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Marcus Garvey remembered

Marcus Garvey remembered

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Last week Thursday, 130 years ago, Marcus Mosiah Garvey was born in the parish of St Ann, Jamaica. Visionary, political activist and orator par excellence, he is still revered today, 77 years after his death, particularly by Rastafarians.

Grenadian nationalist, journalist and father of Federation, T Albert Marryshow, after meeting him in 1924, declared that he was “the greatest black man in the world since Toussaint L’Overture”. He was impressed by “the length of his aspirations, by the breadth of his activities, by the immensity of his self-imposed work on behalf of others; by his radiant faith and boldness of approach to that work, and by the indomitable courage, determination and will he brings to play in operations for its accomplishment…”

After his visit to St Vincent in October 1937, The Times described him as a philosopher of a tall order.  Garvey, it said, “possesses an internal ‘something’ which casts a spell upon all within its radius”.

He fought to liberate and change the world for black people. He sought to accomplish this through the Universal Negro Improvement and African Communities League (UNIA), which was formed in Jamaica in 1914 and legally incorporated in the US, in 1918.  By the early 1920s, there were 1,200 branches in 40 countries. He brought into being the First International Convention of the Negroes People of the World, in 1920, attracting about 25,000 people at its opening ceremony. A remarkable feat indeed, given the state of communications at that time and when Blacks almost everywhere were steeped in the bosom of colonialism and subjected to racial discrimination. The medium used to spread the word and attract followers, a newspaper, The Negro World, by 1919 was banned, even in St Vincent. The political elite everywhere became alarmed. The Directorate of Intelligence of the British Home Office warned that negro agitation was assuming international proportions. Edgar Hoover of the US Department of Justice reported that he was quite active among the radical elements in New York city.

When Garvey was deported from the US in 1927, 5,000 of his followers gathering at the dock to see him off to Jamaica, where he was given a hero’s welcome, one reporter describing

the occasion as “perhaps

the most historic event” to have taken place in the island.

His visit to St Vincent and other Caribbean colonies in 1937 took place after several visits to England, Europe and Canada, his organization of two more conventions of the Negro Peoples of the World and his involvement in local politics in Jamaica. He gave two addresses at the Public Library to packed audiences, persons even paying a small fee to cover the expenses. He declared that colour prejudice was the “biggest piece of ignorance that ever entered man’s mind” and urged pride in their race. His focus was on encouraging black people to help themselves and not to depend on others. He reminded them that God had said that by the sweat of a man’s brow he should eat bread, “and that law was unchanged.” He appealed, particularly, to “the man lowest down” to lift himself from the state in which he was existing. The Times was ecstatic, declaring that he possessed an internal ‘something’ which casts a spell upon all within its radius…” A writer to The Times asked that his address be read from the pulpits of the church and broadcast as much as possible.

Is Garvey’s message still relevant today after all our black power talk and after the civil rights movement of the 1960s? Colonies at that time are now independent and led mostly by men of colour. That is a question we need to answer. Rex Nettleford suggested that, as independent countries, our energies have been spent trying to sort ourselves out rather than shaping our destinies. We must ask, to whose agenda are we responding? Undoubtedly some gains have been made, but are we not fighting some of the same battles?

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