The Rise and Fall of Marcus Garvey

Marcus Garvey rose to prominence during a moment of deep pessimism for African American politics. His brand of racial uplift and black entrepreneurialism accommodated itself to Jim Crow and colonialism but fell out of favor as radical alternatives emerged.

Founder and leader of the UNIA Marcus Garvey, August 5, 1924. (Underwood Archives / Getty Images)

In August 1920, an audacious scene took place in Madison Square Garden. Around twenty-five thousand black delegates, gathered for the first convention of the United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), drafted and approved a Declaration of Negro Rights. At that gathering, Marcus Garvey, the founder and undisputed leader of the UNIA, was elected as the Provisional President of Africa. The proceedings were supported from afar by UNIA chapters not only in urban US cities, but also in the West Indies, Latin America, and Africa.

Within just five years, Garvey would be exiled in prison and his organization in terminal decline. But for a brief moment he and the UNIA did what other leaders and organizations up to that point could never do: they built a truly mass following among urban blacks of various classes.

Despite the patina of militancy and radicalism, the Garvey movement represented a fundamentally conservative trend in black political history. At its core, the project combined two regressive tendencies in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century black politics. The first was an abandonment of the more radical aims of reconstruction in favor of a politics of self-help, racial uplift, and entrepreneurialism. The second was an embrace of Pan-Africanism, made possible by the coincidence of the end of slavery in the United States and the ratcheting up of colonialism in Africa. This allowed aspiring members of the black bourgeoisie to conceive of themselves as spearheading the West’s civilizing mission.

Ultimately, the UNIA emerged as a response to a deep-seated pessimism about the closing off of avenues for progressive political change for the bulk of the black population.

The Garvey Ideology

Marcus Garvey was born in Jamaica on August 17, 1887. Unlike the majority of his countrypeople, Garvey’s family were artisans rather than peasants. Malchus Garvey was a master stonemason and his wife, Sarah Richards, was a domestic servant. According to Garvey’s own recollections, his first confrontation with his race came when the parents of his white childhood playmate eventually forced them to stop being friends.

Beginning an apprenticeship as a printer, Garvey quickly showed an aptitude for political involvement. In 1908, he joined with other printers in an unsuccessful strike. Jamaica could not satisfy his energies, and he went to work for the United Fruit Company as a timekeeper, a job that allowed the young Garvey to travel throughout the Caribbean and observe the poor conditions of black workers.

His political philosophy began to congeal when he traveled to England in 1912. It was here that Garvey established contact with the Sudanese-Egyptian actor, playwright, and political activist Dusé Mohamed Ali. From the pages of Ali’s African Times and Orient Review, Garvey would familarize himself with the broad tenets of Pan-Africanism.

The Pan-Africanism of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century had an unabashedly elitist outlook toward Africa, dovetailing in significant ways with European colonial thinking. Its early ideologues were black elites who sincerely believed in Enlightenment ideals and were frustrated at their blocked entry into the professions due to their race.

Believing that colonial rule was necessary to create civilized nations, the early Pan-Africanist elites saw themselves as the natural leaders of colonized Africans. Notably, Pan-Africanist conferences before World War I did not include representatives from mass organizations within Africa, but were peppered with various isolated intellectuals from around the world.

Garvey returned to Jamaica and founded the UNIA explicitly with the aim of bringing Western civilization to Africa. The UNIA’s founding documents include references to “civilizing the backward tribes of Africa,” attempts to “strengthen the imperialism of independent African states,” and encouraging “a conscientious Christian worship among the native tribes of Africa.”

The UNIA’s program differed fundamentally from previous movements to relocate black people from the Western Hemisphere to Africa. Garvey offered career advancement opportunities and a civilizing mission, not land, to those who participated in his project. UNIA vice president William Sherrill explained, “The UNIA is not a ‘Back to Africa’ movement, it is a movement to redeem Africa.”

Garvey stated his aim clearly by declaring, “If native Africans are unable to appreciate the value of their own country from the standard of Western civilization, then it is for us, their brothers, to take to them the knowledge and information that they need to help to develop the country for the common good.”

