Marcus Garvey

On the 2nd of August 1920, a crowd of 25,000 people gathered in New York's Madison Square Gardens. They had assembled to listen to a man whose fame and renown preceded him wherever he went: Marcus Garvey. Garvey was the founder of one of the most influential African American movements in history and a prominent leader in discussions about black pride, civil rights, black nationalism and pan-Africanism. 

Marcus Garvey Marcus Garvey

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    Only twenty years after his Madison Square Gardens speech, however, Garvey would die in relative obscurity in London, far from the sites of his earlier triumphs. So how did a man born in a provincial town in Jamaica, who had gone on to write one of the most glorious chapters in the book of Black history, die in London as a mere footnote in the self-same book? Let's dive into the life and thoughts of Marcus Garvey to find out more.

    Marcus Garvey Biography

    Marcus Garvey (1887- 1940) was a political activist born in Jamaica. Garvey began working in a print manufacturing company as a teenager and went on to become the youngest Afro-Jamaican print foreman in Kingston. Garvey also became involved in trade unionism and was involved in a print strike that led to his dismissal. Unable to find other suitable work, Garvey became increasingly frustrated at the injustice and inequalities of life in Jamaica.

    Marcus Garvey Portrait photograph of Marcus Garvey StudySmarterFig. 1 Portrait photograph of Marcus Garvey

    His uncle managed to arrange a job for him on a United Fruit Company banana plantation in Central America, and he began working there in the office as a timekeeper, overseeing the largely Jamaican workforce. Garvey was shocked by the conditions that the labourers worked in and wrote a letter to the governor of Jamaica asking for better protections for Jamaican workers in Central America, but never received a reply.

    Garvey lived in the UK between 1912 and 1914, studying at Birkbeck University where he took classes in law and philosophy. During his return passage to Jamaica in 1914, Garvey met a Guyanese passenger who has been living in Basutoland in Southern Africa and heard firsthand about the brutal and unjust treatment that blacks were subjected to there.

    This encounter caused Garvey to consider how black people were universally mistreated, whether it be in Jamaica, Central America, Britain, or Southern Africa. Garvey felt that black people needed to be politically united and encouraged in their struggles against mistreatment. Within one week of his conversation with the Guyanese traveler, Garvey had founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA).

    UNIA Marcus Garvey

    Garvey established the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League (UNIA) in Jamaica with the help of his fiancee Amy Ashwood in July 1914. The UNIA was initially headquartered in Garvey's hotel room until Ashwood secured sufficient funds from her father to establish an office for the organisation.

    The aim of the UNIA was to establish a 'confraternity' among black people and focused on providing poor blacks with access to vocational training.1 The UNIA had few members or supporters in Jamaica initially but managed to secure funding from key community figures including mayors and governors.

    Garvey was criticised for seeking help from Jamaica's white elites and bypassing the black middle class. This led to accusations of him being a 'social climber', and Garvey's popularity also suffered on account of his characterisation of fellow black Jamaicans as uncouth or even vulgar.2 Garvey mismanaged the funds of the UNIA and eventually had to move to New York to re-established the organisation. From its new base in Harlem, New York, the UNIA would go on to spark a global movement promoting black nationalism.

    Black Nationalism advocates for the political unity of black people, regardless of geographical location, culture, or religious differences. Black Nationalism aims to create a shared identity based on common African origins and a shared history of oppression and exile. Black Nationalists aim to achieve economic, social, and political equality for black people and believe this object is best pursued within a black nationalist movement. As a result, black nationalists are often skeptical of integrationist or interracial rights movements.

    In 1918, the UNIA established its own newspaper, Negro World, and membership expanded to 2 million people. Copies of Negro World were circulated around the world thanks to the migrants and sailors that passed through New York. Sailors in particular helped deliver copies of the newspaper to colonial territories where it would otherwise have been banned, further enhancing the organisation's profile. The UNIA held its first convention at Liberty Hall in New York in 1920, with huge numbers attending and delegates from up to 22 countries.3 The UNIA opened chapters in the British Caribbean, African states, and the UK.

    Although its public leaders were men, half of the UNIA's members were women working to advance the Union's goals through auxiliary groups like the Black Cross Nurses and African Motore Core. The Black Cross Nurses offered medical services and health education to black families around the world. The UNIA's patriarchal structure meant that women were often restricted to traditional roles as caregivers, but some women did manage to break through to make their voices heard by the leader. In 1925 Garvey's second wife Amy Jacques Garvey introduced a column in the Negro World called "Our Women and What They Think". The column allowed for some criticism of the UNIA's patriarchal leadership and its views on women.

    Marcus Garvey Movement

    Garvey and the UNIA espoused black pride and advocated for racial separatism, believing black people's interests would be best served by having their own structures and authorities. However, Garvey also believed all people were equal and didn't seek an antagonistic relationship with whites. Garvey was also sympathetic to the idea that the African diaspora should return to Africa, a movement that was known as the Back to Africa campaign.

    Garvey envisioned a United States of Africa, with each state having its own identity but sharing a common economy and political federation. Although Garvey never visited the African continent himself, he did establish the Black Star Line - a shipping company specifically aimed at increasing trade between black people in the Americas and Africa.

    Garvey's encouragement of black pride took many forms. For example, the UNIA encouraged black people to believe in their own beauty and encouraged black women to embrace their natural hair texture rather than trying to imitate white European standards of beauty.

    When taken together, Garvey's ideas of blackness as a political identity, the universality of the black experience, his sympathy for black separatism, and his pan-African nationalism are known as Garveyism.

