Anniversary: Rastafari, Civil Rights marks birthday of Marcus Garvey

“[Garvey] was the first man of color to lead and develop a mass movement. He was the first man on a mass scale … to give millions of Negroes a sense of dignity and destiny.”

-Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., June 1965

Painting of dark-skinned man with colorful background and quote

Marcus Garvey Square in New Orleans, Louisiana. Photo by Mark Gstohl, courtesy of Flickr

MONDAY, AUGUST 17: A Black Nationalist who inspired Martin Luther King, Jr., united Malcom X’s parents and now has schools, colleges, highways and buildings honoring him across Africa, Europe, the Caribbean and United States is honored today, on the anniversary of his birth: the birthday of Marcus Mosiah Garvey, Jr.

Throughout his life, Marcus Garvey led the Black Nationalist movement by creating the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), founding the Negro World newspaper as a major vehicle for communication and launching the Black Star Line, an international shipping company. Through the 1920s, Garvey’s public speeches contained mention of a “black king” who would soon be crowned in Africa and offer deliverance; the Rastafari believe Garvey to be prophetic, foretelling the crowing of Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia. For the Rastafari, Garvey is still seen as a religious prophet, similar to St. John the Baptist.

UNIA AND PAN-AFRICAN MOVEMENT

Born in Jamaica in 1887, Marcus Garvey learned to read in his father’s library and sought to unite Africans of the diaspora. The UNIA, formed in 1914, was the “broadest mass movement in African-American history,” created with a mission to provide economic and educational opportunities and inspiration for Africans of the diaspora. (Learn more from History.com and Biography.com.) The UNIA developed the Pan-African flag (colored red, black and green) to represent a race and movement. Though ultimately unsuccessful, Garvey worked hard to develop a colony for free blacks in Africa. (Wikipedia has details.) At its peak, the UNIA claimed millions of members.

GARVEY’S INFLUENCE: RASTAFARI & MORE

During his lifetime, Marcus Garvey also faced criticism from many quarters, including from many African-Americans. One of his critics was W.E.B Du Bois. Nonetheless, Garvey’s efforts fueled what eventually became the Civil Rights movement and the concept of a secular organization for blacks. Earl and Louise Little, parents of Malcolm X, met at a UNIA convention in Montreal; the Rastafari continue to view Garvey as a prophet. Garvey died in London in June of 1940.

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