The white man held the blacks as slaves,
And bled their souls in living death;
Bishops and priests, and kings themselves,
Preached that the law was right and just;
And so the people worked and died,
And crumbled into material dust.
- From The Poetry of Marcus Mosiah Garvey.
Today, Marcus Mosiah Garvey and the Black liberation movement he founded are largely forgotten and only matter-of-factly remembered each year when his birthday comes around. The philosophy and ideology that bears his name remains on the shelf as modern Black leaders get back to business as usual. But Garvey and his movement constituted one of the most important, innovative, and original of all contributions to the struggle for Black and African liberation. Moreover, in the current period of decline in the world economic culture, with its inevitable concomitant revival of issues of class and race, Garvey and his movement can provide powerful inspiration and lessons for both Black and Non-Black members of the world’s oppressed peoples – starting right here in the United States.
Garveyism, the philosophy of Marcus Garvey, one of the most outstanding Black leaders of the 20th century, holds that modern civilization has gone drunk and crazy with power and seeks through injustice, fraud and lies to crush the unfortunate and the downtrodden. Those were words that Garvey used to indict the system of colonial and imperial exploitation that held whole races of people in bondage and captivity. But it was in the American political theater that Garvey commanded center stage. Few Black leaders in United States history have been able to equal Garvey’s contribution to the Black liberation struggle, not only in America, but in the entire Black Diaspora. Today the legacy of Marcus Mosiah Garvey is the sum total of his philosophy, opinions and actions called Garveyism.
“Chance has never yet satisfied the hope of a suffering people. Action, self-reliance, the vision of self and the future have been the only means by which the oppressed have seen and realized the light of their own freedom.”
In 1916 Marcus Mosiah Garvey (1887-1940) brought his budding Black Nationalist organization, the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) to Harlem. He had formed this organization two years before, in 1914, just as the big guns were booming and wholesale slaughter was taking place during the barbarism of the First World War in Europe.
Black people in the US were particularly responsive to Garvey’s vision. They embraced his internationalist theme - the theme that all Black people were members of one mighty race stretching form the Black urban ghettos and sharecroppers shacks of America to the sugar workers of the Caribbean and the tribes people of Africa; they related to his view that all Black oppression flowed from common sources in the European conquest and colonization of Africa and the forcible dispersal and murder of millions of Black Africans by European enslavement; they rallied to his practical program for immediate steps linking the liberation of Black Americans with the liberation of Africa; and they found new dignity and understanding of their place in the world through his conception of Africa as the natural spiritual center and home of Black people.
Garvey was born in 1887 in St. Anne's Bay, Jamaica. Due to the economic hardship that his family faced, he left school at age fourteen and learned the printing and newspaper business. He became interested in politics and soon got involved in projects aimed at helping those on the bottom rungs of Jamaican society. Dissatisfied with his work, he traveled to London in 1912 and stayed in England for two years. During this time he paid close attention to the controversy between Ireland and England concerning Ireland's independence. He was also exposed to the ideas and writings of a group of Black colonial writers that came together in London around the African Times and Orient Review. Nationalism in both Ireland and Africa along with ideas such as race conservation undoubtedly had an impact on Garvey.
UNIA itself was born out of Garvey's experience with racism, discrimination and injustice, both in his homeland of Jamaica, and in other parts of the world where he traveled, and where Blacks were always at the bottom rung of the social, political and economic ladder. But Garveyism, as his philosophy and principles are now known, remains today an ideology largely underutilized and to some extent shunned by those who would lead Blacks to the elusive Promised Land. Nonetheless, Garveyism is a most powerful weapon that preached a Black revolutionary path to achieving Black liberation.
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