Marcus Garvey was a prominent black nationalist leader in the early twentieth century. In the space of ten years this unknown Jamaican, from a poor background, moved to America and lead a phenomenal political and social movement based in Harlem, New York. He remains a prominent and contentious figure in black history and was an important inspiration for later black power movements. ‘Garveyism’ was popular globally precisely because it confronted issues of ‘race’ in a new way.
Garvey founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) which promoted black pride and separatism. Charismatic and controversial, he was also an orator, writer, publisher and entrepreneur. He encouraged the black community to become economically independent so as not to rely on white America. However, there were many issues surrounding both the man and the movement. Although initially on good terms with other black leaders, his relationships deteriorated as he became more radical. A. Philip Randolph was said to be ‘embarrassed by him’ and W.E.B Du Bois called him “a grand distraction” and “the most dangerous enemy of the black race”.
Garvey is particularly significant for being a black leader in America with a more global agenda. In the 1920’s he was arguably the most loved and hated black man in the world. The UNIA eventually had 500 branches in 22 countries with millions of members, and ‘The Negro World’, the newspaper of the UNIA, at its peak had 200,000 subscriptions worldwide. He created a global African nation and left a legacy of Pan-Africanism and liberation ideology. He has had a profound impact of African nationalist movements, inspired the Rastafarian movement based in the West Indies and in the U.S. the Black Panthers, the Nation of Islam, and Black Power reflected elements of Garveyism.
Whilst Garvey’s leadership was short-lived, at his peak he led the largest black movement in history constituting a vital part of black Atlantic awakening. However the debates surrounding this somewhat contradictory figure have certainly not been short-lived. They continue in current scholarship often consider questions such as; Was Garveyism racist, supremacist or liberationist? Was Garvey himself misguided, romantic, or a merely a bunglar? Even though it did not always achieve its aims practically the efforts of the UNIA were still significant in terms of black pride and consciousness.
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