Marcus Garvey's Birthday

Marcus Garvey's Birthday

Date Observed: August 17
Location: Varies

T he birthday of Marcus Garvey is celebrated on or around August 17 each year by members of the organization he founded, the Universal Negro International Association (UNIA), as well members of the Rastafarian faith.

Historical Background

Marcus Mosiah Garvey was born in St. Ann's Bay, Jamaica, on August 17, 1887. At the age of 14, he left school and took a job as an apprentice printer to help support his family. During his teen and early adult years, Garvey was exposed to significant economic and political unrest in his native land that would act as a foundation for his developing philosophies.

Garvey traveled, first throughout Latin America and then to England, broadening his outlook. It was in London where his thinking was most greatly influenced. There, he learned about the developing Pan-African movement and read Booker T. Washington's book, Up from Slavery (see also Pan African Bookfest and Cultural Conference). After returning to Jamaica in 1914, Garvey's exposure to new concepts about his African heritage inspired him to found the UNIA. Its motto: "One God! One Aim! One Destiny!"

Initially, Garvey's approach to uplifting the Negro condition was to focus on hard work and demonstrating good moral character. He felt that politics would only interfere with and cloud advancement of the cause. His view changed, however, when he began traveling throughout the United States. Disillusioned about the prospects of racial equality, especially upon seeing how blacks were being treated when they returned home from service in World War I, Garvey became convinced that racial integration would never occur until blacks achieved economic, political, and cultural success by means of their own aggressive efforts. Garvey went to Harlem and established what would become the headquarters of the UNIA in the United States. From there, Garvey began to spread a message of black nationalism, calling for unity, pride in one's African cultural heritage, and complete autonomy from any other race or entity. Central to Garvey's message was a call for blacks to return to the African homeland, a goal that became known as the back-toAfrica movement. In 1920 Garvey developed what he called the Liberia Plan, and even negotiated a deal with the Liberian government for land on which to settle displaced black peoples from the U.S., the Caribbean, Central and South America, and elsewhere. Garvey had both supporters and detractors among African Americans. He came under particularly heavy criticism from fellow blacks after a 1922 meeting with the Klu Klux Klan to discuss miscegenation (marriage between races) and social equality. By Garvey's account, UNIA's membership numbered in the millions, and indeed, it had branches throughout the United States, Caribbean, Canada, and Africa.

Even allowing for inflated statistics, Garvey inarguably led the largest mass movement known to date in African-American history. UNIA's endeavors were varied: the organization owned grocery stores, published newspapers, and operated a factory and a shipping line. In 1922 the U.S. government brought charges of mail fraud against Garvey in connection with the shipping business, the Black Star Line. He was convicted on June 21, 1923. Following bail and deportation hearings, Garvey was incarcerated on February 8, 1925. In December 1927, he was released and deported to Jamaica, where he launched the People's Political Party (PPP) and the Jamaica Workers and Labourers Association, but most of his efforts stalled. In 1934, Garvey relocated to London, where he resided until his death in 1940.

In its online biography of Garvey, the University of Northern Colorado's Marcus Garvey Center for Black Cultural Education concludes its assessment of his life in this way:

Marcus A. Garvey captured the interest of the ordinary Negro as no other leader before or since, but his dream was based on a fatal flaw: his failure to understand that the overwhelming mass of Negroes considered America their rightful home and had no real desire to leave it. His weakness lay in thinking that the Negro, after helping to build America, would abandon it. His greatness lies in this daring to dream of a better future for Negroes somewhere on earth.

Creation of the Observance

Celebrations of Marcus Garvey's birthday originated in various years, depending on the location. In Jamaica, for example, on the centennial anniversary of Garvey's birth in 1987, the government declared August 17 a public holiday in St. Ann. Since then, annual celebrations have been held at 32 Market Street, St. Ann's Bay, where Garvey was born.


Marcus Garvey's birthday is celebrated in his homeland, Jamaica, and also in Trinidad, where the Abiadama Centre for Lifelong Learning commemorates Garvey with lectures,

Reprinted with permission from the University of Northern Colorado. displays of African artifacts, music, and food. Barbados and other West Indies isles also celebrate Garvey's birthday.

Many Rastafarians in the United States commemorate Garvey's birthday as well. Some celebrate just the date, August 17, while others stretch the commemoration throughout an entire week. Still others honor Garvey with events during the whole month of August each year (see also Haile Selassie's Birthday). So, while celebrations of Garvey's contributions vary, partly dependent upon the geographic locale of the event, observances often include the recitation of inspiration poems and speeches (sometimes those of Garvey himself) and performance of traditional African dances and drumming. Larger events might also include the display of African arts and crafts and presence of native foodstuffs.

Reggae musicians, many of whom are Rastafarians, often hold festivals and concerts around Garvey's birth date as a way to commemorate him.

In 2005 Bronx Borough President Adolfo Carrión and the Jamaica Progressive League hosted a civic ceremony to celebrate Garvey's birthday. The event also served as a show of support for efforts led by U.S. Representative Charles Rangel of New York to have the U.S. government exonerate Garvey.

In Wisconsin, the Black Historical Society Museum in Milwaukee held its 17th annual Garvey Birthday Celebration in 2005. Each year organizations and vendors set up booths outside the museum for a day-long gathering to commemorate Garvey.

Contacts and Web Sites

"The Marcus Garvey and Universal Negro Improvement Association Papers Project" UCLA International Institute African Studies Center 10244 Bunche Hall P.O. Box 951310 Los Angeles, CA 90095 310-825-3686; fax: 310-206-2250

Marcus Garvey Cultural Center for Black Cultural Education University of Northern Colorado 928 20th St. Greeley, CO 80634 970-351-1159; fax: 970-351-2337 Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League Thomas W. Harvey Memorial Division #121 1609-11 Cecil B. Moore Ave. Philadelphia, PA 19121 215-236-0782

Wisconsin Black Historical Society Museum 2620 W. Center St. Milwaukee, WI 53206 414-372-7677

Further Reading

Ershine, Noel Leo. From Garvey to Marley: Rastafari Theology. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2005. Garvey, Marcus, and Bob Blaisdell, ed. Selected Writings and Speeches of Marcus Garvey. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2004. Jenkins, Everett. Pan-African Chronology III: A Comprehensive Reference to the Black Quest for Freedom in Africa, the Americas, Europe and Asia, 1914-1929. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company Publishers, 2001. Mugleston, William F. "Garvey, Marcus." In African American Lives, edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. Sykes, Leonard, Jr. "Garvey Celebration Represents a Call for Peace and Unity in Community." Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Online, August 20, 2005. .com/story/index.aspx?id=349763.
African-American Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations, 1st ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2007