People often feel that they cannot do much about all the problems in the world. They think the problems are too big for one person to make any difference. Marcus Garvey did not think in this way. He formed clear ideas about what the big problems were, and what he would do to help. He spent his whole life working for what he believed in.
Garvey's early years
Marcus Mosiah Garvey was born on 17 August 1887, in St Ann's Bay. As a boy he enjoyed swimming in the river, and playing cricket. He also loved to read. Garvey attended St Ann's Bay Primary School. But his parents were poor, so he had to leave school when he was fourteen. He started work as an apprentice - to learn a craft - to his godfather, a printer in St Ann's Bay.
In the nineteenth century, hundreds of people had died fighting in rebellions all over the country. As a result of the rebellions, slavery was abolished. The Government was forced to improve medical and educational facilities. It set up fair courts, and it improved the roads.
By the twentieth century, conditions had improved. but life was still hard for ordinary people. Jamaica was part of the British Empire - group of countries ruled by Britain. So the island's economy - system for managing its resources - was organized to Britain's advantage. For example, the main crops were sugar and bananas, because Britain decided we should grow them. Britain prospered - made money - but most Jamaicans were very poor. They had no say in the country's economic policy.
The earthquake of 1907
In 1907, when Marcus Garvey was twenty, there was a terrible earthquake in Kingston. Many people were killed, or lost their houses. Fires raged for many days, and caused great destruction. The people suffered a lot. The next year, the printers at P.A. Benjamin's went on strike for better pay. As a foreman, Garvey was part of the management team. He did not have to go on strike, but he did so, to support the workers. The strike did not last long, and some of the workers got their jobs back at P.A. Benjamin's. Garvey did not, but he was taken on at the Government Printing Office.
At this time in Jamaica's history, it was hard to advocate - speak in favour of - independence, because Jamaica was still a British colony. Only a few rich people could vote. Universal adult suffrage was a long way off. Jamaica was not democratic. However, there were some people who wanted independence. Garvey joined a political group called the National Club, which wanted Jamaica to be an independent country.
West Indians abroad
In the early twentieth century, because of unemployment and low wages, many Jamaicans worked abroad. They went to Central America to work on sugar and banana plantations, the railways and the Panama Canal. Garvey went to stay with his uncle in Costa Rica. He found a job as timekeeper on a banana plantation. Later he went to Panama to work. In both countries, most West Indians had poor working conditions. The pay was higher than at home, but there were no banks, and often they were robbed of their savings. They had no pension and no compensation if they were injured on the job. They suffered a lot from racial discrimination. Garvey was very upset by these conditions. In Costa Rica he encouraged the workers to form a union to negotiate for better conditions. In both countries he started newspapers, and wrote about the conditions. In Costa Rica the paper was called La Naçion. In Panama it was La Prensa. Garvey was expelled - made to leave - from Costa Rica by the Government, because of his activities on behalf of the workers. So he visited Nicaragua, Guatemala, Ecuador, Venezuela and Colombia.
Garvey learns about Africa
Garvey returned to Jamaica in 1912. But soon afterwards he left for England, where his sister was a governess - private teacher. In London he continued his education, and qualified to go to university. He worked on two newspapers - the African Times and the Orient Review. He visited the British parliament to listen to debates - discussions. He also went to Hyde Park, to listen to informal - without rules - debates at Speaker's Corner. Here, people can speak to passers-by on any subject. Many of the speeches are political. Garvey met many Africans in London. At that time Britain was an imperialist power. It believed in extending its power through colonies, by force - use of its army. Like Jamaica, many African countries were British colonies. Africans went to Britain to work and to study. Garvey talked to students and dockworkers from Africa. He learned that in some countries the colonial authorities cleared people off the land, and took it for themselves. They forced Africans to work for low wages. They practised racial discrimination. The years that Garvey spent travelling were formative ones. They helped to shape his world vision.
The birth of the UNIA
In London, Garvey met leaders of the Pan African Movement. They objected to the way colonial powers had divided Africa between themselves. They taught Garvey about the rich history that all Africans share - Whether they live in Africa, or are descended from slaves. A book called Up From Slavery , by a black American, Booker T. Washington, also inspired Garvey. Washington was born a slave, but he educated himself, and later he founded a college for black students at Tuskegee in Alabama, in the USA. Garvey wanted black people everywhere to have pride in themselves, and to be treated fairly. So he set up an organization called the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). The UNIA's aims were summed up in its motto, which was:
"One God! One Aim! One Destiny!"
