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MARCUS "BLACK MOSES" GARVEY

Marcus Garvey Marcus Garvey

Marcus Garvey joins a long list of Carribeans alongside George Padmore and others, who played a very crucial role in the struggle for the liberation of Africa from white dominance, eventhough they were not native Africans. His efforts, and those of his peers in America like William DuBois played an inspirational role to upcoming African freedom fighters who looked up to them for guidance towards a prosperous black race. Later in his life Garvey embarked on a mission to encourage all people of African descent to return to their ancestral homeland in Africa. This is why he was nicknamed Black Moses in resemblance to the Biblical Moses who led the Jews out of slavery in Egypt. Some even contend that his mother foresaw him attempting such a feat and named him Mosiah at birth. He later championed the cause for Pan-Africanism which essentially advocated a united Africa, devoid of geographical boundaries established by the colonialists. It is important to note here that the battle for the liberation of Africans from colonialism was not just waged by Africans in Africa, but was supported by all people of black descent worldwide. Jamaica however, can be singled out as one country outside the African continent that was extremely instrumental in the African struggle. Not only is this evident in its political leaders like Marcus Garvey, but also in their vibrant pro-African culture that is manifested in their world reknowned Reggae music. Legendary Reggae musicians like Bob Marley, Winston Rodney(a.k.a Burning Spear), and Joseph Hill, have been a constant fixture in the political psyche of most Africans who have grown attached to their inspirational and conscious tunes.

Marcus Mosiah Garvey was born in St.Ann, Jamaica in 1887. Reports have it that his father was a relatively well-to-do black man who was also a consumate reader. It was from his father's books that the young Marcus taught himself how to read and write, seeking help occassionally from private tutors. As a young boy Marcus never experienced racism and often interracted freely with kids from other races who inhabited his middle income neighbourhood. It was only after he reached his teens that he started noticing parents of his childhood friends discouraging them from playing with him because he was black. He thus became aware that there was a certain stigma associated with people of his race. When he looked harder around Jamaica, he also realized that black Jamaicans were much poorer compared with the rest of the population, yet they constituted an overwhelming majority. Of particular concern to Marcus was the poor working conditions black people were subjected to and the meagre salaries they received. He thus took it upon himself to improve the conditions of black workers in Jamaica.

In 1905 as an 18 year old boy, he left for Kingston, Jamaica where he went to work in his uncle's print shop. However he soon lost his job there because of his Workers' Union activism. He got another job at a government printing office, where he gained invaluable experience that would later prove helpful in publishing his own newspapers. His income from the printing job was insufficient, and Marcus soon discovered that inorder to improve the plight of black workers in Jamaica, he would need a better source of funding. He thus followed the footsteps of many of his countrymen at that time and sought employment abroad in the hope of saving enough money to enable him further his goals when he returned home. In 1910, his job search took him to Costa Rica.

Garvey was however terribly dissapointed in Costa Rica, where he found a large number of his countrymen and other black Carribeans still struggling after running away from their home countries. Most of the black people he met there came from British colonies in the Carribean. It then dawned on the young Marcus that conditions in all British colonies worldwide, be they in Africa, Asia or in the Carribean were similar and that black people worldwide were being oppressed. It was then that he packed his bags and headed back home to Jamaica in 1912 to protest against the colonial administration there. The same year, after the Jamaican administration ignored his calls for justice for blacks, the courageous Garvey took his cries to the Colonialism headquarters in London. It was in London that Garvey's thinking was revolutionized. Eventhough he worked long hours at the docks, he still found time to attend classes in Law and Philosophy at Birkbeck College where he was introduced to the ideas of the great Greek Philosophers Plato and Socrates. It was also in the London libraries that he expanded his knowledge of motherland Africa, especially how ancient African civilizations like the Mali and Songhai Empires had thrived way before the arrival of the European colonialists. His findings contradicted the picture that had been put forth by the Colonialists suggesting that Africa was just a "backward" continent filled with "heathens" and "savages". it was here that Garvey started championing the cause against European colonialism and became a major inspiration to budding African leaders like Jomo Kenyatta and Kwame Nkrumah.

