The Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) was the largest pan-African mass movement of all time. It was founded in 1914 by Marcus Mosiah Garvey (1887–1940) in Kingston, Jamaica. Garvey, a printer, journalist, and political activist, had returned from 4 years of travel in Latin America and Europe determined to do something about the suffering he saw being endured by African people everywhere. Garvey saw the power of organization as the key to African advancement, so for the betterment of Africans the world over he began the organization that he initially named the Universal Negro Improvement and Conservation Association and African Communities (Imperial) League and later became the UNIA.
The objectives of the organization were subdivided by region into Jamaican and international sections. The objectives for Jamaica included providing educational facilities, rehabilitating “the fallen and the degraded (especially the criminal class),” stimulating industry and commerce, encouraging the “bonds of brotherhood” among all people, and giving assistance to the needy. In addition to aiding the needy and the “fallen” and encouraging education and commerce, the international objectives sought to “establish a Universal Confraternity among the race” and to “promote the spirit of race pride and love.” The organization hoped in this way to strengthen the existing independent African states (Ethiopia, Liberia, and Haiti).
The new organization busied itself feeding the hungry, visiting hospitals, and recruiting members. It also functioned much like a literary and debating society, with poetry and dramatic readings and elocution contests. Garvey was greatly influenced by Booker T. Washington, founder of the Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University) in Alabama. He hoped in this early period to build an industrial school in Jamaica modeled after Tuskegee. In a letter of early 1916 to Robert R. Moton, principal of Tuskegee after Washington’s death, Garvey confided his plans to strengthen the organization by creating its own media.
Garvey journeyed to Harlem, New York, in March of 1916 in what was initially to be a fund-raising tour of a few months. He toured the United States and Canada, then returned to Harlem, where he began to attract a following to his street meetings. He soon rented a hall and moved indoors, and as his popularity grew, his followers prevailed upon him to remain in the United States. In 1918, the UNIA was incorporated in the United States. It developed with lightning speed thereafter. Its official organ, the Negro World, appeared later in 1918. A series of auxiliaries and subsidiary ventures followed it in quick succession, including the Negro Factories Corporation (1918) and the Black Star Line Shipping Corporation (1919). The Negro Factories Corporation ran restaurants, laundries, a printing press, a hotel, and other businesses, and by the early 1920s it employed over 1,000 people in New York. The Black Star Line provided a nurseryfor seamen and a place where African international travelers could escape the Jim Crow restrictions that were considered normal on carriers run by whites. The auxiliaries included the Universal African Legions, a paramilitary group, and the Juveniles for young members. The Black Cross Nurses and the paramilitary Universal African Motor Corps were for women only.
The UNIA purchased its own meeting place, Liberty Hall, in Harlem in 1918. By 1919 its meetings were attracting crowds of as many as 5,000 people. It was now a major force to be reckoned with. The UNIA sent a delegate to the 1919 post–World War I Peace Conference in Paris. It began to expand overseas. By the time that Garvey convened his First International Convention of the Negro Peoples of the World in New York in August 1920, the UNIA was already the most talked about African organization in the world. It was reported that 25,000 people attended the opening ceremonies of the convention at Madison Square Garden. The convention parade was 10 miles long and serviced by several brass bands. The conclave opened on August 1 (Emancipation Day in the British empire) and continued in Liberty Hall for the rest of the month. Delegates attended from all over the African world, including South Africa, Nigeria, England, Panama, and many Caribbean territories. The major conference document, the Declaration of Rights of the Negro Peoples of the World, cataloged the racist practices facing Africans everywhere and demanded redress. It claimed for residents of the African diaspora a right to African citizenship. It demanded black history in schools, stipulated that an uppercase N be used in the word Negro, and swore to protect African womanhood. It declared red, black, and green the colors of the African race.
