Marcus Garvey Research Paper

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Marcus Garvey was the founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League (UNIA). He was a prominent spokesman for the “back to Africa” movement within black nationalism, which urged people of African ancestry to return to the continent. He is revered as a prophet in Rastafarianism.

Garvey was born in Jamaica and traveled to London and the United States before World War I (1914–1918). He started the UNIA in Jamaica in 1914 as a fraternal organization calling for self-improvement for poor Jamaicans. As the movement took on a more political character in the 1920s, it gathered support from earlier movements for black liberation in the colony, such as the nineteenth-century ex-slaves reparations movement. Garvey corresponded with Booker T. Washington, who had called for black economic self-sufficiency in his Atlanta Address of 1895, and in the early days of his movement shared Washington’s gradualist approach. When Garvey went to the United States in 1916, his hope was to emulate Booker T. Washington by starting a school in Jamaica to train poor blacks in practical subjects. Once in America, however, he established a branch of the UNIA there, and in the end it was in North America that the movement had its greatest membership and influence in the period after World War I.

The purpose of the UNIA as Garvey expounded it in the period between 1918 and 1922 was to unite blacks around the world and to work for independent economic improvement. He was not a black supremacist, but instead believed that the races would prosper best if they were separate and self-sufficient. Garvey gathered support from veterans of previous black campaigns, especially the movement for pensions for slaves that had been led by Callie House. Garvey provoked controversy when he lent support to President Harding’s campaign against miscegenation and met with leaders of the Ku Klux Klan. His argument was that the races should remain separate, not so that one could dominate another, but so that each could work out its own destiny in keeping with its natural virtues. This is a position that more recent black nationalist groups including the Nation of Islam have also held.

In the 1920s Garveyism became a great international civic movement, whose supporters had an almost religious fervor about Garvey himself as well as his principles. Garvey hoped that blacks from the Americas could redeem Africa. He was opposed to colonialism and called on European powers, especially Britain, to leave Africa. He supported Ethiopian resistance to Italian aggression in 1935, but was harshly critical of Emperor Haile Selassie after Ethiopia’s surrender in 1936 (a fact often overlooked by Rastafarians, for whom Selassie is a divine figure).

In order to put his philosophy of racial self-sufficiency and self-redemption into practice, Garvey founded a number of businesses. Most famous were the Black Star shipping line and the Negro Factories Corporation. Unfortunately, the realities of the business climate in the 1920s, colonial regulations in Africa, and American racial discrimination meant that his businesses were unsuccessful. After the failure of the Black Star Line, the American Department of Justice, spurred on by the new director of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover, brought charges of fraud against Garvey. The charges hinged on a technicality—whether the Black Star Line had ever owned a ship depicted in the stock prospectus. It is still unclear to this day whether Garvey actually did anything wrong. Nonetheless, there had certainly been a lot of shaky financial deal-making in the company’s history, and Garvey, if not guilty himself of participation, had at least overlooked some misdeeds. In any case, a black nationalist found it difficult to get a fair trial in 1920s America. Garvey was imprisoned for several years, before President Coolidge commuted his sentence. He was deported to Jamaica in 1927.

Garvey had a long dispute with black civil rights leader W. E. B. Du Bois. Du Bois argued in the early part of the twentieth century that American blacks should work to integrate public institutions and call upon the U.S. government to live up to the high standards of equal treatment under law enshrined in the Constitution. He was one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which played a key role in the struggle for racial integration and civil rights for American blacks. Du Bois’s position was, of course, diametrically opposed to Garvey’s. To Garvey, racial integration was at best an illusion and at worst a snare to keep blacks subordinate to whites and away from their destiny in Africa. Their dispute took on an unfortunate personal tone, with Du Bois calling Garvey a “lunatic” and Garvey responding that Du Bois was a “white man’s nigger” and a “mulatto monstrosity.”

Ironically, Du Bois later came to a position closer to that of Garvey than to his former integrationist stand, and himself emigrated to Africa, dying a Ghanaian citizen.

After his return to Jamaica, Garvey formed the People’s Political Party (PPP), the first modern political party in Jamaica. Up to this time, Garvey had been reluctant to get involved in politics, seeing the political system as irredeemably white-dominated and participation a form of tokenism that could distract blacks from self-sufficient development. Garvey was elected twice to town council seats, but his views annoyed the colonial government and he was arrested. He finally left Jamaica in 1935 and spent the last five years of his life in London, continuing to work toward his vision of black self-sufficiency and African liberation, but with limited results.

Garvey’s movement, although manifesting itself under a variety of different names and somewhat different ideological colors in its several homes, can be considered the first international African movement and perhaps the most dynamic force in the struggle for democracy, dignity, and human rights for black people of the first half of the twentieth century. Garvey deserves a place alongside better-known figures such as Martin Luther King Jr., Du Bois, Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, and Toussaint Louverture as a hero in the struggle for black liberation in the Americas.

Garvey’s remains were moved from London to Jamaica in 1964 and were buried in the national heroes’ cemetery in Kingston. He is venerated today as a founding figure in Jamaica’s struggle for national liberation.

Garvey’s own religious practices were conventional— he was a Roman Catholic—and he never claimed any religious authority. However, the Rastafarian movement has adopted him as a major prophet, with many Rastas seeing him as the reincarnation of John the Baptist, Moses, or Elijah. Indeed, the modern Rastafarian movement sprang up after the collapse of the UNIA and the PPP and incorporated many members of those organizations. Garvey’s project of returning blacks to Africa is a centerpiece of most Rastafarian theology. Of course, for Rastafarians, it is a religious duty to return Jah’s people to the promised land, while for Garvey it was a practical necessity.


  1. Burning Spear. 2003. “Marcus Garvey.” Audio CD. Palm Audio, 2003. Remastered version; original date of release 1975.
  2. Garvey, Marcus. 1986. Message to the People: The Course of African Philosophy. Ed. Tony Martin. Dover, MA: Majority Press.
  3. Hill, Robert A., ed. 1983–1995. The Marcus Garvey and Universal Negro Improvement Association Papers. Vols. 1–7, 9–10. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  4. Hill, Robert A., ed. 1987. Marcus Garvey, Life and Lessons: A Centennial Companion to the Marcus Garvey and Universal Negro Improvement Association Papers. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  5. Lewis, Rupert, and Patrick Bryan, eds. 1988. Garvey: His Work and Impact. Mona, Jamaica: Institute of Social and Economic Research, University of the West Indies.

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