Marcus Garvey Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Garvey built the world’s largest activist organization for people of African descent, the Universal Negro Improvement Association, and promoted various business ventures. His economic ideas were largely dismissed by many subsequent black political leaders in favor of modified socialist theories.

The youngest child of a successful Jamaican mason, Marcus Garvey grew up watching his father’s modest wealth being gradually consumed through a series of disastrous legal cases. This decline led Garvey to take work as a printing apprentice in Kingston, where he quickly rose to the rank of foreman. In 1908, he helped lead an unsuccessful strike by the local printers’ union and was subsequently blacklisted as a result. The episode left him doubtful about the power of labor unions. After a period of restlessness that saw him travel throughout the Caribbean, Latin America, and England, Garvey returned to Jamaica, where he founded the pan-Africanist Universal Negro Improvement AssociationUniversal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) in 1914.Garvey, Marcus

The UNIA claimed to have had over four million members at one point, although actual membership has been estimated at about sixteen thousand. The group advocated black unity and economic self-dependency and promoted a number of economic ventures, including publications, stores, and even a shipping line. Most of these enterprises were failures, which led to criminal charges that sullied Garvey’s reputation and weakened his movement. Two years after starting the UNIA, Garvey traveled to the homeland of one of his heroes, Booker T. Washington, in the hope of recruiting African Americans.

Marcus Garvey.

(Library of Congress)

The movement rapidly grew as millions of African Americans became attracted to Garvey’s ideas of racial, political, and economic independence. He believed one of the key causes of African Americans;in business[business]African American subjugation was their fiscal dependence on whites and believed it was impossible to ease social inequalities until the financial power of African Americans began to grow. Toward this end, in 1919, UNIA published newspapers and founded the publically traded Negro Factories Corporation, which owned a chain of grocery stores and various other small businesses. That same year a more ambitious plan was embarked on to create the Black Star LineBlack Star Line, a shipping firm designed to promote trade among black people in the United States, the Caribbean, and Africa, and to assist African American emigration to Africa, with the independent West African nation of Liberia as the primary destination.

The U.S. government found these ideas threatening and investigated Garvey while it simultaneously pressured the Liberian government not to work with the UNIA. The Black Star Line had purchased old ships, and several subsequently proved to be unseaworthy. American authorities alleged that Garvey knew this while still promoting the sale of company shares. Garvey was eventually convicted of mail fraud for selling stock in a ship the line did not own in 1923 and sentenced to five years in prison. The scandal took the wind out of UNIA’s sails, and Garvey never managed to regain a high level of influence. Perhaps as a partial result, theories of economic independence in a strictly free-market context took a backseat to more socialist-oriented ideas in the subsequent civil rights and black independence movements of the twentieth century.

Further Reading
  • Grant, Collin. Negro with a Hat: The Rise and Fall of Marcus Garvey. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.
  • Hill, Robert A., ed. The Marcus Garvey and Universal Negro Improvement Association Papers. 7 vols. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983-1991.
  • Lewis, Rupert. Marcus Garvey: Anti-Colonial Champion. Trenton, N.J.: Africa World Press, 1988.

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