a young
man, Garvey had preached accommodation and disavowed political protest, advocating loyalty
to the established colonial government. His views, however, underwent a radical transformation
after he arrived in the United States in 1916. The emergence of the radical New Negro
movement, which supplied the cultural and political matrix of the celebrated Harlem
Renaissance, to a large extent paralleled Garvey and his post-World War I “African
Redemption” movement.

Garvey established the first American branch of the UNIA in 1917–1918 in the midst of the
mass migration of blacks from the Caribbean and the American South to cities of the North. It
was also a time of political awakening in Africa and the Caribbean, to which Garvey vigorously
encouraged the export of his movement. In the era of global black awakening following World
War I, Garvey emerged as the best known, the most controversial, and, for many, the most
attractive of a new generation of New Negro leaders. Representative Charles B. Rangel of
New York has noted that “Garvey was one of the first to say that instead of blackness being a
stigma, it should be a source of pride” (New York Times, 5 April 1987).

Black expectations aroused by participation in World War I were dashed by the racial violence
of the wartime and postwar years, and the disappointment evident in many black communities
throughout the U.S., Africa, and the Caribbean allowed Garvey to draw dozens of local leaders
to his side. Their ideas were not always strictly compatible with Garvey’s, but their sympathy
with his themes of “African redemption” and black self-support was instrumental in gathering
support for the movement from a vast cross-section of African-American society. Similarly,
Garvey’s message was
adopted by a broad cross-section of educated and semi-literate Africans and West Indians
hungry for alternatives to white rule and oppression.

The post–World War I years were thus a time when a growing number of Africans and West
Indians were ready for change. In most colonial territories, Africans, like African Americans,
were disappointed when expected postwar changes failed to materialize. The Garveyist
message was spread by sailors, migrant laborers, and travelling UNIA agents, as well as by
copies of its newspaper, the Negro World, passed from hand to hand.

In the Caribbean, what has been termed the “Garvey phenomenon” resulted from an encounter
between the highly developed tradition of racial consciousness in the African-American
community, and the West Indian aspiration toward independence. It was the Caribbean ideal of
self-government that provided Garvey with his vocabulary of racial independence. Moreover,
Garvey combined the social and political aspirations of the Caribbean people with the popular
American gospel of success, which he converted in turn into his gospel of racial pride.

Garveyism thus appeared in the Caribbean as a doctrine proposing solutions to the twin
problems of racial subordination and colonial domination.

By the early 1920s the UNIA could count branches in almost every Caribbean,
circum-Caribbean, and sub-Saharan African country. The Negro World was read by thousands
of eager followers across the African continent and throughout the Caribbean archipelago.

Though Caribbean and African Garveyism may not have coalesced into a single movement, its
diverse followers adapted the larger framework to fit their own local needs and cultures. It is
precisely this that makes Garvey and the UNIA so relevant in the study of the process of
decolonization in Africa and the Caribbean. As if
in confirmation of the success with which Garveyism implanted itself in various social settings,
when Garvey himself proposed to visit Africa and the Caribbean in 1923, nervous European
colonial governors joined in recommending that his entry into their territories be banned. Many
modern Caribbean nationalist leaders have acknowledged the importance of Garveyism in their
own careers, including T. Albert Marryshow of Grenada; Alexander Bustamante, St. William
Grant, J. A. G. Smith, and Norman Washington Manley of Jamaica; and Captain Arthur
Cipriani, Uriah Butler, George Padmore, and C. L. R. James of Trinidad.

Before the Garvey and UNIA Papers project was established, the only attempt to edit Garvey’s
speeches and writings was the Philosophy & Opinions of Marcus Garvey, a propagandistic
apologia compiled in two successive volumes in the early 1920s by his second wife, Amy
Jacques Garvey. As Lawrence Levine notes, “It is always unwise to rely too exclusively upon a
collection edited by the subject, especially in the light of recent indications that the Garveys
altered a number of speeches and articles to conform with his later views” (Levine, op. cit.).

While the Philosophy & Opinions volumes served to plead Garvey’s legal case, they also
created a politically distorted picture of the UNIA, an image that for a long time severely
handicapped research.

In this context, the Marcus Garvey and UNIA Papers provides a full, objective account of the
movement and its leader, as it chronicles how the movement achieved a global dimension by
awakening the political consciousness of African and Caribbean peoples to the goals of racial