The early days
The UNIA held weekly meetings and evening classes for people who didn't have the chance to go to high school. Sometimes there were debates and concerts. Garvey tried to get educated people to join the UNIA, to teach the poorer people. Some did, but not as many as he hoped. This was because many of them did not like to be called 'Negro'. They did not want to associate with other black people. They wanted to pretend they were white! You see, part of colonialism was racism - belief that your own race is better than others. Caribbean people were made to feel inferior because of their colour and culture.
In 1916, Garvey went to the USA. He moved the UNIA headquarters from Jamaica to Harlem in New York, where there were a lot of people of African descent. Branches of the UNIA were set up in every country where there was a community of black people. Garvey was now an experienced speaker. His ideas became more radical - in favour of essential reforms. Hundreds of people listened to his speeches. Garvey preached black pride - pride in black peoples' colour and culture. In the USA, slavery wasn't abolished until 1863. In the southern states, conditions had not improved much. There was serious racial discrimination, and segregation - separation of people according to race. Many black people felt they would never be able to achieve anything. Garvey's message to them was,
'Up you mighty race, you can accomplish what you will.'
He told them they had a glorious history in ancient Africa. He encouraged them to believe they could build a new society.
Garvey encouraged his followers to go into business for themselves. He believed that black people should have organizations of their own, and be self-reliant - trust themselves for help. Then they would not be at the mercy - in the power - of white people. They would achieve black liberation - freedom. The UNIA set up the Negro Factories Corporation to foster - help growth and development - self-reliance. It owned businesses like laundries - places where clothes are washed - groceries and publishers, and factories making dolls, hats and uniforms. In Jamaica, the UNIA had a restaurant, a laundry and a confectionery business - making sweets. It owned a People's Co-operative Bank. Each division of the UNIA was encouraged to buy its building. The buildings were known as Liberty Halls.
The Liberia Plan
As part of the self-reliance plan, Garvey wanted black people in America to set up their own nation in Africa. They would rule it and develop it, and it would protect black people all over the world. Garvey developed the Liberia Plan. The UNIA negotiated with the government of Liberia for land to settle people from the USA, the Caribbean, South and Central America. The Liberian government at first agreed, but it changed its mind before the settlers arrived. The UNIA had other plans for nation building. In 1920 it held its First International Convention - conference. Delegates - representatives - came to New York from all over the world, for a month-long meeting. They discussed issues like segregation, poor schooling, lack of representation, mob violence, and lands being taken away in Africa. The Convention was like a parliament in exile - away from its own country. Delegates were like MPs representing different countries and communities. They drew up laws to govern the lives of black people. They designed a flag - in red, black and green. They made up an anthem, called The Universal Ethiopian. The First International Convention was a huge success. Seven more were held during Garvey's lifetime.
Build a company, build a nation
In 1919 the UNIA set up a steamship company to buy ships and do business. It was called the Black Star Line and it was the UNIA's biggest business venture. It is one of the projects that Garvey is remembered for today. Garvey knew that powerful nations had ships. So building a shipping company was part of building a nation. It was also part of the UNIA's self-reliance programme. The Black Star Line would provide employment and make money. It would let different communities trade with each other. For example, its ships would take bananas, sugar and coconuts from the Caribbean, and cocoa from West Africa, to the USA. They would carry goods like machinery from the USA to the Caribbean and Africa. The ships would carry passengers, without racial discrimination. And they would transport people to countries in Africa for resettlement.
The Yarmouth, Shadyside and Kanahawa
The Black Star Line acquired three ships - the Yarmouth, the Shadyside and the Kanahawa. Two of them sailed to the Caribbean and Central America, visiting Cuba, Jamaica, Panama, and different ports in America. Large, cheering crowds greeted the ships when they docked. Few black people held important jobs in those days, and they felt great pride when they saw a black captain, officers and crew operating their own ships. Many people joined the UNIA because of the Black Star Line. However, the company lasted only three years. It had several problems. The ships were too expensive, so the company spent too much. Some people were not qualified for the posts they held, and many employees were dishonest. There was sabotage - deliberate damage - and political pressure from the American government. It did not want the company to build a company, build a nation.
