An Introduction to Marcus Garvey and the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA)
In 1914, the messianic Marcus Garvey founded an international organization for the uplift of Black peoples all over the world. He brought a message of self-reliance, self-determination, and racial pride that led to a mass movement unlike anything the world had ever seen.
His organization, the Universal Negro Improvement Association, influenced nearly every contemporary Black leader; Malcolm X’s parents met at a UNIA convention in Montreal, Martin Luther King was quoted as saying of Marcus Garvey, “he was the first man of color to lead and develop a mass movement. He was the first man on a mass scale and level to give millions of Negroes a sense of dignity and destiny. And make the Negro feel he was somebody”, and Louis Farrakhan gave the keynote speech at the 34th Annual UNIA Convention in Chicago, Illinois. At its peak, the organization had a membership of more than 4 million well organized members and 1800 divisions in dozens of countries.
Unlike many other Black organizations, the UNIA was very productive and global in its scope. Only 6 years after its founding, the first international convention held in New York’s Madison Square Garden drew 122 delegates and 25,000 to 50,000 people from all over the world. Additionally, the UNIA created enterprises to confront the misery of unemployment that also demonstrated the power of self-reliance and :
- In January, 1918 the organization launched its newspaper, The Negro World. For a nickel, readers were able to read editorials from Marcus Garvey, Carter G. Woodson, and other contributors on current events, Black history, and opinions. According to Wikipedia, the paper had a distribution of upwards of five hundred thousand copies weekly at its peak, which included both subscribers and newspaper purchasers. Colonial rulers banned its sales and even possession in their territories. Distribution in foreign countries was conducted through black seamen who would smuggle the paper into such areas. It ceased publication in 1933.
Kenyans, unable to read, would gather around readers of Garvey’s newspaper, The Negro World. They would listen two or three times and run through the forest repeating the words they had memorized. – Jomo Kenyatta, first Prime Minister (1963–1964) and President (1964–1978) of Kenya
- The Black Star Line, a steamship transportation company, operated between 1919 and 1922 and was organized for the purpose of transporting goods and cargo amongst black nations. The company was open to investors, and thousands of Blacks bought shares in the company.
- The Negro Factories Cooperative was an industrial commercial initiative designed to “build and operate factories in the big industrial centers of the United States, Central America, the West Indies and Africa to manufacture every marketable commodity.” This led to the opening of grocery stores, restaurants, and publishing houses owned and operated solely by blacks.
- Large auditoriums, called Liberty Halls, were purchased as both real estate investments and facilities that housed the large pageants and recruiting drives that the UNIA of the time was known for, as well as to feed and house the poor and homeless and provide medical care.
- In 1924, Garvey sought to develop Liberia as the center of the Black World. The government of Liberia granted him nearly 500 acres to develop and inhabit
- In 1926, the UNIA opened a practical coeducational industrial school called Liberty University in Claremont, Virginia. The school property included several buildings and sixty-six acres of land along the St. James River. In December of 1937, The School of African Philosophy was also launched in Toronto to train UNIA leaders.
These are just a few of the accomplishments of Marcus Garvey and the UNIA. The organizations impact could be felt in the highest levels of government, as well as in the lives of the least amongst Black men and women.
The Decline of the UNIA
After Garvey’s mass rallies in 1920, the organization began to suffer a decline as a result of the stepped-up efforts of his critics,western (white) power, and division within the organization. Among his critics were W.E.B. DuBois of the NAACP, who called Garvey “a little, fat black man; ugly, but with intelligent eyes and a big head.” and “the most dangerous enemy of the Negro race in America and in the world. He is either a lunatic or a traitor.” DuBois also spearheaded a “Garvey Must Go” campaign, but long after Garvey’s death DuBois is quoted as saying that Garvey was right. The U.S. State Department called him “an undesirable and indeed a very dangerous alien whose aim was to pit all the Negroes in the world against the white people”.
Randolph and Owen, the founders of the Harlem Renaissance Messenger Magazine, also became strong and vocal critics of Garvey’s Black Nationalist philosophies. Garvey was also the victim of an assassination attempt when on 14 October 1919, an assassin (hired by a corrupt government official) entered Garvey’s office with a .38-caliber revolver and fired four shots, wounding Garvey in the right leg and scalp. After the attempt, it was reported that the assassin committed suicide by leaping from the third tier of the Harlem jail as he was being taken to his arraignment.
