Marcus Garvery: A Cultural and Political Assessment


As Leeuwen writes in Marcus Garvey and the Universal Negro Improvement Association, Marcus Garvey was a Jamaican born in 1887 (1). He dropped out of school at the tender age of fourteen because of economic hardships in his family. He learnt the printing and newspaper business.

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However, he got interested in politics and became involved in projects whose aim was to help the poor in society. He later took a trip to London and lived in the country for two years. His interest in politics did not fade and he paid attention to the storm that existed between Ireland and England (1).

The storm was over Ireland’s independence. In addition, he was aware of a group of writers of black origin and he took an interest in their writings. For Garvey, any matter of nationalism in Ireland and Africa was of interest.

It is however the autobiography, ‘Up from Slavery’ by Booker Washington that made a major impact in the life of Marcus. As Leeuwen states, Washington believed that Afro-Americans needed to improve their lives first so that they would prove to the whites that they deserved to be treated with the same treatment as that accorded the white race. Every human being deserved equal rights (1).

Unlike Marcus, Washington’s involvement in the political arena was behind the scenes. He claimed though that African Americans would not benefit from political activism. Garvey accepted the ideas that Washington presented (1). He was then inspired to go back to Jamaica where he began the movement that presented African American desires.

The Universal Negro Improvement Association

Marcus Garvey was popular for the organization, Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) that represents the largest mass movement in the history of African-American people. The organizations slogan and message is “back to Africa” and there were 700 branches in about 38 states by the beginning of the 1920s (1).

His message reached the small towns as much as it did the larger ones such as New York. Later, other groups emerged and they drew members from UNIA. This resulted in a greater audience for UNIA’s message that reached as far as Africa, not to mention the more close states like Canada and the Caribbean.

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Garvey’s political and cultural movement incorporated some religious aspect. Leeuwen says that Garvey himself said that the ‘Declaration of Rights of the Negro Peoples of the world’ together with the Bible served as “the Holy Writ for our Negro Race”. Leeuwen goes on to say that Garvey believed that it was the will of God for the black race to have freedom and to determine its destiny without the interference of other people who feel more superior (1).

The UNIA’s motto was “One God! One Aim! One Destiny!” It drew its inspiration from a verse in the Bible that says princes will come out of Egypt and Ethiopia shall soon stretch out its hands unto God (Psalms 68: 31).

In his theoretical writing as McCarthy puts it, C.L.R James addressed such critical questions as:

  1. What nature and role does intellectual work have in modern society?
  2. How should the role of the intellectual be defined and discussed?
  3. What relationship does the intellectual have with popular culture, popular life and fulfillment of the people?

Works that describe the work and the role that Garvey did try to answer this question. His work was significant in the history and transition of the American society.

The history of Harlem

Watkins writes about intraracial ethnicity in Harlem at the beginning of the twentieth century in Blood Relations. According to him, the first group of immigrants in Harlem was mostly of African origin and settled in Harlem from the British colonies of the Caribbean.

There were about 40000 immigrants in Harlem, which was emerging as a black community in the city of New York (2). The new group, of immigrants combined with the African Americans from the Southeast. A new community emerged. The new community was the only one of its kind in the American experience. It was one with diverse and conflicting nationalities, not to mention languages.

The Harlem community has therefore been a point of attention as a centre of cultural production as Watkins goes on to say. Scholars have explored the controversies and conflicts that are observable in the contact between the blacks who immigrated into Harlem and those that can be referred to as natives. These relations are an integral dynamic in the formation of the Harlem community (2).

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Harlem attracted a lot of people after some time. Such people included black scholars such as W.E.B. Du Bois and other black elite from the country as well as abroad (2). It is during the period when elites settled in Harlem that Marcus Garvey also moved into the community. The leaders of this community hoped that the people would help to set up a representative Negro in the 20th century community.

The American law on immigrants

There were no restrictions in the entry of United States by Caribbean immigrants until the year 1924. However, previous legislation singled out Asians for exclusion in the entry of the land of opportunity. In 1924, a law was passed that sealed the ban and organized quotas that were based on national origin. This act restricted the African Caribbeans from qualifying for visas (2).

There were so many Europeans who entered New York from 1840 to 1920. However, the number would appear insignificant. What seemed to matter was the historical importance based on the social and cultural impact they had on the community they found.

The political work of Marcus Garvey

Marcus Garvey observed the racial situation in America for some time. He was influenced to believe that there would never be integration in America. Leeuwen writes that Garvey felt that the only thing that would bring about respect and equality for African Americans was their success in the economic, political and cultural aspects (2).

He was determined to see this happen.

It was for this reason that he set up the headquarters of UNIA in New York in 1917. He began to preach Black Nationalism. He also spread the message of return of African Americans to Africa, their origin. He believed strongly that Africans could set up an independent nation in Africa, their ancient homeland.

