National Public Radio (NPR) has featured the life of Marcus Garvey, Jamaica’s first National Hero, on its Throughline podcast, co-hosted and co-produced by Rund Abdelfatah. Beginning with a mention of Marcus Garvey Park in Harlem, the podcast follows the actions and achievements of the Jamaican-born civil rights leader and Pan-Africanist, who is less familiar than leaders like Martin Luther King Junior and Malcolm X, but whose ideas were fundamental to the civil rights movement. King himself described Garvey as “the first man on a mass scale and level to give millions of Negroes a sense of dignity and destiny.”
Garvey lived in Harlem in the early 1920s, when the United States experienced the Jim Crow era and White supremacy was accepted in the US and Europe as the natural way of things, the ideas of Black pride and Black nationalism were not spoken out loud. Garvey, however, founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) during this period. This fraternal order of Black nationalists promoted Garvey’s vision of a new world in which all people of African origin in every country were united, self-sufficient, and proud. He believed that a Black skin was not something to be ashamed of, but instead was a symbol of national greatness. He called his idea “Pan-Africanism,” and he was called “Black Moses” by his followers.
Garvey was born and lived in Jamaica until he was in his early 20s. Later on, he worked on a banana plantation in Limón, Costa Rica, as a timekeeper before traveling to London. The “banana republics” flourished in the Caribbean at this time, and huge banana companies had functional control over the nations in which they operated. Nothing happened without the permission of the banana companies, which also had total control over their workers, many of whom came from Africa and were expected to “suffer in silence.”
In 1922, Garvey returned to Costa Rica to promote his vision of Pan-Africanism, and almost 10,000 people came to hear him speak. Garvey owned the Black Star Line, a shipping company, and he promised some of those who followed him that he would take them back to Africa where they could live a better life. Believing in him, some followers gave him their entire life savings, but the Black Star Line never took anyone to Africa. The reasons for this are debated, with critics noting Garvey’s deportation from the US linked to legal troubles stemming from charges of tax evasion and mail fraud.
Garvey died in London in 1940, and the new world he promised his followers never materialized, leaving him with a problematic legacy. While some considered him a prophet, others believed him to be a charlatan.
The conclusion reached by NPR podcaster Rund Abdelfatah is that sometimes “the message is greater than the messenger.” He notes that Garvey’s ideas were the inspiration for Black nationalists and others over time, including Malcolm X, Nelson Mandela, and Bob Marley. Abdelfatah ends by saying that perhaps what Garvey imagined was that future generations would continue his work and that the dream would be “postponed but not forgotten.”