Why Is Marcus Garvey A National Hero?

Michael ‘Freestylee’ Thompson poster

I suppose it would look bad.  The leader of the largest organised mass movement of African people in the twentieth century disregarded in his country of birth!   All the same, given the anxiety in some quarters about the African heritage in Jamaica, it is truly remarkable that the political elite had the good sense to recognise Garvey’s heroic stature and honour him accordingly.

Born in 1887, only 21 years after the Morant Bay rebellion, and 53 years after Emancipation, Garvey grew up in a Jamaica that was still trapped in psychological bondage.  As a child, he would probably have heard the denigrating mantra, ‘Nutten black no good’.  He might even have been asked, ‘How yu so black an ugly?’  As if he had anything to do with it.

Garvey grandly rose above the hateful definitions of blackness in Jamaican society and prophetically affirmed, “We are going to emancipate ourselves from mental slavery because whilst others might free the body, none but ourselves can free the mind”.  Many of us sing along with Bob Marley, who popularised Garvey’s words in his “Redemption Song”.  But do we fully comprehend the profundity of the exhortation to free the mind?

Garvey made that liberating statement in 1937 at a meeting in Halifax, Nova Scotia.  By then, he was almost at the end of his tumultuous life.  He died less than three years later in London.  Like many Caribbean migrants of his day, Garvey caught the spirit of exploration.  He went to Central America when he was twenty-three, then to the UK, returning home in 1914.

UNIA Parade, Harlem, N.Y.

In August that year, Garvey founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) in Jamaica.  He went to the U.S. in 1916, and by 1917 had launched the New York Division of the UNIA with all of 13 members. After three months, there were 3500 dues-paying members!

‘The Moses of the Negro Race’

Without access to Facebook and Twitter, the UNIA grew exponentially.  Almost one thousand UNIA divisions were established within seven years.  Garvey was soon described in messianic terms.  The headline of a 1920 article published in the New York World loudly and, perhaps sceptically, proclaimed“The Moses of the Negro Race Has Come to New York and Heads a Universal Organization Already Numbering 2,000,000 Which is About to Elect a High Potentate and Dreams of Reviving the Glories of Ancient Ethiopia”.

Van der Zee photo

       At the heart of Garvey’s vision of a universal movement of black people committed to self-improvement was the expectation that the colonised African continent would be liberated. Garvey asked himself some unsettling questions:“Where is the black man’s government? Where is his King and his kingdom? Where is his President, his ambassador, his country, his men of big affairs?”  His answer:  “I could not find them and then I declared, ‘I will help to make them.'”

You have to admire Garvey’s nerve.  A lesser man might have quailed at the prospect of taking on such a superhuman mission.  At the beginning of the twentieth-century there were only two independent African countries:  Ethiopia and Liberia.  The rest of the continent had been captured by European squatters.  Lion-hearted Garvey, girded with his philosophy of African Fundamentalism, militantly declared, “Africa for Africans, at home and abroad.”

Liberty Hall, Harlem, N.Y.

Garvey saw parallels with the struggles of other oppressed groups who were demanding the right to self-government.  In a speech delivered at Liberty Hall in New York in 1920, Garvey related why he’d started his career as a street preacher, spreading the good news of African redemption: “Just at that time, other races were engaged in seeing their cause through—the Jews through their Zionist movement and the Irish through their Irish movement—and I decided that, cost what it might, I would make this a favorable time to see the Negro’s interest through.”

“The Place Next To Hell”

Despite the global reach of Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association, and his overarching vision of economic enterprise, his wings were clipped when he was arrested on bogus charges of using the mail to defraud.  Imprisoned, he took flight, writing The Philosophy and Opinions of Marcus Garvey, with the sustained editorial oversight of his second wife, Amy Jacques.