The ideas Marcus adopted from Washington were turned into a politically-minded nation-building message. Garvey’s political insight led him to acquire an auditorium in Harlem where he held meetings at night to reach out to the people with his message. Later, he began a newspaper, the Negro World (2). Garvey’s message managed to get to millions of people through various channels.

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To quote Marcus Garvey in Race First by Martin, he did not care about death in the course of redemption of Africa. He says that he could die anywhere in the course of liberty and that a real man dies only once while a coward dies a thousand times before his real death. He goes on to say that life is not worth its salt unless one lives it for some purpose and that the noblest purpose of life is the emancipation of a race and posterity. Marcus lived for the very purpose that he stated (2).

In addition to this, Marcus also asserts in Race First that history has it that slaves through their experience and the knowledge they gained in captivity have finally become masters of their own lives while at the same time they have over time enslaved other people.

Marcus asks people to use adversity as others have used it, taking advantage of opportunity when it arises. He urges people to make opportunity if it is not available and to let history record that as they worked laboriously and with courage, they worked so that they could live gloriously (2).

It is evident from this book that Marcus was one man who organized and built the largest black mass movement in the history of African Americans. This was despite continuous attack from communists on one side black reactionaries on the other and powerful governments in the world. He suffered more in the hands of historians and commentators.

UNIA was continuously involved in formidable battles in various fronts. Personal animosities were generated by these struggles but they were ideological connections. His revolutionary nationalism was perceived as a threat by many opponents (2). These people had no affection for each other but for their common interests in finishing off Marcus and his movement.

Marcus continued to make impact until he was deported from the United States. Only then did the movement loosen its grip. Nevertheless, his legacy lived on. In Marcus Garvey: Anti-Colonial Champion, Lewis states that the end of slavery precipitated a political, social or economic crisis (2).

This crisis possibly was predicted on account of the Westerners perception of slavery that was leaning more on the economic side than any other. A crisis like this was not experienced in Africa as he says, since slavery in the continent was only a part of a continuum of dependencies (2).

Lewis argues that apart from W.E.B. Du Bois possibly, there have been few other people that have been written about as much as Marcus has for involvement in the struggle for black liberation and the liberation of Africa as a whole. It is unfortunate, though, that Marcus has been viewed in terms that are myopic and self-serving (2).

This has resulted in the use of the words of Garvey the same way as scriptures are quoted in religion as Lewis puts it. Lewis puts it that Marcus can not be accused of preaching a mass exodus to Africa; rather his work is an indication that though the liberation of Africa would impact on the lives of blacks in the future, all the struggles that were being experienced in the Caribbean and other places were just as important (2).

According to Lewis, Marcus showed equal concern on the liberation struggles that were taking place in other parts of the world (2). In the words of Lewis, the author interprets the works of Garvey as proving that Garvey looked at the struggle against oppression and exploitation not just in terms of America but in international terms as well.

This non-racial aspect of Garvey’s approach has been overlooked and overshadowed by the message that he used of returning back to Africa and the interpretation people had of the same. For Lewis, Garvey was a sophisticated politician.

Lewis further argues that Garvey was put off by white chauvinism which was characteristic of the post Second World War American socialist movement (2).

In Jamaica, where he was born, Marcus experienced what Lewis calls the worst opposition. His regular attacks were mostly from the plutocracy, the bourgeoisie and the country’s dominant paper, The Daily Gleaner. Garvey tried to promote unity among the African Americans.

To do so, he encouraged the African Americans to be concerned with themselves before anyone else. In his statement after the First World War, the first dying that the black man will experience will be the dying that will make him free (2). He went on to say that after that death, the black man just might then die for the white man.

This meant that for the black man to succeed, he had to do what was demanded of him to achieve that success and remember to do it only for themselves. Blacks had to use their own efforts in order to get what they so determinedly wanted to achieve- liberty.

The black Americans had a very low perception of themselves. Garvey was afraid then that if this perception did not change, the African Americans would not take the plunge. Garvey went a long way in convincing the African Americans to take pride in their race. He showed them that to be proud of whom they were, they had to celebrate the African past, take pride in the African heritage and the way they looked (2).

The popular slogan that black is beauty had been proclaimed by Garvey in those days. Garvey was proud of his race and he made efforts to show the rest of his race how mighty this race was. Garvey also tried to encourage parents to cultivate this black pride in their children by the small things they did like in the playthings they bought them. Garvey lived what he preached as Leeuwen illustrates in his article (2).

The opinions that he preached were visible in his own life. The groups that Garvey organized were organized in such a way that the African Legion he created dressed in military attire, the Black Cross Nurse in the appropriate garb as were other groups (2). This kind of dressing was for Garvey a way to prove that they could dress as well as the whites and be just as organized.