The Negro World
While Garvey was in the USA, he published two newspapers. The most important one was the Negro World. It gave news about the UNIA from all over the world, speeches by Garvey, and news that was not reported by other papers. The Negro World was very popular. It soon became the largest black weekly paper in the USA. It was circulated - sent out - all over the world, and was very important in spreading Marcus Garvey's ideas. All the colonial governments opposed the Negro World. They thought it would incite - stir up - people to rebel against them. So in several Caribbean and African countries the paper was banned - forbidden. In some countries where it was not banned, the government tried to reduce its circulation. But seamen smuggled the Negro World into these countries. Speeches and sayings Marcus Garvey was a great orator - public speaker. Many of his speeches and sayings are well known today. Many legends about Garvey say that he was a prophet - someone who tells how events will be before they actually happen. For example, when Jamaica was still a British colony, and people did not know the country would be free one day, Marcus Garvey said:
'The day shall come when the Negro shall rise to power and the white nations shall fall.'
People who were opposed to Garvey were supposed to come to a bad end. 'Bag o' Wire' was a man who walked the streets in Kingston. People said he was Garvey's driver, then he turned against him. In the 1970s the Mighty Diamonds sang:
'Men like Bag o' Wire Shall be cast in fire, The betrayer of Marcus Garvey.'
Some myths about Garvey say that he had divine - god-like - powers. For example, Garvey was once imprisoned in Spanish Town. People say that a poisoned bath was set for him, but he saw through the plan, and refused the bath.
Amy Ashwood Garvey & Amy Jacques Garvey
When the UNIA was founded in 1914, its first member was a young woman called Amy Ashwood. She was only seventeen, but already she spoke in public debates, and did social work. She became Garvey's first wife, and went with him to the USA. She continued to speak in public, and she became the associate editor of the Negro World. Amy Ashwood Garvey was an officer of the Black Star Line, and the Negro Factories Corporation. Later, she and Garvey were divorced, but Amy Ashwood continued to be an important member of the Pan-African movement. Garvey's second wife was Amy Jacques. She was also an important activist - active in the movement - and organizer in the UNIA. Like Garvey's first wife, Amy Jacques Garvey also became the associate editor of the Negro World. She too was a strong public speaker. She published Garvey's books, and she wrote and published a book of her own, called Garvey and Garveyism. After Garvey's death, Amy Jacques Garvey continued to work for the UNIA. She made sure that Garvey's name and work were not forgotten. She was awarded the Gold Musgrave Medal for this, and for her 'contributions to the history of people of Jamaica'.
Women in leadership
In the early days in Kingston, about half the members of the UNIA were women. When the headquarters moved to New York, women held some of the highest positions in the movement. An African-American actress, Henrietta Vinton Davis, became an international organizer. The head of the UNIA 's printing press was a woman, Lillian Galloway. The UNIA always kept a place for a Lady President and a Lady Vice-President. The organization insisted on women taking part in leadership. It produced many dynamic - energetic - women leaders. The UNIA was very unusual in this way.
The Universal African Motor Corps
The UNIA had two Paramilitary organizations that functioned like regular armed forces. The Universal African Legion was for men. The Universal African Motor Corps was for women. Members dressed in military uniform and received military training. No other organization in the USA has had a women's paramilitary group.
The Black Cross Nurses
The UNIA also had various auxiliary - supporting - organizations. One of the most powerful and best known was a women's organization called the Black Cross Nurses. The Nurses did social work and learned health care.
Sentenced to five years!
In the early 1920s, support for the UNIA's was at its height. But in 1924 Garvey was put in prison. Garvey's support among African Americans, and black people all over the world, continued to grow. But he had enemies too. The US Government and its supporters thought he was a troublemaker, stirring up racial hatred. They were afraid of his message. They started to keep watch on him as soon as he arrived from Jamaica. Government spies joined the UNIA, and were hired in the business organizations. Garvey even survived an assassination attempt - someone tried to kill him.
Marcus Garvey in Custody
In 1922 Garvey and three officers of the Black Star Line were arrested and charged with 'using the mail to defraud'. They were accused of using the mail system to invite people to invest in the Black Star Line when they knew the company was bankrupt - had run out of money. Garvey defended himself, and said he was not guilty, although there was dishonesty in the company. He explained about his organization, and how he was trying to help his people. The officers were released, but Garvey was found guilty, fined and sentenced to five years in prison. All over the world, Garvey's supporters protested. They petitioned - wrote requests to - the Government, wrote letters to the press, and held protest rallies.
Back to Jamaica
After two and a half years the US President commuted – reduced – the sentence. Garvey was released, and deported to Jamaica. He never went back to the USA. When he returned to Jamaica in December 1927, The Daily Gleaner reported:
"Mr Garvey’s arrival was perhaps the most historic event that has taken place in the metropolis of the island ... no denser crowd has ever been witnessed in Kingston."