Deported in 1927, the indomitable Garvey launched a newspaper, The Blackman (1929-1931), then The New Jamaican (1932-1933).  Perhaps Jamaica wasn’t ready for the black man.  In his first editorial, for The New Jamaican, Garvey spoke the plain truth:  “Jamaica is a fine country from a natural viewpoint—it is a terrible country from economic observations. To consider how the people of Jamaica live, that is, the bulk of the population, is to wonder if we, at all, have any system of economics. We shall endeavour to enlighten the country on the possibility of creating a better order of things for everybody through a system of education in economics—a thing not generally known nor taught in Jamaica.”

Eighty years later, things have not changed ‘to dat’, despite political independence.  We still haven’t gotten the economics right.  In frustration with Jamaican politics, Garvey once described the island in an issue of The New Jamaican as “the place next to hell”.  Despite the almost hellish circumstances in which he sometimes found himself, Garvey was always self-assured.  An article published in The Daily Gleaner on January 19, 1935, quotes Garvey:  “My garb is Scotch, my name is Irish, my blood is African, and my training is half American and half English, and I think that with that tradition I can take care of myself”.

This afternoon at 3:00 p.m., Professor Tony Martin, a distinguished Pan-Africanist scholar, will deliver the 3rd annual Marcus Garvey lecture at Liberty Hall in honour of the 125th birthday of our First National Hero:  “If Garvey Dies, Garvey Lives: The Enduring Relevance of Garvey’s Ideas”.   This lecture will certainly silence those cynics in this “place next to hell” who object to the teaching of Garvey’s philosophy in our schools.  Claiming Garvey’s legacy for our children is full freedom.

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16 thoughts on “Why Is Marcus Garvey A National Hero?

  1. This is a fantastic article!! In the UK most Jamaican descendants have no knowledge of Marcus Garvey everybody knows who Salassie is but hardly anyone knows about Mr Garvey. We shall reblog this article because it’s a must!
    Blessings

  2. Pingback: Jamaica: Garvey’s Nerve · Global Voices

  3. Carolyn,

    Like most here, I am re-blogging.

    Awesome! Love how you convey the message simply and interspersed with humor. “without FB or Twitter…:

    Francine Chin

  4. Marcus Garvey should have been given the status of national hero long before it was bestowed on him. Garvey had a tremendous sense of people awareness. He had magnificent plans for the black race and he would rather die than to defuse those plans. The teaching of Garveyism in our school has a lot to do with people like Carolyn who has worked fervently to ensure that proposed plans like these are a reality in the modern society of ours. The doctrines of the pro-Garvery advocates has movey us from a thrid world nation to a first world rreality. Nothing can circumvent the claims of people who felt the the ideal is yet to come but is near.

  5. Pingback: Τζαμάικα: Το θάρρος του Garvey · Global Voices στα Ελληνικά

  6. I suppose its good that he helped black Americans, natch, the steamship venture, but what did he do for black Jamaicans , other than start a newspaper? Should he be considered a National Hero for helping Americans? Its all good for Jamaicans to be all ‘to di world ‘, but what about ‘to Jamaica?’

  7. Not sure if the response from ‘satanforce’ is a joke but I cannot believe you can be so ignorant and stupid to come out with a comment like ‘What did Garvey do for black Jamacians’. Garvey instilled pride, self esteem, strength, collectivism in a black race that was trying to deal with the residual impact of slavery. He united black people around the world in the face of oppression, repression,from white government that still saw black people as sub-human and therefore gave us no rights what-so ever. He frightened American White Government.

    He left a legacy, inspiring people like Mohammed Ali, Martin Luther King, Bob Marley, Walter Rodney, Mahatma Gandhi,reggae artist like Burning Spear, Dennis Brown, Gregory Issac amongst many others. He gave Jamacians pride,a voice,strength to face their down-pressors. His legacy is incalcuable. Garvey is one of the greatest blackman of all-time.I could write a thesis on the impact of Garvey, and what he achieved for the black race but then again people like you are so STUPID, I would be wasting my energy. It is depressing amd mentally debilitating coming across people like you. Go away you PATHETIC PERSON.

