Robert A. Hill on the Centenary of Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association

978-0-8223-5737-7_prToday we have a guest post by Robert A. Hill, editor-in-chief of The Marcus Garvey and Universal Negro Improvement Association Papers. Hill, Associate Professor of History at UCLA, has been working on the papers for over thirty years. The first ten volumes were published by the University of California Press, and Duke University Press has taken over publication with Volume XI. The latest volume, XII, "The Caribbean Diaspora, 1920–1921" comes out in October. 

As the world gets ready to mark the centennary of the start of World War One, there is another centennary that is worth remembering at this time. It is 100 years since the founding of Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League (UNIA & ACL), the organization which gave birth to the modern black struggle for self-determination, with its cry of "Africa for the Africans" and its motto of "One God, One Aim, One Destiny." 


Marcus Garvey with Potentate Gabriel M. Johnson of Liberia, Supreme Deputy G.O. Marke of Sierra Leone, and other UNIA leaders review the parade opening the 1922 UNIA convention, New York City

Organized and launched on July 20th, 1914—one week before Archduke Ferdinand and his wife were assassinated in Sarajevo and the countdown to World War One commenced—the UNIA & ACL held its first public meeting in Kingston, Jamaica, one of the many dusty margins of Britain’s colonial empire in the Caribbean. The two events would become inextricably intertwined.

World War One not only set the colonial empires of Britain, Germany, France, Italy, Russia, and Turkey on the path to war, but would also witness the end of empire as the world had known it. Dragged into the European maelstrom, with 16 million killed and 20 million wounded before the guns fell silent, the war would spawn the drive for nationhood on the part of millions of colonial and semi-colonial peoples. And when that moment came four years later with the peace that followed the war, Marcus Garvey and his UNIA & ACL were in the forefront of the struggle, calling for African freedom and black emancipation.

As the first internationally organized movement of black peoples to exist in the world, the UNIA & ACL Garvey orchestrated a form of popular black politics on an entirely unprecedented scale. With an extensive network of travelling speakers, it recruited thousands of members through orators addressing public meetings. It published and distributed its own influential Negro World newspaper with an international readership that caused it to be banned or suppressed in several African, Caribbean, and Central American countries. Through petition drives as well as the promotion of its own commercial enterprises, most notably the Black Start Line, the "Garvey movement," as it came to be known, with its flamboyant display of popular support was able to mobilize an international movement, the likes of which had never been seen before.

Although the movement’s commercial enterprises would all fail, and Garvey himself was jailed for fraud, the movement helped to raise racial consciousness to an unprecedented level. After one hundred years, its legacy is still being felt in the arts, in the politics of Black Nationalism and Pan-Africanism, and in the religion of black redemption, particularly in the phenomenon of Rastafari religion.

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