By Aaron D. Johnson
Marcus Garvey was probably the strongest voice for Black Nationalism and Pan Africanism during the early 20th century. Although Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois had already carved out their niche in the world for diagnosing and treating the problems of Black Americans, Garvey set out to liberate Black people in a way that was very different from his contemporaries.
Marcus Garvey was a visionary who instilled pride, self esteem, self worth, and racial dignity to Blacks during a time when they were thought to be and treated as inferior beings. He is considered Jamaica’s first national hero.
Marcus Mosiah Garvey Jr. was born on August 17, 1887 at 32 Market Street in St. Ann’s Bay, St. Ann, Jamaica. He was the son of Marcus Mosiah Garvey Sr., a mason, and Sarah Jane Richards, who was a domestic worker and farmer.
His parents provided a household where there was financial security. With that security, his father was able to amass a sizable library. His uncle also had an affinity for books. Being connected to his father, young Garvey was reading books at a young age, and developed his own love for reading.
During his youth he became friendly with white students but as they got older, it became apparent that they would have no relationship whatsoever. Racism was an experience that he endured attending school. He was shunned by the whites that he befriended as a child.
In the early 1900’s as a young man, Garvey traveled to Central America for work. After a couple of years working in the Carribean, Garvey moved back to Jamaica. Back in Jamaica he got serious about acquiring more education. In 1912 he went off to London to study law and philosophy at Birkbeck College. It is here that the philosophies and writings of Booker T. Washington, Martin Delany, Henry McNeal Turner, and Dusé Mohamed Ali helped to shape Garvey’s own philosophy.
Shortly after his two year stint at Birkbeck College, Marcus Garvey returned to Jamaica and formed the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) in 1914.
He developed his organization into an influential political unit that spoke aggressively for Black Nationalism. He advocated for the separation of Blacks and Whites and for Blacks to establish their own self rule. He also believed in Pan Africanism which is simply Africa for Africans. Garvey wanted Africans to have control over Africa. He was a staunch opponent of European Imperialism and presence in Africa.
His philosophy differed from Booker T. Washington’s gradual equality and W.E.B. Du Bois’ immediate equality stances. He believed that they both were misguided in their prescription for America’s race problem.
Garvey believed that it did not matter how much education a Black person acquired, or how hard they worked. As long as Blacks were social, political, and economic competitors to Whites, they would always be discriminated against. Marcus Garvey thought that Blacks would never have an equal and fair existence in America. He believed the only answer was for Blacks was to go back to Africa.
At the height of his back to Africa movement, he had millions of African Americans ready to go. As he became more of a threat to the racist American power structure, they did what has always been done to Black leaders. They infiltrated, tried, convicted, imprisoned and eventually deported Garvey.
Garvey died in London in 1940 after suffering two strokes, reportedly after reading an erroneous, and negative, obituary of himself in the Chicago Defender which stated, in part, that Garvey died “broke, alone and unpopular.”
His legacy was far reaching and significant. Dr. King once said Garvey “was the first man of color to lead and develop a mass movement. He was the first man on a mass scale and level to give millions of Negroes a sense of dignity and destiny. And make the Negro feel he was somebody.”