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Marcus Garvey and His Influence on Harlem Essay


Marcus Garvey remains one of the most controversial figures of the movements for Black people’s rights. In 1910s, this man founded one of the most powerful organizations (of its time) aimed at complete liberation of Black people.

He also became the man who brought a new life to Harlem Black community. He inspired a lot of people to continue their struggle. It is also possible to note that Garvey was one of the most remarkable figures that contributed to the development of the Civil Rights Movements.

This man is regarded as one of the leaders of the movement for Black people’s rights (Ansbro xii). At the same time, Marcus Garvey had very specific views on the role of different races. His opinions were often in conflict with ideas and principles of other leaders.

Furthermore, Garvey was accused of a number of crimes, which contributed to diminishing of his popularity. These controversies have created two major camps of Garvey’s followers and Garvey’s critics or even enemies.

However, irrespective of different views and opinions, all admit that Marcus Garvey was an inspirational man who contributed greatly to the development of Harlem community.

Brief Biography

Marcus Garvey was born in Jamaica on August 17, 1887 (Garvey 3). He gained good education “through private tutors, two public schools, two grammar of high schools and two colleges” (Garvey 4). Garvey noted that in his early years he did not see the difference between Whites and Blacks as he was surrounded by people of different races, ethnicities, genders and social statuses.

The first time he acknowledged the fact that there is race distinction was when he was a teenager. When he was fourteen, he had a white female friend.

It was at that time when her parents “decided to draw the color line” and forbid the girl to communicate with Garvey because he was a “nigger” (Garvey 4). In maturity, race distinctions were more definite and Garvey started realizing his identity and the place his people played in the world.

Notably, Garvey travelled a lot throughout his life. He started his journey in 1910 when he left his homeland, Jamaica. He travelled across Central America. In 1912-1914, Garvey lived in London. He studied in daytime and he used to deliver speeches at the famous Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park in the evenings (Moses 238).

At that time he became acquainted with the famous Pan-Africanist Duse Mohamed Ali who was the publisher of The African Times and Orient Review. This acquaintance influenced Garvey immensely as it is possible to state that his views were based on Mohamed Ali’s works.

In 1914, Garvey returned to Jamaica and in five days after his arrival the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities (Imperial) League (UNIA) was created (Dagnini 199).

The program of the organization was to unite “all the negro peoples of the world into one great body to establish a country and Government absolutely their own” (Garvey 5). The organization became very popular in Jamaica and thousands of people became members of the organization.

In 1916, Marcus Garvey came to New York to deliver a series of lectures on issues concerning Pan-African movement. In 1917, Garvey started a branch of the UNIA in the United States. The organization acquired wide popularity in Harlem and it had two thousand members within 3 weeks after its creation (Dagnini 200).

Within two years the organization had 30 branches in the United States and it had more than 2 million members worldwide (Dagnini 200). Garvey also launched his weekly newspaper The Negro World which propagated ideas of African American people’s dignity, pride, etc.

In the late 1920s, Garvey had to leave the USA. He came back to Jamaica as a winner, as a leader of his people. He set up People’s Political Party in 1929. He contributed greatly to the development of his motherland. In 1935, he came to London.

His health conditions worsened and he died in 1940 after two strokes (Rolinson 192). Notably, his ideas did not die as Garvey had numerous followers worldwide.

Garvey’s Ideas

Many people consider Marcus Garvey to be one of the most influential Pan-Africanists. He believed Africans should be proud of who they were and get rid of their way of thinking (Dagnini 200). Garvey knew that many Blacks still could not get rid of the sense they are still enslaved, many Blacks could not stop behaving as if they were still slaves.

Marcus Garvey strived for “the repatriation of Black people of the African Diaspora to Africa” and development “of a strong and powerful Negro nation in Africa” (qtd. in Dagnini 200).

It is important to note that Garvey often resorted to Christianity in his speeches. His mother was Christian and he was quite a devoted Christian as well. He often delivered his speeches in churches.

Such meetings were as popular as his lectures as there were many Christians among Blacks in Jamaica and New York. Garvey’s followers saw that their leader shared their views on major issues as religion is about major beliefs of people.

Importantly, Garvey had quite a specific program to help Africans flourish. For instance, he believed that Africans needed to have a network of their own enterprises to be able to finance development of their new homeland (Garvey liii).

He believed that it was the right way to prove Africans were equal to Europeans. Therefore, it is possible to state that Garvey did not simply articulate popular ideas but had a particular plan to achieve the major goals.

