Jamaica’s National Heroes: Marcus Garvey

Marcus Mosiah Garvey, Jamaica’s first National Hero was born in St. Ann’s Bay on August 17, 1887. He was the youngest of eleven children born to Marcus Garvey, Sr., and Sarah Jane Richards.

Garvey’s father, whom he described as “severe, firm, determined, bold and strong, refusing to yield even to superior forces if he believed he was right” influenced him greatly. The elder Garvey had an extensive library where young Marcus learned to read.

Marcus Garvey
Marcus Garvey

At age 14, Garvey went to Kingston where he worked as a printer and later published a small newspaper, The Watchman. While in Kingston, he became involved in union activities and took part in an unsuccessful printers’ strike in 1907.

From 1910-12, he traveled extensively throughout Central America observing and writing about the poor working and living conditions of black people. He later traveled to the UK where he attended Birkbeck College and worked for the African Times and Orient Review, which advocated Pan-Africanism.

Fueled by these experiences, Garvey returned to Jamaica in 1914 and started the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). The goal of the organization was to unite all the people of the African Diaspora to “establish a country and absolute power of their own.” The UNIA also encouraged self-help economic projects and protest against racial discrimination.

In 1916, Garvey settled in Harlem where he began a branch of the UNIA. He spoke across the United States, encouraging African-Americans to be proud of their race and return to Africa, their ancestral homeland. By 1918, he began publishing the Negro World newspaper to help spread his message.

In 1919, the UNIA launched the Black Star line, a shipping company that would establish trade between Africans in Africa and the rest of the world, and provide transportation back to Africa and started the Negro Factories Corporation to encourage black economic independence. He tried, unsuccessfully, to persuade the Liberian government to grant land on which black people coming from the Americas could settle.

By 1920, when the UNIA held its first international convention at Madison Square Gardens, in New York City, it boasted 4 million members. Speaking to a crowd of 25,000 people from around the world, Garvey exhorted them to have pride in their African heritage.

While Booker T. Washington, with whom he corresponded, and A. Philip Randolph supported Garvey’s views, W.E.B. Dubois called him “the most dangerous enemy of the Negro race in America.” The U.S. government also viewed his activities with disapproval.

In 1922, Garvey was arrested for mail fraud in connection with the sale of stock in the Black Star Line, which had now failed. Although there were irregularities connected to the business, the prosecution was probably politically motivated, as Garvey’s activities had attracted considerable government attention. He was sent to prison and later deported to Jamaica.

Back in Jamaica in 1927, he continued his political activities, forming the People’s Political Party in 1929. He was unsuccessful in national elections but won a seat on the Kingston & St. Andrew Corporation (KSAC). Unfortunately, the world of 1930s Jamaica was not ready for Garvey’s progressive ideas and he left for England in 1935. He died there on June 10, 1940. He was buried in England because of World War II travel restrictions. In 1964, his body was returned to Jamaica where it was re-interred at the National Heroes Park in Kingston.

Garvey’s memory and influence remain. His message of pride and dignity inspired many in the early days of the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s. In tribute to his many contributions, Garvey’s bust has been displayed in the Organization of American States’ Hall of Heroes in Washington, D.C. The country of Ghana named its shipping line the Black Star Line and its national soccer team the Black Stars, in honor of Garvey.

A petition, started earlier this year to urge President Barack Obama to clear Garvey’s name, was reportedly rejected by the White House.

5 comments on “Jamaica’s National Heroes: Marcus Garvey

  1. I read on wiki that nine of Garvey’s siblings died in childhood.

    Quite a controversial figure. His comments about the KKK are interesting.

    We don’t have any proclaimed national heroes. We honour one person per year with Australian of the Year, and another with Young Australian of the Year, but don’t hear much about what they are doing or saying.
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  2. He was a very controversial person and way before his time, that’s for sure.
    We have a whole month (October) dedicated to honoring our heroes and heroine and our heritage. On Heritage Day, the GG gives awards in areas such as science, the arts, diplomacy, law, etc., to outstanding individuals — mostly Jamaicans but they’ve also given awards to foreigners who’ve made outstanding contributions to Jamaica.

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