Marcus Garvey: Millennium Afrikan Hero

By Dr. Kwame Nantambu
April 29, 2007

Marcus GarveyAt the dawn of this new millennium, Afrikan peoples should be both proud and knowledgeable of their heroes who have advanced and championed their cause. One such millennium hero is Marcus Mosiah Garvey.

As such, it is now apropos to delineate the positive, potent and posthumous contributions of this Afrikan hero to the total unification and liberation of Afrikan peoples on the Continent and throughout the Diaspora.

The tentacles of Garvey extend beyond the geographic confines of the Caribbean a la Robert “Bob” Nesta Marley. They both gave the oppressed the big picture of European global dominance, supremacy and colonialism/imperialism.

They both may be physically dead but their spiritual, political, cultural and revolutionary messages are still alive and kicking in the veins of the global oppressed, disenfranchised and “Wretched of the Earth.”

They both represent continuity, longevity and Afrikanity at its supreme zenith. They both took Afrikan peoples to the mountain top so that we can see OUR promised land together as ONE unified, solidified, dedicated, committed, empowered, global majority PEOPLE.

They passionately championed Afrikan unity and togetherness by any and all means necessary. Marcus Mosiah Garvey and Bob Marley represent out AFRIKAN MANHOOD in its multi-faceted forms and dimensions.

Indeed, they are our AFRIKAN “Heroes”.


The Right Honorable Marcus Mosiah Garvey was born on 17 August 1887, in St. Ann’s Bay Parish, Jamaica. He died in London on 10 June 1940. In January 1922, the US government charged Garvey with mail fraud. In February, he was indicted along with three other associates with mail fraud and conspiracy; Garvey’s trial was postponed for eleven months until a third indictment added an additional mail fraud charge.

On 18 June 1923, Garvey was found guilty of one count of the second indictment. His codefendants were acquitted. Garvey received the maximum sentence: a five-year term in the US penitentiary in Atlanta, Georgia, a $1,000 fine and court costs. On 8 February 1925, Garvey entered prison.

In Jamaica, Garvey’s formal education ended at age fourteen years. His desire to continue his education was impeded when due to financial problems of his family he had to leave school in Sixth Standard in 1903.

This was not unusual for most Afrikan Jamaicans due to the color caste system which downgraded the education of Jamaica’s Afrikan peasants.

The system of Euro-colonial education was not designed to advance/uplift the Afrikan masses.

Forced to learn a trade for life survival, Garvey was apprenticed to his godfather, Alfred E. Burrows, who was a printer. This experience allowed the young Garvey to continue his process of being a self-made man.

And since his godfather was an avid reader and maintained a library, Garvey was exposed to books which enhanced his knowledge of Afrikan history, current issues and world affairs.

At age eighteen, he became a foreman at the printery. At age twenty, he became assistant secretary to a political organization, the National Club, which was Garvey’s introduction to anti-colonial politics.

At age twenty-three, the young Garvey felt the urge to expand his political horizon, so he decided to leave Jamaica. His purpose was to observe and analyze the plight of the Black man throughout the Diaspora.

In his travels to Costa Rica, Panama, Guatemala, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Honduras and Columbia, Garvey discovered that the plight conditions for the Black man in these countries were no different for the Black man in Jamaica.

On his return to Jamaica in 1911, Garvey “digested and determined that amends should be made for the deception practiced on Africans and their relatives abroad”.

In 1912, Garvey sailed for England, where he was exposed to the plighted conditions of Afrikans in Europe.

His Euro-British visit compelled Garvey to study Afrikan cultural history and ancient Afrikan civilizations. He also visited France, Spain, Italy, Austria, Hungary and Germany.

While in England, Marcus Garvey read and was greatly influenced by Booker T. Washington’s Up From Slavery. This book warned Garvey of his mission and plight to lead his people in their quest for racial pride, justice and equality.

Booker T. Washington’s autobiography had a major impact upon Marcus Garvey and in later years, Garvey would in several ways, develop institutions “modeled” after Washington’s American Tuskegee Institute, owned, controlled and financed by Black dollars.

In addition, his foreign travels imbued Garvey with the vital ammunition he needed to fulfill his need to help his fellow Afrikan brethren.

When Marcus Garvey returned to Jamaica on 15 July 1914, he established the Universal Negro Improvement and Conservation Association and Afrikan Communities Imperial League. Later it was changed to the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA).

On 23 March 1916, Marcus Garvey arrived in New York and lived among Black folk in Harlem. 1n 1918, he established the UNIA in New York.