To climax this particular cultural move, Garvey was elected the president of the African people by the members of UNIA. They dressed him in military uniform. His followers were admired by crowds at the movement’s first convention as they passed through the streets dressed in military uniform.

They carried banners that declared their demands and read: We want a black civilization and Africa must be free. The move was bold and daring and many Africans were inspired (2). Garvey was nevertheless ridiculed by African American leaders but this did not deter him.

The fundamental factor in Garvey’s message was racial pride and specifically pride of the black race. This played a very big role in his black nationalism. He was an advocate of capitalism as he believed that the same would set apart the African community as an independent group that would not have to rely on other races for its survival (2).

For Garvey, economic success was the gateway to independence. He felt that if the African Americans could develop on the economic front, then this would be a quick and effective way to attain the longed for freedom from oppression and by extension independence (2). This was the reason that Garvey’s message was called the evangel of black success.

Garvey however did not fail to point out that to be equal with the white man; the black man had to produce what the white man had produced. In this way, the white man served as an example of what the black man should achieve.

Resistance to Garvey and his work

Among the people that resisted the preaching of Garvey was W.E.B. Du Bois and James Weldon. These African American leaders perceived Garvey as a dangerous enemy of the very people he was struggling to liberate. With all the resistance and opposition he faced, he was eventually sentenced to serve a term in prison after being indicted for mail fraud (2). He was deported after completing his term and this was a blow to his organization that lost the strength it initially had.

Garvey’s ideas were mainly based on liberation of the African American, and freedom from the shackles of the white man. His commitment to the ideals of service and success which he devotedly believed in and the practical making of a self-sufficient man created some kind of conflict and tension between him and some African Americans. Such tensions existed between him and Du Bois as well as the man who inspired him in London, Washington (2).

Garvey and W.E.B Du Bois

The conflict that existed between Du Bois and Garvey lay more on the cultural side than on the political side. Its source was the struggle between the nineteenth century patrician ideal of New England and the competing ideal that was Garvey’s idea of a self-made man. Du Bois accused Garvey of cheating the people out of their hard-earned dollars by deluding them (3).

On the other hand, Garvey counter attacked by accusing Du Bois s asserting himself as the highest social dignitary. Garvey looked at himself as the self-made man who conquered over the disadvantages and setbacks that wanted to obstruct his success in his heroic struggle for success and survival (3). Garvey’s social outlook had been shaped by the morality of sacrifice and patrician service that was an influence of the New England.

Garvey and Booker T. Washington

On the other hand, there was the controversy that existed between Garvey and Booker Washington. This was based on the commitment each of the two had to the success ethic and the application of the same to the aim each had to improve the Black race. Washington’s idea was rooted in his perception of a self-made man. He wanted the whole world to recognize him as the American success hero in black (3).

According to Garvey, this was a futile attempt by Washington to climb the ladder of success by using his own efforts and energy and without the interest of the people at heart. Garvey asserted that when Washington attempted to do this, the sage of Atlanta, Berlin and Harvard attacked him from all sides. These sentiments were written in an article on W.E.B Du Bois and Marcus Garvey (3).

The significant controversies that existed between Marcus Garvey, W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington reflected the impact that social change had (3). Marcus Garvey was the black spokesperson of the success of the period when the vision of success had become overshadowed by the rush to economic salvage.

This was the period immediately after the First World War and the continent was making efforts to take its footing in terms of finances. Opportunities that did not exist traditionally were now available for the small entrepreneur. This followed the remarkable rise of finance capital to a dominating position in the political economy of continental America (3).


America, after the war, surfaced as the new banking capital of the world. The philosophy that was Garvey’s baby that touched on success would integrate the main attributes conveyed by the era of industrial growth and by the period of America’s economic growth.

Garvey called attention to the fact that his movement, the UNIA, believed that both the black and the white race had separate and divergent destinies. He stated that each of the two races should develop on its own.

Further, he spoke against the amalgamation of any two races saying that any attempt to do this was a “crime against nature” Garvey then urged African Americans to stand against the idea of social equality.

This was a contradiction to his initial fight for equality where he often tried to convince African Americans that they deserved equal rights as the whites as there was no race that was superior to the other. This followed a speech by President Harding where he said that there can never be race amalgamation (Marcus Garvey and WEB Du Bois).


  1. Lewis, Rupert. Marcus Garvey: Anti-Colonial Champion: Trenton, N.J.: African World Press, 1988.
  2. Martin, Tony. Race First: New York: Majority Press, 1986. “Marcus Garvey and W.E.B. Du Bois.”


1 David, Leeuwen “Marcus Garvey and the Universal Negro Improvement Association” 2009.

2 Rupert, Lewis. Marcus Garvey: Anti-Colonial Champion: Trenton, N.J.: African World Press, 1988.

3 Tony, Martin. Race First: New York: Majority Press, 1986. “Marcus Garvey and W.E.B. Du Bois.”

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