To some people he was a charlatan, a
naive dreamer; to others a messiah. To himself, Marcus A. Garvey was the Negro's
best hope of finding dignity and honor, not in America, but in his original home of
Africa. Coming to America from Jamaica in 1916, Garvey found dissatisfaction,
discontent, and frustration among millions of Negroes pushed northward by oppressive
conditions in the South during World War I. Within two months, Garvey had recruited
1500 followers for his Universal
Negro Improvement Association (U.N.I.A). Five years later he claimed upwards of
one million members.
A short, stocky, dark man possessing a
shrewd sense of crowd psychology, Garvey preached economic independence and the return of
Negroes to Africa as the solution to being a "Negro" in the western world.
In 1921, he called an international convention which attracted thousands of Negroes to New
York City from twenty-five countries, and laid the foundation for a steamship
company. The Black Star Line, and the Negro Factory Corporation as devices for
business and industry among Negroes. For five years, Garvey led many of the
disconnected masses in New York, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit and other cities. He
praised everything Black and was suspicious of everything White. He formed the
Universal newspaper, "The Negro World," carried his views and information about
the U.N.I.A to all corners of the country.
While millions in the masses followed him
without hesitation, Negro intellectuals were skeptical of him and his promises. In
1925, Garvey was imprisoned for using the United Stated mail to defraud in connection with
the sale of stock in his Black Star Line, and his dream began to fade. After serving
two years in prison, he was deported from America and died in London in 1940, a lonely and
penniless man. Marcus A. Garvey captured the interest of the ordinary Negro as no
other leader before or since, but his dream was based on a fatal flaw. His failure
to understand that the overwhelming masses of Negroes considered America their rightful
home and had no real desire to leave it. His weakness lay in thinking that the
Negro, after helping to build America, would abandon it. His greatness lies in this
daring to dream of a better future for Negroes somewhere on earth.
Revised: July 18, 2013.