Garvey stressed the idea of Africans’ unification on their land. His ideas were accepted eagerly as at that time people strived for their leader as “colored race” was “greatly in need of a Moses… a man of the people and designated by the people” (qtd. in Garvey xxxviii).

Garvey’s energy and his radicalism won the hearts of thousands (and even millions) of people. He also used to stress he was one of his people as he had the same background and he had to face the same hardships.

Furthermore, Garvey was quite specific in his ideas concerning race distinction as he was against intermixed couples and he “argued for segregation rather than integration” (Dagnini 200).

Such ideas were quite popular among African Americans at that time as they were hostile to Europeans. The ghosts of slavery were still alive and African Americans did not trust Europeans.

Controversies and Inconsistencies

Nonetheless, his ideas as well as his philosophy were not consistent as there was quite a lot of controversy about Garvey and his ‘religion’. One of the most controversial parts of his philosophy was concerned with evolution of nations. Thus, he saw development in a way which contradicted the ideas of black race’s empowerment.

He believed that Africans should try to achieve the level of development of Europeans. He ignored uniqueness of African culture and wanted to make Africans create a white-like society, so-to-speak.

He was fascinated by European civilization and European path of industrial development. Garvey wished to make Africans appreciate classical music and start creating things Europeans had made. He noted:

Until you can produce what the white man has produced you will not be his equal (Garvey liii).

More so, he followed Europeans’ path even when pursuing his ideas concerning racial purity. Garvey propagated ideas of possible or even inevitable violence against the white race. He even stated that Africans needed their Hitler and even praised such organization as Ku Klux Klan (Dagnini 202).

Garvey claimed that this organization had the right trajectory as they wanted to make their land free from aliens. According to Garvey, Africans should have similar organizations which would propagate purity of nation in Africa free from European tyranny (Ansbro 51).

Garvey also believed that Africans were aliens in both Americas. He wanted Africans to create a strong nation in Africa. Therefore, though he spoke about equality, he accepted the right of the white man to live in Europe or Americas. He believed Africans should leave these continents.

His ideas concerning equality were also inconsistent as he believed Africans should follow European patterns of development. He did not assume that Africans could have their own way to develop and create a strong nation.

Contribution to Harlem Community

However, irrespective of these inconsistencies the UNIA “was the greatest and strongest movement ever started among Negroes” (qtd. in Garvey xxxvi). It contributed greatly to the development of Harlem community (Rolinson 162). Activism declined in Harlem in 1910s as the major leaders of the African people’s movement left the stage.

Garvey became a new strong and inspirational leader who articulated ideas that had been in people’s minds for a long time. The UNIA united people of different backgrounds. Garvey made people believe they could win the fight. He inspired them to continue their struggle.

Importantly, Garvey suggested particular programs aimed at empowerment of people of color. He understood that financial background is important in their fight for their rights. There were quite many well-to-do Africans at that time and Garvey’s precision made them more active.

They were eager to donate money which was crucial for the development of the movement. It is possible to state that Garvey was the inspirational leader who prevented decline of the movement which eventually succeeded in the second part of the twentieth century.


Marcus Garvey is one of the most controversial figures in the movement for rights of people of color. He strived for creation of a strong African nation which could build a potent state in Africa, uniting all Africans of the world. He understood that Africans needed financial background to achieve their goals. Admittedly, this was important for the development of the movement.

However, Garvey’s ideas were somewhat inconsistent. He propagated ideas of equality, but used to think European civilization was superior and he believed Africans should follow European patterns of development. His ideas concerning racial purity were also too radical.

Nonetheless, he played a crucial role in the development of the movement of people of color. He became the leader who inspired people to continue their struggle which was essential as Africans started losing their hope. To certain extent, Marcus Garvey was the Moses as he inspired African people to pursue their goals and their dreams.

Works Cited

Ansbro, John J. The Credos of Eight Black Leaders: Converting Obstacles into Opportunities. New York, NY: University Press of America, 2005. Print.

Dagnini, Jeremie Kroubo. “Marcus Garvey: A Controversial Figure in the History of Pan-Africanism.” The Journal of Pan African Studies 2.3 (2008): 198-208. Print.

Garvey, Marcus. The Marcus Garvey and Universal Negro Improvement Association Papers, Vol. I: 1826 – August 1919. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1983. Print.

Moses, Wilson Jeremiah. Creative Conflict in African American Thought. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2004. Print.

Rolinson, Mary G. Grassroots Garveyism: The Universal Negro Improvement Association in the Rural South, 1920-1927. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2007. Print.

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