“Leader of A Movement:” During a Turbulent Time – Garvey

Today’s blog was written by Phillip Nicholas, Archives Technician at the National Archives at College Park, Maryland

“Liberate the minds of men and ultimately you will liberate the bodies of men.” ~ Marcus Garvey

8/5/1924 Photograph of Marcus Garvey seated at desk, facing right (Library of Congress)

In June 1923, the United States government charged, tried, and convicted Marcus Mosiah Garvey (1887-1940) – National Hero of Jamaica, political activist, and movement leader – of mail fraud for allegedly selling stock of his own shipping and passenger company, the Black Star Line. The courts sentenced him to 5 years in prison. Legal officials, public supporters, and his associates demanded his release from prison. Garvey’s incarceration provoked discussion on crime, race, and justice during America’s Jim Crow era, and today offers a unique window into the civil political discourse of the early 20th century.

Marcus Garvey was born on August 17, 1887, in Saint Ann’s Bay, Saint Ann’s Parish, Jamaica, British West Indies into a working-class family. From 1910 to 1911, he traveled to Latin American countries – Limon, Costa Rica and Colon, Panama – in search of work and to escape the economic hardship in Jamaica. From 1912-1914, he traveled to London, England, where he briefly studied at Birkbeck College, University of London, to advance his formal education. While in London, he worked as a messenger and handyman for the African Times and Orient Review, a magazine, which endorsed Ethiopianism and home rule for British-occupied Egypt.

Two specific encounters during this time sparked his thinking. He discovered Booker T. Washington’s Up from Slavery, which heavily influenced his ideology. In addition, an Afro-Caribbean missionary who spent time in Basutoland informed him of colonialism in Africa. From this interaction, Garvey started to envision a movement unifying people of African descent throughout the world.

Back in Jamaica, in July 1914, Garvey and Amy Ashwood – who later became his first wife – founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). The UNIA promoted Black empowerment, economic independence, and unification of Black people in the United States, Caribbean, and Latin America. The organization promoted Black Nationalism and pride through the celebration of African culture and history across the continent and throughout the diaspora. Garvey supported the Pan-Africanism and Black Nationalism movements, which his ideals later became known as Garveyism. This “radical” ideal helped shape and stimulate Black politics in the Caribbean and in parts of Africa.

Garvey supported the Back-to-Africa Movement, although he never visited the continent. Many white Americans in the 18th and 19th century believed that African Americans wanted to and/or should relocate to Africa. Some Black nationalists like Garvey, members of the Rastafari movement, and other African Americans in the 20th century also supported this movement. Many who migrated to the American North from the South were disillusioned by the socioeconomic hardships of life in urban communities. On June 27, 1919, Garvey and other members of the UNIA incorporated the Black Star Line to establish a link between North America and Africa, and to facilitate the transportation of African Americans to Liberia. Through this mode of transportation, Garveyism spread between the Americas and Africa.

Letter pleading for clemency of Marcus Garvey, January 4, 1926 (NAID 7715177)

Garvey’s Black separatist views and his collaboration with white supremacists to promote racial separatism created a divide between him and other prominent African American civil rights activists. He clashed with activist W.E.B. Du Bois, who promoted racial integration. Others throughout the Black diaspora also criticized Garvey for his violent rhetoric, antisemitism, and prejudice of mixed-race people. Nonetheless, people throughout Africa and the African Diaspora praised Garvey and his movement for battling poverty, discrimination, and colonialism.

The series RG 204 Case Files for Significant Pardon Cases (National Archives Identifier 7460322) contains letters, newspaper clippings, memorandums, reports from attorneys, public supporters, and members of the UNIA discussing Marcus Garvey’s incarceration and the consideration of a pardon in the 1920s. The series contains letters from the president of the UNIA requesting a posthumous pardon for Garvey from President Ronald Reagan.

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