A number of African American leaders appealed to U.S. Attorney General Harry M. Daugherty to have Marcus Garvey incarcerated after Garvey’s meeting with the then leader of the Ku klux Klan, Edward Young Clarke. Their efforts were successful, and Garvey was ultimately sentenced to 5 years imprisonment under mail fraud charges stemming from the Black Star Line investment program.
While in prison Garvey continued to publish works, but without his charismatic leadership at mass rallies, membership drives became rather ineffective. The leadership struggled to keep the movement together, and upon his release, Garvey was unable to regain momentum. The land he had acquired in Liberia was revoked when The Firestone Rubber Company opened one of the world’s biggest rubber plantations in Liberia
Of this, Garvey wrote; “The Firestone Rubber and Tire Company of Ohio has been spending large sums of money among certain people. The offer, no doubt, was so attractive as to cause certain persons to found the argument to destroy the Universal Negro Improvement Association, so as to favor the Firestone Rubber and Tire Company who, subsequently, got one million acres of Liberian land for actually nothing, to be exploited for rubber and minerals, and in the face of the fact that Liberia is one of the richest rubber countries in the world, an asset that should have been retained for the Liberian people and members of the black race”.
It has been historically reported that Garvey’s death was the result of suffering a stroke in January 1940 after reading his own obituary in the Chicago Defender which described him as “broke, alone and unpopular”. Rumours claimed that Garvey was in fact poisoned on a boat on which he was travelling and that was where and how he actually died. A member of the media who was privy to the scheme to murder Marcus Garvey wrote and published the obituary in anticipation of the success of the plot. It is the author’s opinion that Garvey died at the hands of assassins.
In many ways, Marcus Garvey was the UNIA and vice versa. After the death of the charismatic leader, the organization continued to suffer from a decline in membership, and despite several attempts at rehabilitating the organization, the UNIA effectively doesnt exist today.
17 August 1887 – Birthdate of Marcus Garvey
August 1914 – Founding of UNIA in Kingston, Jamaica
March 1916 – Garvey Arrives in US
1919 – Garvey launches the weekly Negro World Digest
1920 – First mass meeting and international convention held in Madison Square Garden and unveils the “Declaration of the Rights of the Negro Peoples of the World”
1921- Membership of the UNIA reaches 4 million worldwide
June 1922 – Garvey meets with Ku Klux Klan leader Edward Young Clarke, fueling Anti-Garvey sentiment. He was later indicted on mail fraud charges stemming from Black Star Line
February 1924 – Garvey and the UNIA announce and implement the Liberian Colonization Program.
1926 – Garvey imprisoned in Atlanta. His interests in Liberia are lost when Firestone opened one of the world’s biggest rubber plantations in that same year
September 1929 – Marcus Garvey formed Jamaica’s Peoples Political Party, the first of its kind in the country, which set out a 14 point manifesto.
April 1931 – Garvey launched the Edelweiss Amusement Company to help local artists in Jamaica gain exposure and earn income. Festival programs featured plays, dance contests, boxing, and musical presentations. On Sundays, religious services were held, and Garvey himself wrote plays and poems for presentation at Edelweiss Park. Among his plays were, Slavery — from Hut to Mansion; Coronation of an African King and Roaming Jamaicans.
1935 – Garvey leaves Jamaica for London
December 1937 – School of African Philosophy launched in Toronto to train UNIA leaders
10 June 1940 – Marcus Garvey passes into legend. His remains are buried in London due to adverse travel conditions resulting from World War II
15 November 1964 – Garvey’s remains are re-interred at a shrine in National Heroes Park in his homeland of Jamaica
Look for me in the whirlwind or the storm, look for me all around you, for, with God’s grace, I shall come and bring with me countless millions of black slaves who have died in America and the West Indies and the millions in Africa to aid you in the fight for Liberty, Freedom and Life. – MARCUS GARVEY, 17 August 1887 – 10 June 1940