The life and philosophy of Marcus Mosiah Garvey has, over the years, gone through a process of deification. For the Rastafarian movement he has become a modern-day saint, sharing holy and divine space with Emperor Haile Salassie and Bob Marley. For the movement and growth of African American Muslims he is a progenitor, a harbinger, whose philosophy has laid the groundwork for the development of an entire alternate method of religious thought and practice. In Ghana, Garvey’s Black Star waves proudly in almost every home and heart in the West African nation. As well, within his own United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) the tone and tenor of his rhetoric was laced with Biblical symbolism and terminology which lead to him be lifted to the status of prophet or messiah by his followers. The power of Garvey’s rhetoric and ideas as well as the fact that he had the mechanisms for global appeal built in to the structure of his philosophy has made the name Marcus Mosiah Garvey synonymous with Pan-African and Black Nationalist thought and practice. This essay will work to dissect the life of the modern-day man who was elevated as a messiah for Africans throughout the world.
To begin, Garvey was born in August of 1887 in Saint Anne’s Bay, Jamaica when the island was still a colony of the British Empire. Being born during the colonial period it is not difficult to ascertain how Garvey adopted and worked to implement his own global empire. Perhaps there is something to be said about a person being born on an island that allows them to look beyond the bounds of man-made borders, but from an early age it seemed as if Garvey understood the world as a single organism where everything good and evil connected and clashed as history unfolded. During his childhood, Garvey’s formal education was rather spotty. When his family could afford it, he attended school. However, when they were not able to support him, he was learning and working at a tenet farm with his uncle.
His father worked as a stonemason while his mother worked as a domestic servant. Neither were particularly well educated. Despite this, Garvey understood the importance of education. In particular, Garvey understood the importance of writing and literacy. For a time, he worked as a print worker in Kingston as well he organized his own periodical called Garvey’s Watchmen in 1910. In these positions he worked to help the people of Jamaica in any way he could. Initially, his focus was on worker’s rights and helping the working poor get all they were due as workers and human beings. During this time, though slavery had been abolished, the working poor still lived in squalor and were subjected to enslavement-like conditions. However, this was not just an island wide problem, but was an issue throughout the Caribbean basin. To find better employment opportunities for himself, Garvey traveled throughout the Caribbean, as well as Central and South America working and learning about the hardship of workers of color throughout the Western Hemisphere. In a two-year period, he traveled to Costa Rica, Panama, Ecuador, Venezuela, and Honduras before relocating to across the pond to the United Kingdom.
While in England, Garvey continued to focus on the development of the written word for the benefit of African people throughout the world. In 1913 he began working for Duse Mohammad Ali, editor of the African Times and Orient Review. At first, he was just a messenger and a handy man, but in 1914 Ali, who was impressed by Garvey’s work ethic, promoted him to contributing writer. Garvey learned a lot working with Ali, not just about the publishing industry, but also about the problems facing African people on a global level. Later in 1914, Garvey returned home to Jamaica filled with knowledge and an understanding of the problems facing African people throughout the world. Information was key for Garvey and he made it his purpose to be informed of all the ills plaguing the global Black community and created a way to inform and connect the rest of the African world. In that vein, he organized the United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) a movement centered on connecting the African world through information and culture.
The UNIA was organized on under simple but poignant idea: “ONE GOD! ONE AIM! ONE DESTINY!” Garvey’s organization worked to develop and nurture the idea that African people throughout the world were one people, who were an ancient people blessed by God. He states, “Dash asunder the petty prejudices within your own fold; set at defiance the scornful designation of “nigger” uttered even by yourselves and be a Negro in the light of the Pharaohs of Egypt, Simons of Cyrene, Hannibals of Carthage, L’Overtures and Dessalines of Haiti, Blydens, Barclays and Johnsons of Liberia, Lewises of Sierra Leone, and the Douglasses and Du Boises of America, who have made and are making history for the race.” For Garvey, the connectedness of the struggle was an critical component of his philosophy. Black people across the globe were suffering under the heal of European hegemony in one form or another; oppression for Black people connects them over time and space and Garvey used that fact to strengthen the mission and resolve of the UNIA.
One of the most important tools of Garvey’s philosophy was Black people’s understanding and interpretation of the Bible. To explain, Black people’s familiarity with the Bible made it an important tool for the UNIA movement, in this Garvey would highlight Biblical stories centered on the lives of Black people, like many African American leaders throughout the 19th century. In essence, he used the Bible, a text and tool he and his people were most familiar with, to teach Black people about their divine selves and to spark within them a sense of divine dignity, destiny, and purpose. However, there were aspects of his interpretation of God that are quite problematic. For example, for him African people’s oppression rested squarely on the shoulders of Black people. He states: “That the Negro race became a race of slaves was not the fault of God Almighty… it was the fault of the race. Sloth, neglect, indifference caused us to be slaves.” This perspective is extremely shortsighted, not just because it in essence blames Black people for their own suffering (which is problematic enough in and of itself) but also because it fails to problematize the actors of white supremacy. That is to say, it lets white supremacists and the institutions that support white supremacy off of the proverbial hook. As well, it forces the questioning of the motives of an all-powerful deity who refuses to intervene on the behalf of oppressed people.
Regardless of his problematic perspectives, Garvey was seen as a messianic figure that was sent to lead African people out of servitude. During the height of the UNIA’s growth and development, “[i]t was not uncommon for Garvey’s followers to refer to him as a Black Moses, a John the Baptist. Nor was it surprising, since Garvey himself invited such comparisons.” To be clear, it was/is common for Black leaders to be yoked with label “divine savior” by their constituents, followers and admirers. Tubman was referred to as a “Black Moses”, to this day many African American homes hang renderings of Martin Luther King Jr. next to an image of Jesus Christ, paintings of Elijah Muhammad adorn the walls of Muslims homes, as well many regard President Obama as a messianic-like character. Again, it is a common but flawed pattern that happens to be a ubiquitous element of African American life.
As this messianic figure, Garvey influenced the development and movement of African American Muslims and the growth of the Rastafarian religion. To explain, for the Rastafarian movement Garvey is one of three savior figures, Emperor Haile Salaisse and Bob Marley being the others. Garvey was granted this position because of his work and philosophy as a Pan-Africanist. For African American Muslims, Garvey represents a type of John the Baptist, one who laid the necessary groundwork for those who would follow, be it Noble Drew Ali or Elijah Muhammad. Both either credit Garvey for the inspiration of their work directly, or they indirectly incorporate Garvey’s philosophy in their respective religious structures. As well, in realistic terms, Garvey’s philosophy greatly informed both movements despite the failings of the UNIA and ineptitude of the Black Star Line, because of the power of his ideas. Pan-Africanism is powerful notion for African Americans, it united them, gave them a sense of global scale, gave them a vision of freedom, provided images of heaven as well as reminding them of the hell that is America.
 Colin Grant. Negro with a hat: The Rise and Fall of Marcus Garvey. (Oxford University Press, 2008). As a print worker, he helped to organize a strike for better pay and working condition in 1908.
 John Hope Franklin and August Meier, eds. Black leaders of the twentieth century. (University of Illinois Press, 1982), 110.
 Ibid., 111-112.
 Ibid., 119.
 Ibid., 123. Further, “The religious quality of the UNIA was not confined to its leader’s messianic style and rhetoric. Garvey utilized religion not merely to strengthen his own leadership, but to bolster the will and determination of those he wanted to lead.”