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Biography: Marcus Garvey

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Marcus Mosiah Garvey

Marcus Mosiah Garvey was born in Jamaica’s St. Ann’s Bay parish on August 17, 1887. His parents were Marcus Mosiah Garvey, Sr., a mason, and Sarah Jane (nee Richards), keeper of the family’s farm. Garvey was the youngest of 11 children. He inherited his father’s love of reading and the family’s extensive library was his refuge in youth.


At 14 years old, Garvey became a printer’s apprentice. In 1907, Garvey, though a part of management, led a strike among the printer for higher wages. Garvey’s uncompromising negotiations with management on the behalf of workers led to his being fired and ostracized by Kingston’s private printing companies. It was this early training that subsequently led Garvey to published his first newspaper, The Watchman, as a forum for his emerging political views about oppression within society.


Garvey left Jamaica between the years 1910 and 1912 to travel. He travelled to countries in South and Central America. This included Costa Rica, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Honduras, Columbia, and Venezuela. He moved to England in 1911 to study briefly at Birkbeck College. It was while in England, in 1911 at the Hyde Park Speaker’s Corner, that he began to speak publicly about the condition of Africans. An important encounter for Garvey while in London was meeting Duse Mohammed Ali, editor of the African Times and Orient Review.


He returned to Jamaica in 1914 and founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). On March 16, 1916, Garvey moved to Harlem in New York where UNIA thrived. Garvey spoke across America and gained thousands of supporters. He urged African-Americans to be proud of their race and return to Africa. His biggest critic of his time was W.E.B. Dubois, who publicly criticized the ‘Back to Africa’ movement.


Marcus Garvey married the Jamaican-born Amy Jacques Garvey. Mrs. Garvey did not obtain her legitimacy just from the status of her husband as she was a powerful Pan-Africanist and Black Nationalist journalist. In 1919, Amy Jacques became the Secretary General of the UNIA, a position she held for more than half a century. From 1924 to 1927, Mrs. Garvey was the associate editor of The Negro World, an UNIA newspaper, where she wrote a column titled “Our Women and What They Think.”


By 1919, Garvey also founded the Black Star Line, a trans-Atlantic ship he aimed to use as transportation to and from Africa. Garvey’s attempts to convince the government of Liberia to grant land settlements were unsuccessful. That same year, Garvey founded the Negro Factories Corporation to encourage economic independence. In 1922, Garvey was arrested by U.S. Marshals on allegation of mail fraud through use of the federal mail system. The case was in connection with Garvey’s sale of ship stock in the Black Star Line.


Many commentators suggest that the prosecution was politically motivated, as Garvey’s popularity in the U.S. among Black communities had attracted government attention. Founded on the discoveries of Dr. Robert Hill, who under the Freedom of Information Act has uncovered evidence in FBI documents, including memos from J. Edgar Hoover himself, supporting the argument that the trial and imprisonment of Garvey were “politically motivated”; historical research by Colin Grant in Negro With a Hat bringing to light the evidence that Marcus Garvey was convicted on the basis on an empty envelope, and the judicial and prosecutorial irregularities noted by Justin Hansford in “Jailing a Rainbow: The Marcus Garvey Case,” it is now abundantly clear, as Judith Stein asserted in her op-ed in the New York Times, that “Garvey’s politics were on trial.” It must be said that Garvey had succeeded in mobilizing millions of Africans around the world…


Many of the members of the early Garveyite movement would later become part of the Nation of Islam in the US…


Garvey’s call for a United States of Africa was heard not only in the Caribbean and U.S., but in West Africa and Southern Africa. Garvey believed a pan-African state was needed to provide stability and wealth to Africa.


In 1925, Garvey lost the trial and was charged with mail fraud. And despite an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, he was sent to the Atlanta penitentiary. See Marcus Garvey v. United States, no. 8317, Ct. App., 2d Cir., 2 February 1925, p. 1,699.


Ultimately, Garvey’s sentence was commuted and he was deported from the U.S. to Jamaica in 1927.


In 1935, Garvey moved permanently to London where he died on June 10, 1940. In 1964, his body was returned to Jamaica where he was declared a national hero.5