"God and Nature first made us what we are, and then out of our own created genius we make ourselves what we want to be. Follow always that great law. Let the sky and God be our limit and Eternity our measurement."
Black Nationalist Leader
August 17, 1887 - June 10, 1940
Marcus Garvey is a historical figure whose life was so filled with controversy that today it is often hard to distinguish fact from myth when discussing him. He is seen as the "John the Baptist" of rastafarianism and encouraged people of African descent all around the world to rise up and be proud of their heritage, even encouraging them to return to Africa, at a time when in many places people of African descent were undergoing great hardship. Because of this, many historical texts of the modern day scarcely mention Marcus Garvey, while other historians point to him as one of the truly great leaders of the worldwide civil rights movement.
Marcus Mosiah Garvey was born in Saint Ann, Jamaica on August 17, 1887. Marcus was the youngest of eleven children, though nine of these children died during childhood, succumbing to various illnesses. Marcus attended primary school in Saint Ann and was noted to be a bright student, completing all of the coursework available in the school by age eleven. His early academic success owed a great deal to his father, who was a skilled mason and was widely read, maintaining a small private library that he often encouraged Marcus to dip into. It was during these early years that Marcus got his first taste of racial inequity through books such as Uncle Tom's Cabin and Twelve Years A Slave.
After his formal education ended, Marcus was tutored privately by his godfather, Alfred Burrowes. Mr. Burrowes also ran a print shop, and he offered Marcus a spot as an apprentice in his shop when Marcus was 14. Mr. Burrowes also had a very extensive private book collection which he allowed Marcus complete usage of. While working at the print shop, many politically active members of the community would come in to print leaflets or simply to discuss politics or social issues with Mr. Burrowes, and Marcus often overheard and sometimes participated in these discussions.
Shortly after Christmas 1905, Marcus Garvey completed his apprenticeship with Mr. Burrowes and left Saint Ann, seeking greater prospects in Kingstown. He arrived in town and lived with a maternal uncle while seeking work, which he quickly found at P.A. Benjamin Limited, a printing service in Kingstown. His first job was as a compositor, but it wasn't long before Marcus became a master printer and a foreman at the company, essentially running the print shop during shifts.
Garvey Becomes Politically Involved
Garvey's first taste of the greater organization of people came about during a 1908 worker's strike. Printers represented by the Typographical Union went on strike primarily for better wages. Garvey's work at P.A. Benjamin had greatly pleased his employers and he was offered a very nice wage increase to avoid the strike, but Garvey felt that he should join the strike anyway as a show of solidarity. The strike was unsuccessful and Garvey lost his job; even worse, he was blacklisted by the private printing houses in Kingstown. Luckily, Garvey's skill was widely known, and he found employment in the Government Printing Office.
Garvey's conclusion from this experience was that the common black worker was being treated very unfairly in the grand scheme of things, and he began to print a newspaper in his off-hours stating these concerns. This paper was called The Watchman, and it began publication in 1910. During his journeys in the coming years, he would attempt to found a newspaper discussing working-class issues in each nation he visited; most of them were short-lived, as was The Watchman.
Garvey began to hear stories of the plight of people of African descent throughout Central America, so in late 1910, Garvey left Jamaica, taking a job in Costa Rica on a banana plantation. During this experience, Garvey saw the hardships that his fellow blacks had to suffer on a daily basis, and it is generally believed that his days on the banana plantation forged his great determination that would see fruition in the coming decades.
After a year on the plantation, Garvey left Costa Rica and went on a tour of Central America, working at various tasks, founding newspapers, and observing the terrible working conditions of blacks in the region. During this tour, Garvey visited Ecuador, Nicaragua, Honduras, Colombia, and Venezuela, but the place that had the most impact on him was the Panama Canal Zone, where people of West Indian descent were treated as though they were slaves.
This experience shook Garvey to the core, and in 1912, he returned to Jamaica with a fire for change in his belly. He petitioned the colonial government of Jamaica to help improve the plight of West Indian workers in Central America, but the government had little interest in such a policy, thus his requests fell on deaf ears. Angered by this, Garvey went on to England later that year, seeking a financier to help him with his plans.
What he actually received, however, was a further education in several forms. He became a regular at the Hyde Park Speaker's Corner, where he learned by fire the methods of being an effective public speaker. He also met Duse Mohammed Ali, the editor of the African Times and Orient Review. Ali gave Garvey a background on the plight of Africa, which was then largely under colonial control of the European states. Ali also gave Garvey a number of books to read on the plight of the black people; perhaps most notably, Garvey read Booker T. Washington's Up From Slavery during this period, which advocated self-help for black people in that they must pull themselves up from slavery.
