Marcus Garvey on “Back to Africa” Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Jamaican-born Marcus Garvey was a leader in the pan-African and black nationalist movement in the early twentieth century. He advocated a race-based identity among people of African descent, regardless of nationality and believed that the best course of action was the establishment of an independent nation in Africa to which black people from elsewhere in the world could return. Garvey did not advocate for tolerance or equality; he voiced the need for complete segregation and, at times, worked with white separatist movements, such as the Ku Klux Klan to argue that it was not possible for people of African and European descent to live together. Garvey founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), which had, according to varying estimates, between two and six million members. He also founded the Black Star Line–a shipping company intended to commercially connect black businesses worldwide as well as return African Americans to their homeland–and the Negro Factories Corporation, which was designed to promote African American manufacturing and economic independence. In speeches like this, Garvey argued that African Americans needed to unite to build an independent homeland in Africa “to the exclusion of other races and other Nationalities.”

Summary Overview

Jamaican-born Marcus Garvey was a leader in the pan-African and black nationalist movement in the early twentieth century. He advocated a race-based identity among people of African descent, regardless of nationality and believed that the best course of action was the establishment of an independent nation in Africa to which black people from elsewhere in the world could return. Garvey did not advocate for tolerance or equality; he voiced the need for complete segregation and, at times, worked with white separatist movements, such as the Ku Klux Klan to argue that it was not possible for people of African and European descent to live together. Garvey founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), which had, according to varying estimates, between two and six million members. He also founded the Black Star Line–a shipping company intended to commercially connect black businesses worldwide as well as return African Americans to their homeland–and the Negro Factories Corporation, which was designed to promote African American manufacturing and economic independence. In speeches like this, Garvey argued that African Americans needed to unite to build an independent homeland in Africa “to the exclusion of other races and other Nationalities.”

Defining Moment

Movements advocating the return to an African homeland existed long before Marcus Garvey’s cry of “Back to Africa.” As early as the eighteenth century, the free black Bostonian Prince Hall asked the Massachusetts legislature to help return former slaves to Africa. In 1815, another free black man from Massachusetts, Paul Cuffe, founded a settlement in Sierra Leone. In 1817, the American Colonization Society (ACS) was founded in New Jersey and helped to establish the colony of Liberia for former slaves. The ACS was made up primarily of two groups of individuals: those who believed in the fundamental unworkability of a multiracial American society and those who believed the presence of free African American communities encouraged slave revolts in the South. By 1867, the ACS had sent more than thirteen thousand colonists to Liberia. After the US Civil War, funding and support for black colonization schemes waned as African American leaders focused their attention on the struggle for civil rights.

In the first decade of the twentieth century, thousands of African Americans began fleeing segregation, disenfranchisement, and violence in the South, and by 1919, half a million new residents had pushed into northern cities with long-established ethnic and cultural divisions. Racial tensions grew as they competed for jobs and housing, especially after World War I, during the so-called “Red Summer” of 1919, when racial violence boiled over in cities across America as veterans returned home and were forced to compete for employment. African American veterans, expecting their service to have earned them some measure of civil rights, instead found themselves the target of beatings and lynch mobs, and many with military experience fought back in the riots of 1919.

Marcus Garvey, the charismatic founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League (UNIA-ACL), which advocated that all people of African descent return to an African homeland, saw the earlier East St. Louis race riots of 1917 as proof that the United States had failed in its promise of democracy. In June 1919, Garvey set up the Black Star Line, which was intended to facilitate the return of thousands, and eventually millions, of people to Africa as well as provide a mercantile future for the company as the vehicle for exclusively black industry and trade. When Garvey delivered this speech in January of 1921, the Black Star Line had purchased three ships of dubious quality and been charged with mail fraud for advertising a ship they did not own. Despite these setbacks, as well as questions about the financial reporting of the UNIA-ACL, Garvey continued to ask for the “moral and financial” support of all people of African descent for the establishment of an independent African homeland.