According to Alphonso Pinkey (1976), the UNIA “became the first Black organization to embrace the complete spectrum of Black nationalism and its leader was the first Black man to put forth a comprehensive ideology of Black nationalism”; it was “the world’s foremost organization of Blacks” and “the largest of any Black nationalist organization on an international scale in twentieth century America”.

In this book titled Black Power and the Garvey Movement(1972), Theodore G. Vincent contends that:

The Universal Negro Improvement Association advocates the uniting and blending of all Negroes into one strong, healthy race. It is against miscegenation and race suicide. It believes that the Negro race is as good as any other. It is against rich Blacks marrying poor whites. It is against rich or poor whites taking advantage of Negro women. It believes in the spiritual Fatherhood of God and the Brotherhood of Man. It believes in the social and political physical separation of all peoples to the extent that they promote their own ideals and civilization, with the privilege of trading and doing business with others. It believes in the promotion of a strong and powerful Negro nation in Africa. It believes in the rights of all men (pp.20-21).

Through the UNIA, there developed the political-philosophical ideology of Garveyism. This ideology sought “the creation of international solidarity among all people of Afrikan descent. All Blacks were to be considered brothers, although they differed from one another in language, religion, societal structures, and other ways”. Indeed, Garvey’s mottoes “Africa for the Africans at Home and Abroad” and” Back to Africa” had a profound impact on Afrikan-Americans in “that once Africa had been freed from colonial rule, Blacks in the United States could be given aid in their fight for equal rights”. Garveyism linked the domestic struggle of Afrikan-Americans to the international struggle of all Afrikan peoples. At that juncture, the liberation struggle reached its Diasporan zenith. This is one of the greatest contributions of Garveyism to the Pan Afrikan Nationalist struggle.

According to Theodore G. Vincent:

Until the coming of Garvey, there had not been a movement in the mainstream of Black American politics based on allegiance to a power beyond the borders of the United States (p.17).

However, Garvey’s objective was “the building of a nation”; he sought to give Afrikan people” a consciousness of nationhood”. He fought for the self-determined, self-reliance and global empowerment of Afrikan peoples.

One of the pillars of Garveyism is the notion of “Race First” and “Racial Pride” or genophilia. It taught Afrikan people “to be proud that they were Black, to cherish their Afrikan past, and to build for themselves their civilization of the future.”

According to Roi Ottley (1972):

The (Garvey) movement set in motion what was to become the most compelling force in (Black) life-race and colour consciousness, which is today that ephemeral thing that inspires ‘race loyalty,’ the banner to which (Afrikans) rally; the claim that binds them together.

In the words of the Right Honourable Marcus Mosiah Garvey himself (1934): “When will the Black man create his world? When will he blast the hills and conquer the plains? When will he harness the rivers and bring under subjection the seas? When will he negotiate the air and find the mysteries therein? When will he delve into the realm of science and philosophy and pick out independent inventions that transcend that yet known to the world? Not until these things are done by the (Blackman), will he be transformed from the foot of the human race to the top where once he was when he gave light and leading to the world on the banks of the Nile. The greater accomplishments of humanity are well within the possibility of the (Blackman) today, because they were in ages past.”

Garveyism has given Afrikan people a sense of solid pride in their origin. On the other hand, Garveyism was against integration; assimilation and miscegenation (interracial marriage). Garveyism argued “that spiritual and cultural development could best be served by separation from Whites and white ideas.”

Garveyism represents the highest stage in the development of 20th century Pan Afrikan Nationalism. Despite the fact that the Garvey Movement and Garvey himself were attacked by both Blacks and Whites, yet their ability to internationalize the liberation struggle of Afrikan people remains immutable. Garveyism sowed the seeds of financial and economic independence/empowerment and the insistence that Blacks should support Black business. Garveyism taught that political power without economic power is worthless and counterproductive.

Amy Jacques Garvey, wife of Marcus Garvey, sums up the ideology of Garveyism as follows (1972): “Garveyism is not only a theoretical philosophy, but a working idealism, geared to the crying needs of an entire race, many millions of whom were dispersed by slavery to the United States of America, the West Indies, Europe, Canada, and as far as South America.”

Garvey gave to his people a new set of values in a world where race is the criterion of human standards, and the White race considered themselves superior men. Garvey gave Black people new dimensions, new horizons that transcend national boundaries, languages and religions. He lifted their spirits to the heights of true manhood and womanhood. Garvey sought to revive the spirit of Black people from despair to hope, from lethargy to positive action, from fear to courage, from inertia to assertiveness, from anti-discrimination dodges to manly confrontation. He gave them goals possible to man, the highest Creation of God, because he believed with all his heart in the innate abilities of the Black Race. BE PREPARED! he shouted, and the masses followed him, for he had awakened in them the real purpose of life – to live as men, or to die like men.

