Falling Star: Marcus Garvey

Nine decades ago, Marcus Garvey was convicted of mail fraud. His supporters have alleged a conspiracy ever since

Illustration by Rohan Mitchell

There is something almost Shakespearean about the meteoric rise and spectacular fall of Marcus Mosiah Garvey. Known today as one of the iconic figures of the Rastafari movement and a major figure in twentieth-century African liberation politics, at the peak of his influence this Jamaica-born former printer’s apprentice led an organisation of over two million followers, and had aspirations to challenge the very foundations of what he saw as a corrupt and racist United States of America. Yet just three years after twenty-five thousand supporters crowded into New York’s Madison Square Garden to hear him speak, in June 1923 he was found guilty of mail fraud and sentenced to five years in jail.

Was the trial ninety years ago a conspiracy by the state to bring down a man whom many of America’s disenfranchised blacks saw as a Messiah? Or was Garvey in fact guilty of overweening ambition, and responsible for his own downfall through delusions of grandeur? Or was there another factor at play, related to the volatile state of race relations in the US of the 1920s?

Marcus Garvey’s controversial career was based on a simple idea: that black people around the world should come together to fight the various forms of oppression they experienced. Another basic belief was that Africa and its scattered diaspora should be reunited, and that Africa, free of European colonialism, would welcome back its sons and daughters to their ancestral lands.

Born in St Ann’s Bay in 1887, Garvey was one of two children who survived into adolescence out of the eleven born to his humble but educated parents. After travelling among the banana plantations of Central America and studying in London, Garvey discovered that he had a prodigious gift for oratory and a charismatic presence. He moved to the US in 1916, having corresponded with the black educationalist Booker T. Washington, and after a series of lectures and street-corner meetings decided to establish a New York branch of the United Negro Improvement Association, a body he had earlier founded in Jamaica. Within three months membership had grown from a mere thirteen to 3,500.

The guiding principle was to restore black pride not only through mass meetings and parades (at which he appeared in a purple and black uniform and feathered helmet), but by creating a parallel, black-only network of communications and business interests. As the UNIA grew at an astonishing rate, it launched a weekly newspaper, started restaurants, a laundry, and even a doll factory, and bought scores of properties that it turned into Liberty Halls, church-like meeting-places. By 1920, there were almost two thousand branches of the UNIA in forty countries across Latin America, the Caribbean, and Africa.

One of the UNIA’s most ambitious schemes was the Black Star Line, a shipping company to be run, crewed, and used by blacks only, in a bid to bring together Africa and the Americas in a parallel transatlantic trading system. It also symbolised in real terms the back-to-Africa idea, with the prospect that people from around the world could one day be shipped “home.” Incorporated in 1919, it gathered capital by selling five-dollar shares at meetings, and soon it had purchased three ships. Unfortunately, all three were in poor condition and overpriced. By early 1922, the Black Star Line was in serious trouble.

It was now that disaster struck. On the edge of bankruptcy in 1921, the UNIA had been attempting to buy another ship, to be named after the African-American poet Phyllis Wheatley, and needed to raise funds. A leaflet carrying a picture of the ship with the name painted on its bow was allegedly sent out by post to UNIA supporters and potential investors — even though UNIA did not yet own the ship. This, according to the Bureau of Investigation — forerunner of the FBI — and the Post Office amounted to fraud. By purporting to show the ship as part of its business portfolio, the UNIA was misleading potential shareholders. Garvey and several other UNIA functionaries were indicted on charges of mail fraud on 15 February, 1922. Shortly afterwards, the Black Star Line folded.

The charges may seem a mere technicality, but Garvey and his followers viewed it — with some justification — as a conspiracy by the state to attack the UNIA. In a memorandum written in October 1919, J. Edgar Hoover of the Bureau of Investigation had commented, “Unfortunately . . . [Garvey] has not as yet violated any federal law whereby he could be proceeded against on the grounds of being an undesirable alien, from the point of view of deportation.” To many, it looked as though the American government was merely waiting for a pretext.

A month-long trial from May to June 1923, flawed by unreliable witnesses, ended in Garvey’s conviction and a five-year prison sentence. He was given bail, appealed unsuccessfully, and finally served nearly three years before being pardoned by President Calvin Coolidge and deported to Jamaica. It was not the end of Garvey’s career, however, and he continued to campaign around the world for black rights. But the UNIA never really recovered, and dwindled in influence.

A further, and bizarre, element contributed to Garvey’s downfall — or so he believed. He reportedly told a journalist after the mail fraud verdict that he was the victim of a Jewish judge and Jewish members of the jury. That the Jewish community might have found his radical rhetoric offensive is plausible, but what may have swung Jewish opinion decisively against Garvey was his controversial meeting in June 1922 with Edward Y. Clarke, Imperial Wizard of the notoriously anti-Semitic Ku Klux Klan.

Garvey believed that the UNIA and the KKK, both committed to the idea of racial separateness, could somehow work together to prevent segregation in the southern states of the US. That he could have contemplated co-operation with an organisation guilty of countless lynchings and other atrocities seems incomprehensible; yet Garvey contrasted the KKK with the pro-segregation National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, and wrote: “give me the Klan for their honesty and purpose towards the Negro. They are better friends to my race for telling us what they are, and what they mean, thereby giving us a chance to stir for ourselves, than all the hypocrites put together . . .”

It cannot be known for sure if Garvey’s strange encounter with the KKK hastened his demise. Certainly it helped him to make many enemies among blacks and others opposed to the sinister white supremacists. His star seemed to dim from that point, and the tragic hero fell from grace. A man who inspired both adulation and hatred, Garvey, who died in London in 1940, was eventually returned as a National Hero to his native Jamaica in 1964.