Author Biography

Marcus Garvey was born in Jamaica in 1887, the youngest of eleven children and one of only two to reach adulthood. Though of modest means, his family was able to send him to school, and his father maintained an impressive library. Garvey left school at fourteen to work as a printer’s apprentice. As a young man he travelled through Central America and lived in London from 1912 to 1914, working for the pan-African newspaper the African Times and Orient Review. He also studied law and philosophy in London and practiced public speaking at the Hyde Park Speaker’s Corner. In 1914, Garvey returned to Jamaica and founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League. In 1916, he moved to New York and began to lecture and publish there, and by 1917, a New York branch of the UNIA had been established. The UNIA thrived in Harlem, and Garvey spoke to crowds of thousands across the country. He advocated African separatism and pride, and he urged people of African descent to return to their homeland. To facilitate this, Garvey established the Black Star Line shipping company. He was arrested in 1922 for mail fraud and was convicted in 1923. Garvey was deported from the United States to Jamaica in 1927 after serving time in prison in both Georgia and New York. He moved to London in 1935 and died there in 1940. His body was returned in 1964 to Jamaica, where he was declared a national hero.

Document Analysis

Marcus Garvey recorded this speech in a New York studio in 1921 as a membership pitch for the UNIA and a call to action for people of African descent, whom he addresses as “citizens of Africa.” Garvey introduces the UNIA as a force that will unite “into one solid body, the four hundred million Negroes of the world.” His speech begins with a call for unity and an invitation to all people of African descent all over the world to join the organization “for the purpose of bettering our industrial, commercial, educational, social, and political conditions.” However, Garvey is not seeking to improve the conditions of African Americans living in a multiracial society. He accepts that the world is broken down into “separate race groups,” with each ethnicity fighting for itself and an exclusive homeland. It is time for “Africa for the Africans.” In Garvey’s vision, this means an African homeland for all people of African blood, even those whose ancestors have lived in the United States or Europe centuries before.

Garvey advocates for unity among all people of African descent, specifically through membership in the UNIA. In this speech, he claims to have four million members, all working hard to convert “the rest of the four hundred million that are all over the world.” Garvey is certain that if African Americans join the UNIA, the organization will establish an independent government in Africa “in another few years.” Garvey assures potentially skeptical listeners that they already have a foothold in Africa. “Pioneers have been sent by this organization to Nigeria, and they are now laying the foundations upon which the four hundred million Negroes of the world will build.” Garvey challenges his listeners to deny that people of African descent are incapable of self-government and an independent society: “you must acknowledge that what other men have done, Negroes can do. We want to build up cities, nations, governments, industries of our own in Africa.” With the “moral and financial support of every Negro,” the UNIA would establish an African homeland with an independent government and economy.

Essential Themes

This speech lays out very clearly Marcus Garvey’s belief in the need for unity among people of African descent and his conviction that this unity could not be achieved while living in a multiracial society. Garvey is a separatist, a belief that alienated him from a significant number of African American civil rights activists who saw his alliance with white separatists as traitorous. However, Garvey had a ready audience of African Americans for whom increasing segregation and racial violence seemed impossible to bear. The dream of an independent, successful African homeland had a potent allure. Garvey described a massive organization that would unite people across the world in this common cause, an organization that had already taken significant steps in Africa toward an independent nation, and many African Americans, who had grown disillusioned with reform in their own country, espoused this as a solution to ongoing racial tension. Garvey and the UNIA offered personal pride and empowerment to people of African descent, even though they were also acknowledging the futility of striving for racial equality and civil rights.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Clarke, John Henrik, and Amy Jacques Garvey. Marcus Garvey and the Vision of Africa. Baltimore: Black Classic, 2011. Print.
  • Cronon, Edmund David. Black Moses: The Story of Marcus Garvey and the Universal Negro Improvement Association. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 2001. Print.
  • Grant, Colin. Negro with a Hat: The Rise and Fall of Marcus Garvey. New York: Oxford UP, 2010. Print.
  • Martin, Tony. Race First: The Ideological and Organizational Struggles of Marcus Garvey and the Universal Negro Improvement Association. Dover: Majority, 1986. Print.
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