The four basic values of Garveyism are (1) territoriality (2) culture (3) religion and (4) economics.


The concept of territory involves the acquisition of land. A people cannot be totally free without a home base. It is here where they can grow within their own culture, a culture which gives them identity, purpose and direction. If that land has offered freedom – political, economic, social, religious and cultural, then the land, that nation, in a sense will be worshipped. But what happens when that land, that nation, has not historically allowed these “freedoms” to emerge naturally?

It is this observation which led Garvey to articulate: “The Afrikan-American needs a nation and a country of his own, where he can best show evidence of his own ability in the art of human progress.”

Marcus Mosiah Garvey argued for land and thus was the onus on the UNIA “to work unceasingly for the bringing about of a National Homeland for Blacks in Africa.”


A people’s culture cannot be external to itself. In order for the culture to have validity, it must be derived from one’s historical experience, one’s historic memory, and not a contrived experience but an experience free from manipulation and control. Since culture helps to transmit value systems, if one practices or accepts those cultural requirements external to one’s specific cultural group, then the possibility exists in accepting a wholesome value system. Because culture is a learned behavior, Afrikan-Americans have often learned its duality. As has been argued: “Black people have been exposed to both a point of view that aims to co-opt Black people into Eurocentric culture and a point of view that aims to exclude Black people.”

The elitist, exclusionist viewpoint tends to find fault with the victim and not those who have helped to perpetuate a negative or unrewarding environment. In other words, the dominant culture can have an everlasting effect upon how a people defines itself.

Garvey understood this when he came to the US. His first task was to create racial pride among the Black masses worldwide. His pride or “Race-First” philosophy can generally be placed in three categories: 1) the issue of unity 2) the issue of race prejudice and 3) the issue of pride and heritage.

Garvey’s first call to the Black masses was unity. He felt that first racial “purity” was essential to the future unification of the race. And because of his views on “Purity of Race,” some of his critics often labeled him a “racist.”

He states:

I believe in a pure Black race just as how all self-respecting whites believe in a pure white race. I am conscious of the fact that slavery brought upon us the curse of many colors within the Negro race, but that is no reason why we of ourselves should perpetuate the evil.

It was through Garvey’s conception of “Race First” that he tried to push Afrikans toward unity. Critical to Garvey’s conception of race was the issue of race prejudice. For Garvey, this was a two-fold problem. First, he was often accused of creating division by developing and maintaining conflict between lighter and darker skinned Afrikans. Nothing could be further from the truth. Garvey recognized that Afrikan people were victims of “color consciousness” as well as circumstances.

As Garvey argues:

What about color, it doesn’t amount to anything. It is only an accident. Nature had a purpose. It is hoped that in the new civilization, we will see no [Afrikans] thinking his skin is better than others.”

Garvey’s other concern on race prejudice was directed at Caucasians and their prevailing attitude toward Afrikan people. He felt that race prejudice prevailed not so much because of color of the Afrikans skin but toward their predicament under the rule and domination of the White man. As a result, Garvey believed that the problem would not be corrected by laws.

He asserts that:

Within modern times, the (Afrikan) race has not had any real statesman, and the masses of our people have always accepted the intentions and actions of the statesmen and leaders of other races as being directed in our interest as a group in conjunction with the interests of others. Such a feeling on our part caused us to believe that the Constitution of the United States was not written for (Afrikans), as well as the Constitution of England, Italy, Germany and other countries where (Afrikans) happened to have their present domicile, either as citizens or as subjects. That we suffer so much today under whatsoever flag we live is proof positive that constitutions and laws, when framed by the early advocates of human liberty, never included and were never intended for us as a people. It is only a question of sheer accident that we happen to be fellow citizens today with the descendants of those who, through their advocacy, laid the foundation for human rights. So this brings us to the point where as a people, we can eccept very little from the efforts of the present day statesmen of other races, in that their plans, (as far as advantages to be derived there from are concerned) are laid only in the interest of their own people and not in the interest of the (Afrikans).


Marcus Garvey did not manipulate religion for its own sake but developed it from a Black man’s or Afro-centric perspective, to advance, promote and consolidate his program of “Race First” and “Racial Pride” from a political dynamic.

Garvey, who was raised in the Methodist Church in Jamaica as a youth, later converted to Catholicism. Thus, his slogan became: “One God, One Aim, One Destiny” in his “Back to Africa” resettlement program.


Garvey argued that no organization can exist for very long without a sound economic foundation; the ultimate goal at all times is for economic self-determination and economic empowerment. Therefore, this quest for equity, self-determination and advancement in the market is crucial for economic growth within both the Black residential and business community.

