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Marcus Garvey and the Call for Black Unity


Marcus Garvey was one of the most controversial leaders in American history. His travels and experiences in Central America, North America, and the Caribbean shaped his anti-colonial views. He preached a gospel of racial pride, self-reliance, and defiance against oppression. Yet ironically, despite his calls for Black unity, rivalries and factionalism with the various Black liberation movements ultimately led to his downfall.


Marcus Mosia Garvey was born in Saint Ann’s Bay, Jamaica, in 1887. During Garvey’s early years, he experienced the grip of colonization. Growing up, Garvey encountered racial discrimination from his white teachers, and restrictions within the Jamaican school system forced him to leave at fourteen years of age. Then becoming a printer’s apprentice with his uncle Kingston, he learned a trade that taught them the power of the written word that he would wield in years to come.

Garvey traveled to Central America at age 23, witnessing how colonialism kept Black people trapped in certain areas, often living in squalor. He spent two years as a timekeeper on the banana plantations of the United Fruit Company (UFCO) in Costa Rica. There Garvey witnessed first-hand the terrible conditions many workers lived and worked in and saw how the company exploited them. He noticed similar exploitation in his travels through Honduras, Ecuador, Colombia, and Venezuela. Garvey came to realize that,

Black people in the Americas, the Caribbean, and West and South Africa had strong reasons to collectively fight to gain equal recognition in the international political economy and economic independence.

(Source: Bandele 747)

When he returned to Jamaica, he began speaking out against the injustices he had observed. His speeches and writings soon attracted a growing following. Garvey grew to understand that:

To sustain and grow the economic well-being of their communities (and if resources allow, help their homeland), political networking develops between those communities within the diaspora that are well connected and interested in collective political activism.

(Source: Bandele 747)

Garvey’s travel and experiences inspired his philosophy of black nationalism. He wanted to unite all black people and end mistreatment worldwide. Returning to Jamaica in 1914, he formed the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) under the banner, “Africa for the Africans.” He also discovered the book that would act like the final puzzle piece in his worldview—Booker T Washington’s Up From Slavery.


While the UNIA was developing a following, Garvey became increasingly famous for attacking other Black leaders and espousing an integrationist view. In 1916, Garvey came to the United States at the invitation of Booker T. Washington; however, his idol died before he arrived.

On his arrival in Harlem, New York, with the help of fellow activists, he began traveling, speaking, and observing the plight of African Americans. In 1917, Marcus Garvey founded the New York City branch of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). He called for Black unity and self-sufficiency. His message resonated with many African Americans, especially those in the South. But Garvey also attracted controversy. 

Garvey’s arrival in the United States came at a time when varying philosophies competed for the hearts and minds of Black Americans in the struggle forward.  In contrast to W. E. B. Du Bois and the NAACP, which fought for integration and social equality, Garvey had been a disciple of Booker T. Washington. Also rising to prominence were the socialist and communist parties who sought to create class unity between working-class whites and Blacks. The built-in conflicts between separatism, integration, and class unity, once again, there was open hostility between the organizations. Often the battle got ugly.

Marcus Garvey relentlessly attacked the Communists and the NAACP, calling WEB Du Bois a “lazy, dependent mulatto.” Noting the class bias and the NAACP’s apparent lack of concern for poor Black people, he referred to the NAACP as the “National Association For The Advancement Of Certain People.”

Likewise, the goals of the Communist Party and the socialists were inherently in conflict with those of Black nationalists like Marcus Garvey. Most glaringly, Garvey was a capitalist Black nationalist—a position which immediately put him at odds with the Communist and Socialist parties. Garvey believed in the development of Black-owned businesses as a path to prosperity for the Black community.

Garvey rejected class unity in favor of racial unity. While Marcus Garvey sought a pan-African approach—a viewpoint that placed blacks in the United States in common cause with Black people on the continent of Africa and throughout the world—the communists sought a broader international coalition not confined by race or pan-Africanism. Garvey believed that racial prejudice was congenital.  Thus, in his view, class unity between African Americans and poor whites would never work because it was impossible to purge racism from whites. So the central inherent conflict between the two was class unity versus racial unity. Despite the call for Black unity, it seemed that the differences between the various philosophies were irreconcilable.