By 1914, Garvey began to develop a clearer picture of what must be done to save the black people of the world: they must return to Africa and reclaim their homeland. He returned to Jamaica and founded the Universal Negro Improvement and Conservation Association (UNIA) and African Communities League (ACL), appointing himself president of the group. The purpose of the group was to promote unity among black peoples, thus the group adopted the motto One God! One Aim! One Destiny!. The mission statement made Garvey's aim abundantly clear: the UNIA/ACL sought to unite "all the people of African ancestry of the world into one great body to establish a country and Government absolutely their own."
By 1916, the group was thriving in Jamaica, and Garvey went to the United States on a speaking tour, with the goal to bring the UNIA's message to repressed African-Americans. While on this tour, Garvey saw the great possibilities that the United States had to offer, so he made the United States his home for the next ten years, eventually moving the headquarters of the UNIA to New York.
In 1919, the organization had grown to incredible size, having more than three million members worldwide and 1,100 branches spread across North America, South America, Europe, and Africa. Garvey saw the great possibility in this group and began to envision a "black nation," with businesses owned, operated by, and patronized by black people. To this end, in 1920 he organized an International Convention of Negro Peoples of the World in Madison Square Garden in New York City. Over 25,000 black people from all over the world attended the meeting, where Garvey laid out his plan for a black nation with its own independent government, free from any sort of colonial control.
"A New Nation"
How was Garvey going to pull this off? His first move was to organize an economic branch of the UNIA, which he called the Negro Factories Corporations. This group sought to develop a cooperative of black-owned businesses, including stores, restaurants, laundry shops, tailors, toy makers, and a publishing house. These businesses all agreed to work cooperatively together, encouraging patrons to visit other businesses in the network, and with all of the businesses funneling money into the UNIA to help eventually bring together a black state.
Garvey's second move was also clever: in 1919, he formed a steamship corporation called the Black Star Line. The goal of the corporation was to provide passage from North America and Europe to Africa at a reduced rate for anyone of African descent, and also raise additional money for the UNIA by ferrying goods and also through the sale of common stock. Passengers upon Black Star Line steamships, upon arrival in Africa, would bring with them the message of a great black nation, and thus the land would be prepared for the founding of this nation that Garvey envisioned when the time came.
The plan made a lot of sense; by laying the economic groundwork first, Garvey could assemble a strong, steady government for a black nation in the future. However, it was not to be.
Given Garvey's radical plans, it became clear to many that he was a great threat to the status quo. Even contemporary African-American activists such as W.E.B DuBois found Garvey's plans to be far too radical, and thus Garvey made many enemies in the United States.
Eventually, the authorities saw their chance, and on February 8, 1925, Marcus Garvey was arrested and convicted for mail fraud and imprisoned in Atlanta. Most major newspapers promoted the downfall of Garvey as front-page news, but in actuality it was Garvey who had been duped here; Garvey was the true victim of mail fraud, as bogus documents had been intentionally sent to the Black Star Line by an anonymous source.
Garvey's arrest, and the lack of any direct progress towards a "black nation" over the last few years led to a general discrediting of him among his followers. A good many of his followers remained loyal to Garvey, however, and their repeated petitions allowed Garvey to be released from prison in 1927 and immediately deported to Jamaica.
For the next eight years, Garvey tried desperately to hold onto the progress that he had made with the UNIA, but things gradually slipped away from him as time went on; his character had been called into question and it was particularly hard for him to recover from it. In 1935, he moved to London, intending to work for the freedom of colonies under the British Empire, but on June 10, 1940, Garvey passed away in relative obscurity.
Importance to Rastafarianism
In a nutshell, Marcus Garvey's role in rastafarianism is akin to John the Baptist in Christianity.
In 1921, during the peak of the UNIA's power, Garvey was said to have predicted the coming of a black African emperor who would lead black people out of bondage and oppression and call them home. Thus, in 1930, when Haile Selassie (also known as Rasta Fari) was crowned emperor of Ethiopia, many people saw this as the fruition of Garvey's "prophecy." The central tenet of rastafarianism is the acceptance of the divinity of Haile Selassie, thus Garvey is seen by them as something of a prophet.
Garvey was the godfather of many movements that were yet to come. Many of his ideas about racial equality and the power of blacks were reborn during the civil rights movements of the 1960s and still live on today in many forms, such as the strong identification many African-Americans have with their African brethren.
In short, Garvey was a man before his time: his radical ideas inspired many people, but he created too many enemies for himself. Let him not be forgotten as a godfather of modern equality.