Economic growth in turn provides jobs internal to the community and produces “tax payers” as opposed to tax burdens. Unlike the contemporary concept of “Black capitalism”, economic nationalism under the Garvey model does not become dependant upon government “handouts” and/or corporate support.

The primary aim of economic empowerment, therefore, is not for the exploitation of the Black community but the provision of vital resources and skills so as to help curb/eradicate economic discrimination/disparity/victimization.

Failure to do this often results in a poverty-stricken community. Garvey’s position on poverty is:

A hellish state to be in. It is no virtue. It is a crime. To be poor is to be hungry without possible hope of food; to be sick without the hope of medicine; to be naked without the hope of clothing; to be despised and comfortless. To be poor is to be a fit subject for crime and hell. The hungry man steals bread and thereby breaks the eighth commandment; by his state, he breaks all laws of God and man and becomes an outcast. In thought and deed, he covets his neighbor’s goods; comfortless as he is, he seeks his neighbor’s wife; to him, there is no other course but sin and death. That is the way of poverty. No one wants to be poor.

To combat poverty, Garvey embraced capitalism but with the following stipulations:

Capitalism is necessary to the progress of the world and those who unreasonably and wantonly oppose or fight against it, are enemies to human advancement, but there should be a limit to the individual or corporate use or control of it. No individual should be allowed the possession, use or the privilege to invest on his own account, more than a million, more than five million. Beyond this, all control, use and investment of money should be the prerogative of the state with the concurrent authority of the people. With such a method, we would prevent the ill-will, hatred and conflicts that now exist between races, people and nations. Modern wars are generally the outgrowth of dissatisfied capitalist interests either among foreign or strange people or nations.

It was Garvey’s purpose to eliminate chaos, decay and impoverishment within the Black community. To achieve these goals, he established a host of business enterprise such as:

  1. The Black Star Line – a steamship company
  2. The Black Cross Navigation and Trading Company
  3. Liberty Hall – an auditorium and headquarters for the UNIA
  4. The Negro Factories Corporation
  5. Universal Restaurants
  6. United Chain Stores
  7. Millinery Stores
  8. Laundry
  9. Hat factory
  10. Moving Company
  11. Hotels
  12. Printing Plant
  13. Production Factories

Garvey’s attempt to ameliorate the economic problems of the Black community was short lived. Two reasons led to the demise of his economic endeavours:

  1. He lacked a competent business and managerial staff.
  2. He had many dishonest associates in his confidence who hurried the demise of the UNIA’s business endeavours.

In the final analysis, one of the global posthumous contributions of the Right Honorable Marcus Mosiah Garvey to the Afrikan liberation struggle occurred when he presided as chairman at the UNIA annual convention held in New York on 15 August 1920. It was at this convention that delegates passed the “Declaration of Rights of the Negro Peoples of the World” whereby the colors of the Afrikan revolutionary liberation flag were formally adopted, namely: “that the colors, Red, Black and Green, be the colors of the negro race”.

Red represents the Blood shed by Afrikan people; Black represents our Color of skin; and the Green represents our Land.


Marcus Mosiah Garvey’s Pan Afrikan Nationalism has enabled Afrikan peoples to solidify our nationalist ranks so that the “Wretched of the Earth” would all co-exist in the 21st century as a united, solidified, powerful, global majority people.

This is the most pivotal contribution of Garvey to the total unification and liberation of Afrikan peoples. Marcus Mosiah Garvey is OUR international, Pan Afrikan Nationalist icon, pioneer and tireless, selectively and politically persecuted and prosecuted, crucified MARTYR.

In the word of the Right Honorable Marcus Mosiah Garvey to his Afrikan peoples: “Up you mighty race; you can accomplish what you will”.

Shem Hotep (“I go in peace”).

Dr. Kwame Nantambu is a part-time lecturer at Cipriani College of Labour and Co-operative Studies and University of the West Indies.

2 thoughts on “Marcus Garvey: Millennium Afrikan Hero”

  1. My daughter attends a ‘primary’ school in Birmingham England. It is a Roman Catholic school, primarily attended by Caucasian students. She is a rarity, a Hindu child in a school such as this.

    I was surprised to see a large painted portrait of Marcus Garvey with a synopsis of his life and achivements permanently hung, not in some out-of-the-way corner, but in the middle of the main greeting area of the school.

    A remarkable if posthumous achievement.

  2. Good. And what will it take to have pictures of all our heroes hung in our schools?..First, it takes recognition, then commitment, then funding. Who will start?

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