Requests to purchase shares in the Black Star Line and for UNIA charters around the globe initially came in faster than the fledgling UNIA civil service could process them. By the mid-1920s, the organization had peaked at a claimed 6 to 11 million members in over 40 countries. The UNIA had become the largest African American movement, the largest pan-Caribbean movement, and the largest pan-African movement on the African continent. There were over 700 branches in the United States alone, in 37 states and the District of Columbia. Of the 13 states with the largest number of branches, 10 were in the South, though New York City had the largest single membership, estimated at between 35,000 and 40,000. Louisiana had 74 branches, more than any other state and more than any country outside of the United States. Cuba, Panama, Trinidad, and Costa Rica, respectively, led the rest of the world in terms of number of branches. South Africa had more branches than any other country in Africa. There were branches in Australia, England, Venezuela, and Brazil. This spread was mostly the result of a mixture of paid organizers, word of mouth, the Negro World (which became the African world’s most widely distributed newspaper), and Garvey’s powerful oratory and writing.
The UNIA operated within a formal constitution. Branches (called “divisions”) each had a full slate of officers, including a “lady president.” More than one division in the same city or district was discouraged. Where more than one branch was allowed, however, the original was called a division and the second was referred to as a chapter. During the movement’s heyday, the headquarters division was located in Harlem, New York. The UNIA attracted the broad masses of African people like no other organization. It simultaneously attracted a good number of professional people, including lawyers, preachers, social workers, writers, and academics. Its circle of influence was far wider than its own paid-up membership. In some countries, such as Dominica in the Caribbean, the Negro World was the largest newspaper in circulation.
The UNIA’s popularity was facilitated by its ideology of African nationalism, built around the ideas of race first, self-reliance, and nationhood. Race first projected the beauty of African features. It also urged African people to write their own history, critique their own literature, control their own propaganda, and see their God in their own image and likeness. This prompted a significant UNIA encouragement of the arts, resulting in a major Garveyite input into the Harlem Renaissance. Self-reliance urged African people to “do for self” and was made manifest in the Black Star Line and the Negro Factories Corporation. Nationhood spoke to the need for political power at all levels.
The many major pan-African personalities who were influenced by the UNIA in their formative years include President Kwane Nkrumah of Ghana, Governor General Nnamdi Azikiwe of Nigeria, Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya, and the 1920s leadership of the African National Congress (ANC) in South Africa. The parents of Malcolm X were UNIA organizers. The Honorable Elijah Muhammad of the Nation of Islam was a member of the Detroit division. Practically the whole cohort of political and labor leaders in the Anglophone Caribbean of the 1930s had some association with the UNIA. Garvey sent three delegations to Liberia between 1920 and 1924, hoping to relocate his headquarters there. However, while the Liberian government initially encouraged the idea, in the end they reneged on their promises. This was motivated partly by fear of a potential political challenge from Garvey and by pressure from the imperialist governments of the United States, Great Britain, and France.
Garvey’s success was viewed with alarm by the U.S. and European governments. The UNIA’s core message of race first, self-reliance, and nationhood was seen as a threat to continued Euro-American subjugation of the African world. The movement was accordingly subjected to elaborate surveillance, infiltration, and repression. J. Edgar Hoover, later legendary head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, directed anti-UNIA activities from 1919 on. The U.S. authorities brought several court charges against Garvey, the most important being for alleged mail fraud in connection with the failure of the Black Star Line. In an effort to present his ideas to a wider public, Garvey published the seminal two volumes of Philosophy and Opinions of Marcus Garvey in 1923 and 1925. He was nevertheless convicted on the mail fraud charge in 1923 and spent 3 months in jail without bail. In 1925 Garvey lost his appeal and was imprisoned in Atlanta Penitentiary. He spent almost 3 years of his 5-year sentence there before President Calvin Coolidge, bowing to international pressure, commuted his sentence in 1927. He was deported to Jamaica immediately thereafter and arrived home to a hero’s welcome in December of that year.