  8. I am a woman of color, a U.S. citizen of Native American heritage and have been traveling to Jamaica the last two years multiple times. Marcus Garvey is considered a national hero too and until I began my travels to Jamaica, I did not know of his birthplace. Thank you Dr. Cooper for enlightening everyone who listens to your heart as well as your very brilliant thoughts. I have learned much through this blog about Jamaica’s culture and history. You definitely have a following abroad and hopefully more people like Alvin are not afraid of the truth or miscontrue it for personal reasons and can celebrate the impact of a Marcus Garvey.

  9. One of the greatest Black Men to have ever graced this earth. The fact that he is Jamaican is no surprise, Jamaica has to be a special place in the grand scheme of things. Not many nations can boast the influence our little island has when compared to other countries when you factor in poplualtion and size. I will not state the obvious ones but I will remind us of one othe great figures in the Harlem rennaissance – Claude McKay is another great man unlike Marcus “more fiyah” Garvey, he often goes without the acknowledgemt he is due. Jamaica is great, was and forever will be great. The economic place next to hell we have found ourselves in is nothing more than a conspiracy (I believe from time to time) who’s main goal is to put out the natural fire in the spirit of Jamaicans.

    I believe that what is going on in our society now is just a way to get use sidetracked and remove the memories of of our greatness from the minds of our citizens in an effort to preven the recreation of what was achieved during Garvey’s time on earth.

  10. Had some spare time and revisited this site. ”Jeez” not realise how angry I came across. In mitigation when you encounter people with asinine,myopic views(SATANFORCE) who blithely undermine the impact of a great man (regardless of the person race/creed) it is sad and troubling.

    Garvey was a blackman who through bravery, altruism, justice and compassion for his black race spoke out against the draconian treatment meted out to people still wearing the yoke of slavery. He was erudite and almost prophetic in his outpourings against the injustices heaped upon the black race. Garvey’s legacy is continuing and perpetuating today, manifesting in black pride, racial equality/justice, awareness and so much more.

    When I was growing up I used to listen to reggae singers Burning Spear, Mighty Diamonds, Fred Locks (Black star liner) Freddy MacGregor, Big Youth amongst others chanting/singing about Marcus and it introduced me to his name. But it is only recently in the last couple of months (2012) that I have really paid attention to his work. I recall listening to Marcus preachings on one of the many black pirate stations we have in England and I was ”Blown Away” by the majesty of preachings/teachings.

    Garvey concerns Is universal and applies to black, white, Asian as all he wanted was equality and fairness for a downtrodden people. When I hear people(especially of Black origin) who fail to recognise his impact and undermines what he has achieved and continuing I find it frustrating. So please excuse me if I sound off.

  11. We celebrate the life and legacy of Marcus Mosiah Garvey every August in my church here in Atlanta, GA. I visited Jamaica for the first time earlier this year and was very grateful when the tour driver deviated from the itinerary and drove us past the birthplace of Marcus Garvey in St. Ann’s Bay. I believe that Garvey brought life and hope to African people throughout the diaspora, in addition to pragmatic programs to help their every day lives. I always find it amazing when a person defies the odds and can see beyond the current circumstances to cultivate a hope in a new reality. I kept a twenty dollar coin with his image as a memento from my trip. It is my hope that its monetary value will one day exceed its sentimental value.

  12. Serious students of African American history and politics know that the largest political movement among African Americans was not the movement of the 1960s, but the Garvey Movement of the 1920s. This movement was led by Marcus Mosiah Garvey who emigrated to the United States from his birth place of Jamaica and organized a worldwide Black nationalist and Pan Africanist movement of black people under the slogan, “Africa for the Africans – Those at Home and Those Abroad”.

    The movement, led by Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association is said to have in excess of four million members, making it, by far, the largest organization of Black people the modern world has ever seen. The UNIA had members throughout the Caribbean, Africa, and Central America. However, the overwhelming majority of its members were African Americans in the US. The movement popularized the Red, Black, and green as the flag of Black nationalism.
    Read more at http://www.blackpolitics.org/african-american-politics-a-history-of-struggle/the-1920s-and-the-garvey-movement/

    Visit our site at: http://www.blackpolitics.org

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