    Marcus Garvey Economic Philosophy

    The UNIA's aims included provisions for the economic development of black people:

    1. Education, building up leadership and knowledge

    2. Support for entrepreneurship initiatives and support for black business

    Garvey was supportive of capitalism and advocated for its acceptance by black people. However, he also believed in redistributing wealth if it became too concentrated.

    Garvey's Black Star Line shipping company was meant to put his economic ideas into practice. Inspired by the idea that trade could bring peace and unity to disparate nations, the Black Star Line aimed to provide opportunities for black people in Africa to trade with black people in the African diaspora in the Americas. It would also provide a cheap way for African Americans to migrate to Africa if they wanted to. Garvey appointed himself the provisional President of a United States of Africa, which he believed would emerge out of African American migration to Liberia and other parts of West Africa. There has been some criticism of this part of Garvey's activism, as well as the fact that one of the UNIA's goals was to "assist in civilising the backward tribes of Africa".5 For many this kind of discourse merely replicates European colonialism.

    Garvey was also a fervent anti-socialist, claiming that the ideology was created for white people to serve their own interests. He claimed socialism was

    a dangerous theory of economic or political reformation because it seeks to put the government in the hands of an ignorant white mass who have not been able to destroy their natural prejudices towards Negroes and other non-white people. "

    This anti-socialist standpoint would late isolate Garvey from many of the other prominent African American activists, such as A Philip Randolph or W.E.B Du Bois, who often looked to socialism as a means of black liberation.

    The Black Star Line was severely mismanaged, with Garvey and his associates often paying premium prices for subpar naval ships to transport goods and people. In 1923, Marcus Garvey and his associates were found guilty of mail fraud and for incorrectly selling stocks for the Black Star line business. Garvey was imprisoned in 1923 and, upon his release, he was deported to Jamaica and later moved back to London.

    Marcus Garvey Black Star Line Stock Certificate StudySmarterFig 2. Black Star Line Stock Certificate

    Marcus Garvey Cause of Death

    Garvey settled in the UK in 1935 having lost much of his credibility for his mismanagement of the Black Star Line and UNIA. On top of this, Garvey's views were radically different from other black activists in London at the time, so he never managed to find friends and supporters in the city. Still, his ideas continued to influence people around the world, especially in terms of black pride and black political consciousness.

    Marcus Garvey Blue Plaque StudySmarterFig. 3 - Marcus Garvey Blue Plaque

    In 1940, Garvey suffered first from one stroke, then another 6 months later, leaving him paralysed. A final stroke led to his death on 10 June 1940 at the age of 52.

    Marcus Garvey Quotes

    Here are some well-known quotes by Marcus Garvey:

    Do not remove the kinks from your hair - remove them from your brain." 6

    The Negro will have to build his own industry, art, sciences, literature, and culture before the world will stop to consider him.” 7

    Every student of political science, every student of political economy, every student of economics knows that the race can only be saved through a solid industrial foundation; that the race can only be saved through political independence." 8

    Marcus Garvey - Key takeaways

    • Marcus Garvey was a Jamaican political activist born on 17 August 1887.
    • In July 1914, Garvey established the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) with the aim of establishing an international community of black people.
    • Garvey espoused black pride, racial separatism, and pan-Africanism, but believed that black people were equal, not superior, to white people and he hoped for good relations between racial groups.
    • Garvey's Black Star Line shipping company was aimed at providing trade and migration opportunities for black people across the Atlantic Ocean, although Garvey was eventually charged with financial mismanagement of the company.
    • Garvey supported the adoption of a capitalist economic system in order to achieve black advancement


    1. Robert Hill, The Marcus Garvey and Universal Negro Improvement Association Papers, 1983, Berkeley, University of California Press
    2. Colin Grant, Negro with a Hat: The Rise and Fall of Marcus Garvey, 2008, London, Jonathan Cape
    3. PBS, The 1920 Convention of the Universal Negro Improvement Association, Accessed August 2022
    4. Colin Grant, Negro with a Hat: The Rise and Fall of Marcus Garvey, 2008, London, Jonathan Cape
    5. Robert Hill, The Marcus Garvey and Universal Negro Improvement Association Papers, 1983, Berkeley, University of California Press
    6. Bob Blaisdell ,Selected Writings and Speeches of Marcus Garvey, 2005, Dover Thrift Editions
    7. Bob Blaisdell ,Selected Writings and Speeches of Marcus Garvey, 2005, Dover Thrift Editions
    8. Bob Blaisdell ,Selected Writings and Speeches of Marcus Garvey, 2005, Dover Thrift Editions
    9. Fig. 2 Black Star Line Stock Certificate by Rblack131 ( licensed by CC BY-SA 4.0 (
    10. Fig. 3 - Marcus Garvey Blue Plaque ( by Edwardx (, licensed by CC BY-SA 4.0 (

    Frequently Asked Questions about Marcus Garvey

    Who was Marcus Garvey?

    Marcus Garvey was a Jamaican political activist.

    What were Marcus Garvey's beliefs?

    Marcus Garvey believed in black pride, racial separatism, and Pan-Africanism.

    What is Marcus Garvey best remembered for?

    Marcus Garvey is best remembered for establishing the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) and for founding The Black Star Line.

    When was Marcus Garvey born?

    Marcus Garvey was born on the 17th of August in 1887.

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    What is Marcus Garvey best-known for?

    How did Marcus Garvey die?

    Which economic system did Marcus Garvey believe was best for black peoples?


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