This emphasis on cultural improvement was not limited to those on the African continent. In his address to the first annual meeting of UNIA in 1915, Garvey lamented, “As a society we realize that the negro people of Jamaica need a great deal of improvement. The bulk of our people are in darkness and are really unfit for good society. To the cultured mind the bulk of our people are contemptible — that is to say, they are entirely outside the pale of cultured appreciation.”

He believed to remedy this situation the UNIA had to “set itself the task to go among the people and help them up to a better state of appreciation among the cultured classes, and raise them to the standard of civilized approval.”

The Garvey worldview did not challenge the prevailing assumption that society was composed of a hierarchy of competing racial groups. The problem was not then the existence of racial hierarchies, but that the black race was at the bottom and lacked the proper leadership and program to rise to the top.

Inspired by Booker T. Washington’s Up From Slavery, Garvey’s first initiatives in Jamaica followed the Tuskegee playbook. He submitted a petition for land to start a trade school for delinquent boys but it was rejected. Like Washington, his early efforts depended largely on the patronage of prominent whites.

At UNIA meetings, special mention was made of clergymen, businessmen, and colonial officials who were in attendance. Writing to associate Robert Russa Moton in 1918, Garvey confided, “Up to now my one true friend as far as you can rely on his friendship, is the white man.”

Garvey left for the United States in 1916 on a lecture tour in the hopes of raising money for his school. He did not raise much money, but did meet prominent black intellectuals such as W. E. B. Du Bois. More importantly, the trip convinced Garvey that the United States was most ripe for his ideas about black business enterprises and the redemption of Africa.

The first UNIA branch in the United States was established in New York City sometime between late 1917 and early 1918. Fortunately for Garvey, his arrival coincided with an exceptionally dynamic period in black social life. A wily political operator, he was able to evolve and adapt his vision to capitalize on the moment.

World War I opened up employment opportunities and brought scores of southern African Americans to the urban North and Midwest. During and immediately after the war, a number of combative strikes and race riots took place. Liberal segments of the early civil rights movement, such as the young Du Bois, held onto the view that if black soldiers fought bravely they’d be granted more civil rights when they returned. The raised expectations, followed soon by dashed hopes, heightened a sense of racial militancy and civil rights activism amongst blacks. In 1919 alone, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) added thirty-five thousand members nationally.

After the St Louis race riot of 1917, which resulted in the deaths of at least thirty-nine African Americans and nine whites, Garvey shifted his rhetoric to include a bigger emphasis on self-defense and confrontation with whites.

The brief surge in radicalism was crushed by state repression. As the war drew to a close, labor shortages, which had strengthened the hand of black and white workers, reduced and pushed the labor movement back on the defensive. The American Federation of Labor’s refusal to organize unskilled workers, which included most black workers, further undermined the possibility of a multiracial working-class politics.

It was in this context that Garvey’s ideology and movement took off. It saw the fact that many blacks lacked viable political avenues and were denied access to the labor movement as an opportunity. Garvey and the UNIA responded to this closing off of possibilities by leaping “into the ocean of black unhappiness,” as the African-American journalist Roi Ottley put it in 1943.

At the same time, Garvey’s ideology confirmed already existing realities and provided people with a grand project to attain the glory they were being denied. The gospel of self-help had as its natural accompaniment a cynicism about the possibilities of interracial organizing, which was confirmed by the reality that many black people in the first half of the twentieth century were living through. In espousing entrepreneurialism as an alternative to politics, Garvey was not carving out a new path for black politics. He was building on themes that were already endorsed by mainstream black organizations such as the NAACP and Urban League.

The Black Star Line and the UNIA’s Meteoric Rise

Soon Garvey established a project to give concrete expression to his dream of global black economic power. During the war, politicians popularized the purchasing of Liberty Bonds, war debt sold by the US government, as a way of building wealth. After the war, the UNIA would begin selling its own bonds for the establishment of a black owned and operated steamship company, the Black Star Line. This company would, Garvey and his followers claimed, serve as the basis for a vast trading network with the African continent and the West Indies.

The UNIA saw in the growing black working class a potential source of income to be tapped into. It is not coincidental that the first UNIA chapters were established in higher-wage industrial states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Illinois. What gave the Garvey movement its special character was that, despite having a base in the black elite, it was dependent on large segments of the black masses in order to fund its ambitious project. Because of this, the UNIA was forced to develop a populist rhetoric that allowed them to enlist the working class for a fundamentally bourgeois politics.

