Marcus Garvey and the Universal Negro Improvement Association

Marcus Garvey, 1922. (

“We believe that the black people should have a country of their own where they should be given the fullest opportunity to develop politically, socially and industrially. The black people should not be encouraged to remain in white people’s countries and expect to be Presidents, Governors, Mayors, Senators, Congressmen, Judges and social and industrial leaders. We believe that with the rising ambition of the negro, if a country is not provided for him in another 50 oder 100 years, there will be a terrible clash that will end disastrously to him and disgrace our civilization. We desire to prevent such a clash by pointing the negro to a home of his own.”

Marcus Garvey, The Negro’s Greatest Enemy

Born in 1887 in Jamaica, Marcus Misiah Garvey was the leader of the black nationalist Universal Negro Improvement Association founded in 1914. Three years later, Garvey moved to New York City and opened a headquarter in Harlem. Strictly segregationist, the UNIA stood for a liberation of the black culture from oppression through European and Euro-American imperialism under strict race conservation. Garvey and the UNIA worked on an eventual relocating of people of African descent to a unified Africa. Within a few years, the Universal Negro Improvement Association had ten thousands of supporters spread across the country.

The uplift of the black race through promoting the rights of African Americans and the development of racial pride was carried to the extremes in Garvey’s nationalist ideology. For he did not believe in a multicultural future of the United States, his ideas clashed with those of the civil rights movement and of Du Bois’ NAACP. The latter believed in a multicultural future by attaining civil rights of the black population. In pursuing his goals and raising funds, Garvey did not even stop at collaborating with white segregationists and reactionaries such as the Ku Klux Klan which cost him a large number of supporters. Today, historians estimate the UNIA peak membership between 30,000 and 80,000 supporters.

African American Nurses Marching
Black Cross Nurses in New York City, 1922. (

The African Legion

Garvey created the African Legion, a paramilitary group. His vision of a movement seems to have been a literally one since he claimed that his followers were willing to go back to their homeland. On their annual march through New York City, the UNIA and the African Legion were cheered by many spectators. Dressed in a magnificent uniform including gold braid and a hat made of plumes, Garvey was celebrated by round about 50,000 supporters who lined the sidewalks of Harlem. Garvey and his African Legion were followed by the Black Cross Nurses, one of the auxiliaries of the UNIA.

The S.S. Yarmouth in New York City,1923. (

The Black Star Line

The UNIA was able to raise large amounts of capital that they invested, among other businesses, in the Black Star Line. The steamship company’s purpose was to take a selection of African Americans back to Africa in order to ‘build up Africa’. Garvey after all envisioned to develop commercial ties with Africa. The “yearning for economic self-sufficiency and political self-determination and a larger goal of economic improvement” (Moses 248) for African Americans and black people around the world was what many historians believe to be the main reasons why Marcus Garvey and the UNIA have been undeniably popular. Black working class people bought shares of which they hoped they would provide as the basis for an increasing black economic power.

The attempt ultimately failed. Garvey made several investments that led to him being prosecuted for fraud. Having served time in prison after he was found guilty, Garvey subsequently was deported to Jamaica. The failed African Diaspora leader died in London in 1940.

Lisa Wulf


Garvey, Marcus. “The Negro’s Greatest Enemy.” Current History (New York), vol. 18, no. 6, 1923, pp. 951-957.

Moses, Wilson Jeremiah. Creative Conflict in African American Thought. Cambridge, Cambridge UP, 2004.

Christian, Mark. “Marcus Garvey and African Unity: Lessons for the Future from the Past.” Journal of Black Studies, vol. 39, no. 2, 2008, pp. 316–331.


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