A. Philip Randolph, who embraced socialism, referred to Marcus Garvey as “the supreme Negro Jamaican Jackass,” an “unquestioned fool and ignoramus,” and he launched a campaign “to drive Garvey and Garveyism in all its sinister viciousness from the American soil.” 

In the Communist Party, Cyril Briggs’s open hostility and attacks against Marcus Garvey ultimately provided the ammunition that the United States government used to marginalize and convict Garvey on charges of mail fraud, which led to his exile from the United States.

Garvey also started publishing his newspaper, The Negro World. He was elected president of the UNIA in 1920. He was a strong proponent of Pan-Africanism and believed that Black people should unite across borders and continents. He was also very vocal about the need for Black economic independence. 

Garvey reminded black Americans that their strength came from something more significant than the deceptive stereotypes white culture had taught them. Garvey toured this message throughout the US and established new UNIA chapters. With 35 cents, anyone of African descent could join. He also distributed uniforms and titles, his Garveyites took to the streets during both scheduled and spontaneous marches, and his followers waited for new issues of his newspaper, hanging on every word.

Many African leaders wanted independence from European colonial powers, but they didn’t have the means to do so. Garvey saw an opportunity to help them, and he began speaking out against colonialism. His speeches reached far beyond the borders of Africa, and he became a voice for all those who felt the oppression of colonialism and white supremacy.

Garvey’s lack of business sense would be his undoing. He had managed to create successful businesses with UNIA funds, but Garvey’s habit of placing ill-equipped loyalists in critical positions caused many to be poorly run. His Harlem-based companies teetered close to ruin, but it would be his vision for a cruise ship line he wanted to start that would finally sink him.


Garvey founded the Black Star Line in 1919 as part of a larger vision of pan-African nationalism and economic and political self-determination. He wanted to create an African nation in Africa, and he believed that the best way to achieve this goal was through colonization. He planned to buy ships and sail them to Africa, believing that if he could get enough money together, he could start a Black colony in Liberia.  To enact his vision, Garvey had to network with the Governmental organizations that held the keys to passageways the ships needed to sail to “build a nation state on the continent of Africa and fostering black economic dependence.” (Source: Bandele 749)

As one component of a grander plan, Garvey’s Black Star Line  

would bring about unity around the Black Atlantic by providing an economic enclave for the diaspora and a necessary step toward the establishment of a modern industrialized nation-state for all African people.

( Source: Bandele 746)

By the 1920s, Garvey and his UNIA had attracted the attention of the FBI as “informants and agents infiltrated the UNIA management structure.” (Source: Bandele 758) After gaining his trust, these well-placed informants tricked him into paying six times what the ship was worth. They then sabotaged other ships he acquired.

By early 1922, Garvey’s Black Star Line had been losing money for years, and he had been using the company to fund his personal life. When the FBI raided his office, they found evidence of fraud. They also found a picture of a ship that the Black Star Line didn’t actually own. The image was doctored to show the ship’s name as “Phyllis Wheatley.” This small detail gave investigators the leeway to charge Garvey with mail fraud.

While out of jail, Garvey made the mistake of meeting with the Grand Wizard of the KKK. He invited him to speak at his rallies, thinking it would help him gain more supporters. But this association just gave his critics more ammo against him. Then in 1923, he made another terrible decision to represent himself in court.

Garvey was convicted and sentenced to five years in prison. After serving only two and a half, President Coolidge had him deported to Jamaica. After suffering a series of strokes, Garvey died in London in 1940 at the age of 52. However, his ideas lived on. Malcolm X adopted many of Garvey’s beliefs, including his emphasis on self-reliance, Pan-African Black unity, and most importantly, Black Nationalism.


Bandele. “Understanding African Diaspora Political Activism: The Rise and Fall of the Black Star Line.” Journal of Black Studies, vol. 40, no. 4, 2010, pp. 745–61,