No other Jamaican has had such a profound international impact as Marcus Garvey.
In an era that treated the idea of black inferiority almost as a given fact, Garvey shouted ‘No!’ in a voice heard across the planet. In Martin Luther King’s words, Garvey was ‘the first man, on a mass scale, to give millions of Negroes a sense of dignity and destiny… He gave us a sense of personhood, a sense of manhood, a sense of somebodiness’.
Garvey was a foreman at Kingston’s largest printery when the 1907 earthquake devastated the city. Resulting financial hardships prompted the printers’ union — Jamaica’s first — to ask for better wages and working conditions. When turned down, they struck. Hoping he would keep the plant operating, the owners offered Garvey a pay increase. He refused and walked out with his men, who chose him to organise the strike. The strike was eventually broken and, blacklisted by private printers, Garvey took a government job.
In 1910 he began travelling across the Americas and Europe. Though he did not visit Africa, he kept abreast of African affairs, and made contact with influential Africans. He conceived the idea of one great international organisation of proud, educated and financially independent black people, who would take their place as equals on the world stage.
He returned to Jamaica in 1914, and on Emancipation Day August 1 launched the Universal Negro Improvement Association. The UNIA was dedicated to improving the conditions of black people the world over. Its famous motto was ‘One God! One Aim! One Destiny!’ Seeing a larger stage in the US, he moved there in 1916.
At its height the UNIA had an estimated four million members with more than 1,000 branches in over 20 countries, and is generally considered the largest mass movement in Afro-American history. Many major African political figures would recall being influenced by Garvey, including Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah, Kenya’s Jomo Kenyatta, and Nigeria’s Nnamdi Azikiwe. Much of the African National Congress leadership in 1920s South Africa belonged to the UNIA. So did Elijah Muhammad, who to a large extent patterned his Nation of Islam movement on the UNIA. Malcom X’s father was a UNIA organiser, and Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Min attended UNIA meetings.
Like many visionaries, Garvey was not the most practical of businessmen. His Black Star Line Steamship Corporation, conceptualised to transport blacks back to Africa, proved a financial disaster. It also gave American authorities, who saw Garvey as a threat to the Jim Crow status quo, the opportunity to neutralise him. He was charged for fraud, given a five year sentence, and deported back to Jamaica in 1927.
Thousands hailed Garvey’s return. The Daily Gleaner reported that ‘no denser crowd has ever been witnessed in Kingston… Deafening cheers were raised’. In 1929 Garvey formed the People’s Political Party and put forward Jamaica’s first practical manifesto. It called for Jamaican representation in the British Parliament, a Jamaican university, a free government high school and public library in each parish capital, promotion of native industries, public housing, land reform, and minimum wage and eight hour day legislation.
Garvey also hosted lectures, debates, training courses and cultural programs at Liberty Hall, the first meeting hall in Jamaica owned and operated by blacks. Among those who benefited from these educational offerings were Sir Phillip Sherlock, Wesley Powell, Dalton James, Amy Bailey, and Father Gladstone Wilson.
The planter and merchant elite saw Garvey as a threat to their privileged way of life, and hounded him mercilessly. Gleaner editor H.G. Delisser led the vilification campaign, which was sadly so successful that many still believe Garvey never had a large following in his native land.
The PPP manifesto also proposed the impeachment of corrupt judges. This led to a contempt of court charge, and Garvey was jailed for three months, being released only a month before the national election.
Despite massive crowds, no PPP candidate was successful. Few Garvey supporters met the stringent property requirements that restricted the electoral list to less than eight per cent of the populace. The majority of these voters were black, but Garvey was not popular with the civil servants and small proprietors who dominated the voting list. He was also attacked by conservative black clergymen and teachers.The PPP defeat was perhaps more about class than colour.
As Garvey said afterwards ‘The thousands who attended and cheered at the Party’s meetings indicate that if you, the poor people had a vote, our Party would have been sent to the Legislature’. He called for full adult suffrage, but never lived to see it. Harried by the colonial administration, he emigrated to England in 1935, and died there five years later.
In 1964 his body was repatriated, and Marcus Garvey was declared Jamaica’s first National Hero.
Adapted from Jamaica Fi Real: Beauty, Vibes and Culture
Links to other members of the Top Ten Greatest Jamaicans
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