Garvey's major inspiration came at around 1913 when he ran into a book by Booker T Washington, an American slave who secured his freedom after the American civil war. Booker T argued in his book Up From Slavery that black people should first seek education, empower themselves economically and then demand equal rights with white people. His position was vehemently attacked by W.E.B. DuBois plus a host of other black activists who saw no reason for blacks to justify their need for social justice. Booker T's belief that blacks and whites in America could live separately in harmony also attracted a lot of criticism from DuBois, who contended that all races should intergrate in harmony. Booker T's ideas however deeply inspired Garvey, who left London for Kingston, Jamaica in 1914, with a renewed mission of empowering his people using this ideas. In 1914, Garvey founded the United Negro Improvenment Association(UNIA), with the stated objective of giving black Jamaicans educational and economic empowerment. UNIA also vowed to fight for the independence of African countries. Garvey soon became President of the Kingston based UNIA.

On March 23rd 1916, Garvey left for New York, USA, hoping to spread his black activism message to American blacks. His New York reception however was not as grand as he had anticipated and he soon found out that not many people there were familiar with his organization UNIA. The persistent Garvey however found his break on June 12th 1917 when he was invited by Hubert Harrison, a militant black activist to address his Harlem audience. Garvey's powerful speech rocked Harrison's audience, who left the building wondering where they could hear more of his message. With his popularity rising in New York, he founded the New York Chapter of UNIA, and initially served at an advisory role while maintaining Presidency of the Jamaican UNIA. In 1918, he took over as President of New York UNIA and started the UNIA newspaper called Negro World, that boasted worldwide distribution. It was through Negro World that Garvey's message spread throughout the world, and Africa in particular where it struck a chord among budding African freedom fighters.

UNIA's membership grew rapidly through major American cities with sizable black populations and by 1919, was boasting a warping 2 million members. Its hard to picture any black leader before Garvey who had managed such a large following. Much of the rise in UNIA's membership can be attributed to the effects of World War 1, which ended in 1918. Most of the black soldiers returning from the war were very frustrated to come back to the same oppression they had expressed before they took up arms for America. They thus found comfort in Garvey's message. Also during the war, the Northern US States were experiencing an industrial boom trying to satisfy the military needs of the warring European countries. With cross atlantic travel curtailed by the war, the northern states turned to southern blacks to fill the labour void in their industries. The desperate southern blacks migrated northwards enmasse amid promises of lucrative job offers only to find worse or similar conditions as they had in the south. Most of the frustrated migrators also joined UNIA in large numbers.

Garvey's tremendous popularity in the US however brought its own set of problems, particularly safety for his life. In October 1919, he survived a gun attack, escaping with a serious head injury. George Tyler his former employee, later admitted that he had been sent to murder Garvey. Garvey's popularity soared after this incident. Also in 1919, UNIA started the Black Star Line a fully black-owned shipping company, with the aim of empowering blacks economically. Garvey challenged black people to show their pride by investing in "their own" company. The response was overwhelming and reports have it that in its first year of operation, the Black Star Line had raised an estimated US$600,000 from the sale of its stock, making it the biggest black-owned enterprise at that time. During the same year UNIA also started the Negro Factories Corporation, whose aim was to start black factories and businesses both within the US and all over the world. Though the Negro Factories Corporation also attracted a lot of black investment, it came nowhere near the Black Star Line. UNIA and its two corporations effectively made Garvey the symbolic black leader worldwide. Garvey, who was smart enough to acknowledge this, went on to organize the first International Convention of Black Peoples worldwide that was held in August 1920 in Harlem, New York. The idea was to lay down a set of universal black rights, also called the Negro Declaration of Rights that was to be presented to all governments worldwide. Being the first international convention of black leaders it attracted the attention of the entire world and helped spread Garvey's message further.

It was at this convention that Garvey expounded on his vision for a free and united black homeland in Africa. He argued that all people of African descent need to go back to Africa and wrestle the continent from the colonialists. This later came to be called the Back to Africa movement. The delegates at the convention really liked Garvey's idea and even proceeded to form a shadow African government in exile, with Garvey as the provisional President. Garvey's Back to Africa movement led to some American blacks emmigrating to Liberia, an African nation that was formed in 1822 by free black Americans who chose to return to Africa. Liberia and Ethiopia are the only 2 African countries that were not colonized by the Europeans and thus were the prime targets for UNIA's Back to Africa program. Eventhough Liberian President Charles B. King initially welcomed UNIA's Back to Africa program, he grew increasingly suspicious that UNIA was trying to take over Liberia and ceased to cooperate.

