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Every generation is granted its share of leaders; those empowered to empower others and motivated to establish a better world for generations to come. Marcus Garvey was one of those people. He was an activist, journalist, entrepreneur, and orator of unity amongst black people. When he spoke, people listened and although his practices and behaviors were controversial, his desire to create a better, independent society for black people is what fueled his movement and brought him notoriety. Garvey’s advanced and often rebellious philosophies, inspired the world’s first black nationalist movement and gave black people a sense of pride they had never had before.
Marcus Garvey Jr. was born on August 17, 1887 in Saint Ann’s Bay Jamaica. He was the last of 11 children born to Marcus Garvey Sr. and Sarah Jane Richards, both whom had great influence on his life and perspectives. His father was a stonemason, and his firm, aggressive and bold disposition taught Garvey he could only rely on himself for survival. His mother Sarah, raised crops and cared for a white family. Garvey’s mother had tremendous influence and great hopes for him. Her nurturing spirit and love help create Garvey’s extraordinary self confidence. Garvey imagined himself becoming the first gentleman in the world and delivering speeches to crowds of millions. He would spend hours reading, but was forced to stop school at the age of 14, under the colonial education system. When his white neighbor was told never to speak to him because he was a “nigga”, Garvey became aware of what being black really meant. He felt shut out and excluded, and the rest of his life was an attempt to prove he was just as good as anyone else.
At 14, Garvey became a printer’s apprentice where he would learn the power of printed word. In 1910, he began traveling through Central America, supporting himself as a journalist and a laborer. In 1912, he returned to Jamaica and founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) with the goals of creating an independent black nation modeled after Booker T. Washington’s industrial training school, Tuskegee Institute. The organization had problems from the beginning . Garvey was bad at managing money and made enemies with his dictator style of leadership.
In 1916, after UNIA failed in Jamaica, Garvey left to start a new life in America. He set up branches of UNIA within predominantly black communities. Garvey spread the gospel of black pride and having high self esteem. He gave black people hope and told them that their history did not begin with slavery. He told black people to unite and believe in their roots and Africa’s rich history. He made black people feel beautiful and changed the way they viewed themselves in society. Garvey genius was to transform men in uniform to “always think of yourself a perfect being and be satisfied with yourself”. At its peak UNIA, had something for everyone including children and gained a following of two million people.
UNIA was built to demonstrate black success. In the summer of 1918, Garvey set out to start a black enterprise. He founded Liberty Hall, where he stared Negro World Newspaper. He also established laundromats, grocery stores, restaurants, and a printing press to convert black wealth into business that would benefit black people. In 1919, Garvey created the Black Star Line as a monument to black commerce. Garvey felt black people needed their own shipping line just as other cultures had their own. The Black Start Line represents the ability of black people to have their own economy, but it was just that, a model, a figure of imagination, a ship at sail with no clear destination. At its peak, the UNIA employed nearly one-thousand people in Harlem, but as it did in Jamaica, UNIA and Garvey’s other business endeavors would quickly spiral downward.
UNIA businesses failed mostly due to Garvey’s poor leadership skills. He would hire managers with little to no experience simply based on their loyalty to him and would use money from one business to finance others. Garvey didn’t take well to people who didn’t play by his rules and would physically assault people who didn’t comply. He had extreme confidence in areas he had no experience and took no advice. His rising radical influence made him a target and a threat to the federal government. Garvey’s newspaper carried news of rebellion across the world, and with UNIAs 500 divisions in 22 countries, the movement could not be stopped. Garvey bragged about creating a separate black justice system and appointed black people to roles with grandeur titles. Black critics saw Garvey as a lunatic and his movement as a grand distraction as it clashed with the ideology of notable leaders of the time. W.E.B Dubois, head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, called him, the most dangerous to black people. Garvey believed blacks could run a successful self sustaining economy in Africa, where as leaders like Dubois wanted to establish black wealth within white America. Garvey’s dealings with questionable organizations like the KKK to fund his enterprises, caused black people to completely denounce him, ultimately pushing the federal government to pursue a case against him. President Larry Hoover would spend years hiring secret agents to infiltrate Garvey’s organization in order to find evidence of corruption and fraud.
In 1920, on the verge of bankruptcy, Garvey mailed a brochure advertising a ship that appeared to be owned by the Black Star Line, but in fact wasn’t. In 1922, he was indicted for federal mail fraud and served 2 years of a 5 year sentence before being deported back to Jamaica as an undesirable alien. Garvey was never able to revive the movement abroad, and died sick and alone, never actually stepping foot into Africa.
Marcus Garvey’s movement laid a blueprint for black enterprise and Negro liberty. Because of his lack of leadership, education, and support, the world would never get the chance to see the success of UNIA and an independent black economy, but his influence remains. Garvey helped black people to realize their power and that they are enough simply because they exist. His message of pride and dignity inspired many leaders that would go on to start the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 60s. Garvey was an activist, a forerunner, a true hero.
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