The UNIA created institutions that gave members a sense of social standing and validation that they weren’t getting in the outside world. Black men could join the African Legion and march in regal uniforms. Black women could march with the Black Cross Nurses and had a whole section devoted to them in the Negro World, the official UNIA newspaper.

Frustrated, ambitious men like Jacob Samuel Mills joined the UNIA. Mills was a master carpenter, but was banned from the carpenter’s union on account of his race and could only find work as a janitor. The UNIA opened its doors to him.

The talented actress Henrietta Vinton Davis represented what scholar Judith Stein describes as “the cultural wing of the petite bourgeoisie attracted to the UNIA.” Davis read poems at UNIA meetings and used black dolls as props, ending with a plea for members to support the business that created the dolls and thus helped to bolster racial pride. Similar kinds of racial entrepreneurialism can be seen today in the numerous buy black initiatives that have flourished in the era of Black Lives Matter.

Black sociologist E. Franklin Frazier examined the deep appeal of the Garvey movement in his essay “Garvey: A Mass Leader,” writing, “He made the Negro an important person in his immediate environment. He invented honors and social distinctions and converted every social invention to his use in his effort to make his followers feel important.”

Frazier went on to say, “A Negro may be a porter during the day, taking his orders from white men, but he was an officer in the black army when it assembled at night in Liberty Hall.”

Trinidadian Marxist C. L. R. James, despite describing Garvey’s program as “pitiable rubbish,” recognized that the Jamaican’s power lay in his acute ability to channel and express the deep frustrations the black masses were feeling. Part of the explanation for Garvey’s appeal was, James observed that, “desperate men often hear, not the actual words of an orator but their own thoughts.”

By the time of the first UNIA convention in August, 1920, the Black Star Line possessed three ships. The fact that these ships were of poor quality and losing money would not matter much yet, for at this time they were more important as powerful symbols of propaganda.

The Declaration of Negro Rights that the convention published was a sprawling document that echoed many of the same grievances and demands that other civil rights organizations were pushing at the time. Segregation at home and imperialism in Africa were denounced, while calls for equality were issued.

Garvey was declared the Provisional President of Africa, of course without the knowledge or consent of those living in Africa. No overarching strategy or program for achieving any of the desired goals was outlined besides the building of the Black Star Line.

The 1920 convention marked the high point of the UNIA’s popularity and influence. There were simply no viable alternatives on the Left to counter Garvey’s hegemony. Black socialist A. Philip Randolph, who introduced Garvey to Harlem’s soapbox speaker scene, fought bitterly against him during this period.

Reflecting on these confusing times later in life, Randolph observed that:

What you needed to follow Garvey was a leap of imagination, but socialism and trade unionism called for rigorous social struggle — hard work and programs — and few people wanted to think about that. Against the emotional power of Garveyism, what I was preaching didn’t stand a chance.

By this time, Garvey had shed any sympathies with socialism and fully embraced capitalism. He eschewed trade unionism, suggesting instead, “If the Negro takes my advice he will organize by himself and always keep his scale of wage a little lower than the whites until he is able to become, through proper leadership, his own employer.”

Garvey’s anti-unionism was entirely consistent with his aim to build a global black capitalist empire. Perhaps the most succinct summary of this view is in a 1923 article titled “Africa’s Wealth,” where Garvey quipped, “Why should not Africa give to the world its black Rockefeller, Rothschild and Henry Ford?”

Compounding Contradictions

Eventually, the mass fervor and ceremonial extravagance of the UNIA could not paper over the untenable contradictions at the heart of the movement. Garvey’s authoritarian leadership style, the pervasive organizational incompetence at all levels, and the lack of a coherent program would doom the UNIA.

The Black Star Line was never a financially viable enterprise. From the beginning, operating expenses dwarfed profits and all three ships were purchased in a bad state and had to be abandoned after limited use.

Despite the rhetoric of the Black Star Line being an agent of black economic empowerment, its workers experienced the same kind of precarity that is common at most small-scale business enterprises. Often workers were paid in Black Star Line notes instead of actual wages, and ship captains that questioned Garvey’s decisions were removed or silenced.