In 1921, Garvey toured Latin America to promote the Black Star Line. His return to the US the same year however proved to be very difficult as American authorities tried to block his re-entry. The American authorities were growing increasingly anxious at Garvey's popularity among blacks in the US and feared he might stir racial tensions in the country. When Garvey was finally allowed re-entry, he immediately applied for US Citizenship inorder to avoid future similar embarassmment. Also in 1921 he founded the African Orthodox Church, a black church which taught among other things that God was black. 1921 proved to be a very successful year for Garvey, but sadly enough also marked his final momemnts of glory. Towards the end of 1921, there were clear indications that all was not well at the Black Star Line. The company was dogged by corruption and mismanagement and was on the verge of financial collapse. It became apparent that the black pride euphoria that had led to the massive black investments had blinded many of the investors to the lack of management abilities and business acumen of most Black Star Line executives. Garvey, who was fully aware of the problems at the Black Star Line continued to mail fraudulent advertisements promising huge profits for investors in the company. In January 1922, he was arrested for mail fraud and released on bail awaiting trial. This arrest marked the beginning of the end for Garvey, whose enemies now came out in full force. His popularity had bought him a lot of enemies namely the US government, European governments practicing colonialism in Africa, and even among some black Americans like W.E.B. DuBois. DuBois who was co-founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People(NAACP) attacked Garvey for his separatist views and argued that all races could live together in harmony. Garvey, feeling increasingly cornered made his biggest blunder and sought support from none other than the Klan--yes the Ku Klux Klan. When he met with Klan leader Edward Young Clarke in Atlanta in 1922, he was promised Klan protection because the Klan supported his idea to keep the races separate. Garvey's move however seriously offended many blacks, and understandably so taking much away from his earlier achievements.

On June 21st 1923 Garvey was convicted and sentenced to maximum 5 years in prison with a US$1,000 fine. His lawyers immediately appealed his conviction and 3 months later he was released on bail. On March 20th 1924, eager for a new start, Garvey formed the Black Cross Navigation and Trading Company. Surprisingly, his new company took off to a very good start with impressive stock sales, almost in total disregard to his failures with the Black Star Line. His hopes of revival were however dealt a serious blow on February 2nd 1925 when his appeal was rejected. On Feb 8 th 1925 he was sent to the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary to serve his sentence. Garvey's popularity soared again while he was in prison as many blacks started perceiving him as a victim of government harrassment. There was a growing sentiment that his incarceration had much more to do with his black activism than the mail fraud. Soon rallies were organized around the country demanding his release from prison. Under increasing pressure, then US President Calvin Coolidge commuted his sentence and ordered his release on November 18th 1927. With his 1921 US Citizenship application turned down shortly after his imprisonment, Garvey was deported back to Jamaica where he arrived to a tumultuous welcome by a home crowd never witnessed before in Jamaican history. With his deportation from the US in 1927, UNIA suffered tremendously and was on the verge of collapse.

In 1928 Garvey left for London, where he established the London Chapter of UNIA. Many European blacks however were generally not receptive to UNIA and his efforts to revive his American glory days there failed. In early 1929 he came back to Jamaica and immediately began planning for the 6thAugust International Convention of Negro Peoples, this time to be held in Kingston, Jamaica since he could not travel to Harlem, New York. However in the months leading up to this convention, there had been trouble brewing within the UNIA. New York UNIA leaders were upset with Garvey for accusing them of mismanaging UNIA while he was incarcerated. As tensions between Garvey and UNIA Headquarters in New York heightened, the New York delegates pulled out of the Kingston convention and turned down Garvey's demand that UNIA Headquarters be moved back to Kingston. As a result the Kingston and New York UNIA's officially split in 1929 and began operating independently. In 1935, Garvey again left for London and again tried to revive UNIA from there. Ironically, 1935 was also the year that Ethiopia, one of his target countries for the Back to Africa program fell to the Italians. The other target country was Liberia. Ethiopia's fall greatly disappointed Garvey, who sharply criticized then Ethiopian leader Emperor Haile Selassie for not adequately preparing the Ethiopian military to defend itself.

UNIA failed to take off in London confirming to Garvey yet again that his glory days had long gone. UNIA's fledging newspaper the Negro World had also collapsed earlier 1933 and reports indicate that towards the 1940's, the once wealthy Garvey was languishing in poverty in London. In January 1940, Garvey suffered a major stroke that paralysed his entire left side. Knowing that his death was near, he requested to be buried in Jamaica. Garvey died on June 10th 1940 in London, but his death wish came years later in 1964, when his remains were transported to Jamaica by the Jamaican government. He was awarded the title First National Hero, Jamaica's biggest honour.

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