Several other important entities mobilized against the UNIA. The world communist movement fought the UNIA on ideological grounds (class first versus race first) and resented the UNIA’s grip on African workers and peasants worldwide. The integrationist establishment also opposed the UNIA. In this effort, they were led by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the flagship civil rights organization for black people that was led by Jewish and other white liberals. The NAACP resented Garvey’s black nationalism and ability to mobilize larger financial resources than they could, and without recourse to the liberals’ money. Judge Julian Mack, who imposed the maximum jail sentence and fine as well as court costs on Garvey, was a member of the NAACP and sometime president of the Zionist Organization of America. Garvey’s organization also had internal problems, as it was discovered that several employees and agents of the UNIA opportunistically stole from the organization and helped sink the Black Star Line. In addition, private individuals and organizations were supplementing the government’s anti-UNIA surveillance operations.
In 1929, after Garvey’s deportation, the UNIA held a massive Sixth International Convention of the Negro Peoples of the World in Jamaica. Garvey’s forced absence from his U.S. base led, however, to schisms within the movement. A UNIA Inc. operated out of the United States, and Garvey’s faction, the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League of the World, which he founded in August of 1929, had its headquarters in Jamaica. The split was not an African American versus Caribbean rupture as it is usually depicted, since many of the U.S. based schismatics were themselves from the Caribbean. Garvey’s faction maintained the allegiance of many U.S.-based Garveyites and it controlled the Negro World, which continued to carry Garvey’s pronouncements.
A seventh international convention was held in 1934 in Jamaica, and an eighth convention, the last in Garvey’s lifetime, took place in 1938 in Toronto, Canada. Meanwhile, Garvey had relocated to London in 1935 in an attempt to return the movement to its former preeminence. His death in London in 1940 brought further disintegration to the association. The base of the movement shifted once again to the United States, where there were further splits. Groups loyal to Garvey often changed their names to Garvey Clubs and the like. The organization nevertheless remained an important factor in African American communities, though not the all-powerful force it once was. In 1945, the UNIA presented an important memorandum, drafted by Garvey’s widow, Amy Jacques Garvey, to the founding conference of the United Nations in San Francisco. In that year, the Jamaica UNIA was represented at the Fifth Pan-African Congress organized by George Padmore and Kwame Nkrumah in Manchester, England. By the 1950s, the African Nationalist Pioneer Movement of Carlos Cooks and the Universal African Nationalist Movement of Benjamin Gibbon were the most prominent of the UNIA offshoots. Both were based in Harlem. In 1971, surviving units of the UNIA had a unifying conference in Youngstown, Ohio, to return the various factions into one fold.
Several important new organizations were founded by former Garveyites after Garvey’s death. Those in the United States include the Peace Movement of Ethiopia, the National Movement for the Establishment of a 49th State, and the Nation of Islam. In Jamaica, the Rastafarian movement was started by former Garveyites. Garveyites and the children of Garveyites have continued to lead political movements all over the pan-African world. These include Congresspeople Shirley Chisholm and Charles Diggs in the United States; Jomo Kenyatta, Kwame Nkrumah, and Nnamdi Azikiwe in Nigeria; and leaders of the African National Congress Youth Movement in South Africa.
The UNIA still enjoys a modest existence, with divisions in several North American cities and a few in Central America, Africa, and the Caribbean. Garvey’s son, Marcus Garvey, Jr., became president general in 1992 at a convention in Washington, D.C.. He was re-elected for 4-year terms in Philadelphia in 1996 and Montreal in 2000. The success of the UNIA in its heyday in the 1920s is still unmatched in pan-African history.
— Tony Martin
Clarke, John Henrik. (1974). Marcus Garvey and the Vision of Africa. New York: Random House.
Garvey, Amy Jacques. (1970). Garvey and Garveyism. New York: Collier Books. (Original work published 1963).
Garvey, Amy Jacques. (Ed.). (1986). The Philosophy and Opinions of Marcus Garvey, Or, Africa for the Africans. Dover, MA: The Majority Press. (Original work published 1923). Martin, Tony. (1983). Literary Garveyism: Garvey, Black Arts and the Harlem Renaissance. Dover, MA: The Majority Press.
Martin, Tony. (1986). Race First: The Ideological and Organizational Struggles of Marcus Garvey and the Universal Negro Improvement Association. Dover, MA: The Majority Press. (Original work published 1976).