Hugh Mulzac was captain of the Black Star Line’s first ship, the Yarmouth. The discrimination he faced during World War I drew him into the movement, but soon he would be disillusioned. He wrote in his memoirs that the Yarmouth did not engage in productive economic activity, “but was simply being used as a propaganda device for recruiting new members to UNIA.” After leaving the UNIA, Mulzac would become an organizer with the National Maritime Union in the 1930s.

The UNIA’s forays into Africa also floundered. Garvey focused on Liberia since the British were too powerful in other areas. A $2 million construction loan for infrastructure was secured, but the UNIA was unable to raise the funds and had to abandon the project. More importantly, the UNIA was never able to win over the Liberian ruling class to their plans.

UNIA membership was already starting to decline in 1921. Leaders began to leave the organization, and more dissent emerged from within about Garvey’s poor management of money. As the unifying project of the Black Star Line fell apart, there was little to stop the degeneration of the organization into competing factions of ambitious people.

At its heart, the ideology of Garveyism did not lend itself to the activity of organization. In her brilliant book The World of Marcus Garvey, Stein aptly describes the UNIA program as “oscillating without design between the poles of retaliatory violence and individual self-help. . . . Most recommendations required little active collective implementation because they were exhortations to individuals.”

The logical conclusion of Garvey’s racial ideology was fully revealed in his dealings with the Ku Klux Klan in the Jim Crow South. These backroom dealings would further isolate him from popular black opinion.

Garvey’s views on Jim Crow were incoherent; in one breath he denounced it and in the next offered praise. He said the South deserves credit for having “lynched race pride into the Negroes.” Since he viewed the world as a competition between races in the quest for civilization, an almost begrudging admiration for Jim Crow can be seen in Garvey.

In one speech, Garvey remarked, “I’m not vexed with the white man of the South for Jim Crowing me because I’m black. I never built any street cars or railroads. The white man built them for your own convenience.”

On June 25, 1922, Garvey met with Edward Clarke, a high-ranking Klan leader. Stein places this move in the context of his elitist perspective on politics and organizational need to grow in the South. According to Stein, “Garvey’s politics was the diplomacy of elites. The Klan meeting was a bold attempt to advance the UNIA in the South through political summitry.”

The meeting with the Klan brought denunciation not just from established black figures, but from within the UNIA as well. Even apart from this meeting, the UNIA’s unwillingness to challenge the institutions of Jim Crow prevented them from developing a mass base in the South. Stein explains, “For most southern blacks . . . the burdens of political powerlessness were central to the prospects of the race. Groups that deferred those issues might become social clubs useful to small numbers, but they could not become mass organizations of significant racial power.”

A “Garvey Must Go” campaign emerged among leading civil rights activists and organizations who even tried to pressure the attorney general to have him deported. In 1922, the FBI arrested and convicted Garvey for mail fraud in connection to a Black Star Line advertisement. After spending a few years in prison, he was deported to Jamaica in 1927.

Garvey attempted to continue political activity, but changing political tides hindered his ability to resonate. In the 1930s, workers in the West Indies began to form trade unions, create labor parties, and launch large-scale strikes. In Trinidad, as the oil workers struck, Garvey claimed they didn’t have a right to strike and was told in clear terms he wasn’t welcome there anymore by the president of Trinidad’s UNIA branch.

Garvey returned to England in 1935 and gave lectures to mostly small crowds. In the United States, the emergence of the Congress of Industrial Organizations and New Deal politics largely displaced the Garveyite ideology of individual self-help and racial uplift for black working people.

Garvey died on June 10, 1940. Echoes of his ideas have reemerged throughout black history until today. From the cultural tutelage of war on poverty programs to Louis Farrakhan’s Million Man March, there have consistently been currents in black politics that promote individualist and ethnic chauvinist solutions to collective social problems.

An eviscerated welfare state and declining labor movement has once again made possible the resurgence of ideas of racial entrepreneurialism and black capitalism. Even, or perhaps especially, around and within the current Black Lives Matter movement, the interests of black individuals or corporate forces are consistently framed as identical to those of the broader black population.

Ultimately, the politics of racial uplift are inherently contradictory. Like Garvey’s UNIA, it can only flourish briefly by attaching itself to hollow symbols which are no alternative to economic or political justice. But in the absence of a political program capable of enacting genuine change, these cycles in which enthusiasm fueled by hucksters is followed by disillusionment are doomed to repeat themselves.