In 1925, an incarcerated Marcus Mosiah Garvey penned “First Message to the Negroes of the World from Atlanta Penitentiary,” in which he told followers and foes alike to find him “in the whirlwind of the storm [where] I shall come and bring with me countless millions of Black slaves who died in America and West Indies, and the millions in Africa to aid you in the fight for freedom, liberty and life.”
Nearly a century after writing those famous words, Garvey’s messages of Black pride, self-determination and African unity, continue to resonate with many young adults, including Crystal Jackson, who count him as an important 20th century historical figure, as he encouraged Black people to build a society where they and their children can flourish independently.
“Within the last few years, I thought about my legacy and who I am as a Black woman,” said Jackson, 39, a member of Woodson-Banneker-Jackson Bey Division 330 of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), the organization Garvey founded in the early 20th century to uplift Black people and secure their rights.
Jackson’s uncle, the late William Jackson-Bey served as Division 330’s president-general for 20 years. Memories of her uncle’s activism, and an eventual study of Garvey’s perspectives, as expressed in “The Philosophies & Opinions of Marcus Garvey,” and other works compiled by his wife and UNIA member Amy Jacques Garvey, greatly influenced Jackson’s decision to join the ranks.
“When you go into his philosophies and opinions, you find that Garvey was well read, and admonished activities and lifestyles that benefited our people,” said Jackson, a finance professional of more than 20 years. “You see the proof in the pudding [in the way] he made that reach and built his organization within that short period of time. It shows his determination and support of the ancestors,”
Garvey, born in St. Ann’s, Jamaica, in 1887, founded the UNIA on the Caribbean island in 1914 after witnessing the suffering of Black African people in his travels. Three years later, the first U.S.-based division in Harlem, New York opened. By 1920, when the UNIA’s first international convention at Madison Square Garden in New York City took place, 1,900 divisions existed in more than 40 countries.
At the mass gathering of 20,000 Black African people from around the world, UNIA members adopted the colors of Red, Black, and Green for the Pan-African flag. They also, by majority vote, designated Garvey as the provisional president of Africa.
For years, in public speeches and essays in the Negro World newspaper, Garvey touted the need for industry and commerce, political acumen, pride in African liberation heroes, and an eventual return to Africa. The Black Star Line, the shipping company Garvey and others founded, would have become the means of travel for repatriates to Liberia in West Africa, had the U.S. government not charged and convicted Garvey of mail fraud in 1925.
After serving 18 months, President Calvin Coolidge commuted Garvey’s sentence, and shortly after he was deported. From 1927 until his death in 1940, Garvey continued to organize and speak for and about Black people in Jamaica and London.
“Without Garvey, there wouldn’t be a Malcolm, or even a Martin,” Moluba Manning, a hip-hop artist from Silver Spring, Maryland, said as he reflected on Garvey’s influence in his life. “I don’t think he gets enough credit. Garvey made a whole Black pride movement, where we were kings and queens.”
Manning, 28, said he first heard about Garvey, briefly, in the eighth grade during a conversation about Black historical figures. Later, Black Star, the hip-hop duo Talib Kweli and Mos Def formed and named after Garvey’s shipping company, compelled Manning to study Garvey’s story more deeply. Subsequent meetings with a mentor and exposure to other streams of Black consciousness awakened Manning to the dire situation of African people globally.
Following in the tradition of his musical muses, Manning’s music these days contains messages of African pride. He said this trend started in his early 20s, when he referenced a star in his song about liberation.
“It came from reading about Garvey,” Manning said. “The idea of always being able to find home was powerful to me as someone who was born in the Diaspora. Garvey gave me that. Today, I might not be saying go back to Africa, but I know that Africa is always inside of us,” he added.
On the evening of Sunday, Aug. 26, community members will attend an annual Marcus Garvey celebration at the Thurgood Marshall Center in Northwest, during which historian C.R. Gibbs and psychologist Dr. Jeff Menzise will speak, and songstress Foluke will serenade the audience. Last week, after choosing to ignore the counterprotest activities near the White House, many Pan-Africanists celebrated Pan-African Flag Day and Garvey’s 131st birth anniversary.
On the global front, the UNIA recently held its annual convention in Jamaica where attendees voted to host next year’s gathering in Liberia, the West African country formed by African-American repatriates in the decades before Garvey’s birth, and a place of great significance to many Pan-Africanists, including Atlanta-based artist hip-hop Putu.
Putu, a Black man of Liberian descent whose catalog spans various genres of hip-hop, said people often overlook Liberia as a viable example of Pan-Africanism, in part because of Garvey’s failed efforts to set up a community there and longtime schisms between repatriates and indigenous Liberians.
That’s why he has dedicated efforts to educating people around diaspora about Liberia’s Pan-African history and showcasing it as a microcosm of global African unification.
“When I really started studying Pan-Africanism and Liberian history, I wondered why Liberia wasn’t more known,” said Putu, 31, adding that he first learned about Garvey while reading one of his father’s books and later understanding what he described as an attempt by those with anti-Black interests to obscure his contributions.
“I came to find out that Marcus Garvey identified Liberia as a headquarters in Africa, [and realized] there was an intentional effort to hide that information,” Putu said. “Black people need a nation of their own that works in their best interests and not seek the approval of others. Repatriation is about that in a sense. Not everyone has to repatriate, but there’s value in having a nation in the Diaspora that has your back.”