Spreading the message
Garvey immediately started or reactivated - got going again - UNIA branches all over the island. He launched - started - a daily newspaper called The Blackman, which supported poor people, workers, colonial subjects and African people. It helped to spread Garvey's message in Jamaica.
The Sixth International Convention and the Peoples Political Party
In 1926 the UNIA held its Sixth International Convention in Kingston. It opened with the largest parade ever seen there. Hundreds of delegates attended from all over the world. After the convention, Garvey launched the Peoples Political Party (PPP), at a mass meeting in Cross Roads. Before then, people stood for election to the Legislative Council as independent candidates, with their own programmes. Garvey promised that PPP candidates would carry out the same programme if they were elected. The last point of the Manifesto got Garvey into trouble. He was imprisoned for three months in Spanish Town jail for contempt of court - disrespect to judges.
The main points of the PPP Manifesto were:
Self-government for Jamaica
A minimum wage for workers
An eight-hour work day
Free secondary education
A public library system
Encouragement of local industries
Protection for native labour
A law to punish judges who act unfairly.
Politics and race
While Garvey was in prison, he was elected as a councillor for the Allman Town division of the Kingston and St Andrew Corporation. In those days you could be a councillor and a member of the Legislative Council (now an MP) at the same time. But although he was very popular, Garvey did not win a seat in the election to the Legislative Council in 1930. At that time most people could not vote! Only people who owned property, or a business, or who paid rent could vote. And those people opposed Garvey. In Jamaica, as in the USA, black people saw Garvey as their spokesman. For most white people - officials, planters and merchants - he was as an enemy, stirring up racialism.
Defending the workers
Garvey was a councillor for four years. As a member of KSAC he agitated - campaigned - for the reforms in the PPP Manifesto. He tried hard to get an eight-hour day for workers, but he did not succeed. Outside KSAC he agitated on behalf of workers too. He led street meetings to protest about their poor living conditions. He said:
"If you were to go into the homes of hundreds of thousands of the people of this land, you would see there misery inexplicable."
Garvey started the Jamaica Workers and Labourers Association to help workers form unions. He led a deputation - representatives - to the Governor to get conditions improved. Nothing happened. The Governor said there was 'no unusual suffering'. So Garvey sent a petition to the King of England. The king sent a Royal Commission - committee of inquiry - to look into the conditions of the people in Jamaica. Garvey inspired other people in Jamaica to try to improve social conditions.
The Seventh International Convention
In 1934 the UNIA held another International Convention to celebrate the centenary - one hundredth anniversary - of the abolition of slavery. The Convention set up the Permanent Jamaica Development Convention. This group made a five-year plan for Jamaica's development.
To Britain again
Garvey still had problems in Jamaica, because of the people who wanted to stop his work. So the UNIA decided to move its headquarters to London. For five years Garvey continued his work. In 1936 Italy invaded - attacked and entered - Ethiopia, and Garvey protested in his speeches and writings. He organized three more conferences of the UNIA, in Canada. Then he became ill. Marcus Garvey died in London in 1940.
Art, music and religion
From the early days, Garvey and UNIA encouraged cultural activities. During the 1930s there were concerts, plays, music, speech, drama and dance competitions at UNIA's headquarters, Edelweiss Park. Many performers there, became famous later. Of course, culture is not just about entertainment on stage. Our culture is our whole way of life. In what aspects - parts - of our culture do we see Garvey's influence today? Think of our art, crafts, music and religion. Garvey's influence is very strong in Jamaica In 1964 Garvey's body was brought home to Jamaica. He was declared a National Hero and reburied at National Heroes Park in Kingston.
A man of vision
Without doubt, Marcus Garvey was a great man - a great Jamaican and a world leader. He was a man of vision. He lived at a time when most black people, all over the world, were poor and oppressed. It's hard for us to imagine what life was like then. Perhaps the worst thing was that people didn't feel good about themselves. How could they? They had no rights, no expectations - nothing to look forward to. The white people who had power and money did not value African cultures. Marcus Garvey gave black people hope. He encouraged us to be self-reliant, and have pride in our history and ourselves. He inspired millions of people all over the world to press for better conditions and independence.
A message for today.
Garvey's spirit is alive today. We enjoy many of the rights and freedoms that he fought for. And we have pride in ourselves - our achievements in the past, and what we can do in the future. Isn't it amazing what one person can achieve?