Marcus Mosiah Garvey Jr. (17 August 1887 10 June 1940) was a political activist and businessman active in the United States and the Caribbean. By a very, very substantial margin, he is far and away the most famous and influential Black Nationalist in American history. His philosophy, sometimes called Garveyism, went on to inspire generations of Black activists to come.
Born in Jamaica, and therefore technically a British subject, Garvey lived and traveled throughout the Caribbean and the United States for most of his life. Lacking a formal education, with the exception of some minor coursework in law and philosophy, Garvey nonetheless was a highly skilled orator and rhetorician, skills he developed through debate and speech contests. At first influenced by the Atlanta Compromise of Booker T. Washington, he believed that the people of Jamaica should focus on industrial and agricultural training to develop economically in accommodation with white British colonists. However, his first visit to America in 1916, and experiencing the tumultuous racial politics of the era, radicalized him into the Garvey we know today.
Garvey is most famous for his take on the philosophy of Pan-Africanism. Unlike previous Pan-Africanists, who primarily believed in political unity between the nations of Africa and people of African decent abroad, Garvey promoted the idea that there should be no distinction made between Africa and the African diaspora. Emphasizing the idea that all Africans everywhere had a common origin, a common history, and a common future, Garvey promoted the idea that Black people in the Americas should create a permanent homeland in Africa. To that end, he founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League (UNIA-ACL, usually just shortened to UNIA), as well as the Black Star Line, the first Black-owned shipping line in the Americas. Together, these organizations were meant to create political, economic, and cultural independence for people of African decent, as well as relocated Black people to Africa and develop Africa into an empire on par with the United States and Great Britain. The UNIA quickly became one of the largest mass political movements of Black people ever seen before (or since), becoming a global organization with nearly 1000 chapters worldwide by 1920. A combination of Garvey's gift for speech-making, his tenacity and passion, as well as the appeal of his message of pride and self-determination easily found a receptive audience among Black people. The Black Star Line, however, quickly floundered due to a combination of mismanagement, corruption, and sabotage by the FBI. Garvey was charged federally for his role in the irregularities of the Black Star line and deported to Jamaica where he continued his political activities, continuing to preach his Black Nationalist philosophy, engaging in political activism in the Caribbean and Africa, and founding the first official political party in Jamaican history: People's Political Party. Unfortunately, the American branch of the organization began to unravel without Garvey at the helm, degenerating into a few semi-functional cells. The organization still exists, but is nowhere near as large and influential as it was before Garvey's death..
Despite the fact that he did not accomplish his goals in life, Garvey's movement captured the imagination of Black radicals the world over. Garveyism would go on to inspire the African Independence Movement, which would finally liberate the nations of Africa from colonial rule in the decades after Garvey's death. Martin Luther King Jr. would be inspired by Garvey's success with mass politics, which would form the basis of his own movement for civil rights. A revival of Garveyism in the 60s and 70s inspired organizations like the Black Panther Party, the Black Arts Movement, the Black Consciousness Movement, the Black Liberation Army, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and many, many more.
Less well-known, but no less influential, was Garvey's religious philosophy. A baptized Catholic, he was nevertheless a non-conforming one. Like his politics, Garvey's religion was Africa-centered. Promoting what he called "African Fundamentalism," Garvey preached the spiritual virtues of Black pride and self-determination, believing that Blackness should be the central focus of one's worship of God. He also believed Africa to be central to Biblical prophesy, believing the Promised Land would be found there with the crowning of an African king. Though not well developed, Garvey's approach to Christianity would later be developed into the Rastafarian faith, the first worldwide Afrocentric religion,note in which he is venerated as the chief prophet. His religious ideals would also be adopted by Wallace Fard Muhammad, who would later found the Nation of Islam, as well as by Earl and Louise Little, members of the UNIA, whose son, Malcolm X would, by pure coincidence, be the most prominent proponent. The modern day Black Liberation Theology movement is also in part based on his religious philosophy.
Despite his influence and publicity, Garvey did not get along well with other Pan-African organizations of his time. Particularly noteworthy was his conflict with the NAACP, particularly its chief leader at the time, W.E.B. Dubois. The NAACP took a dim view of separatist politics like Garvey's, believing it to be a mirror of White separatists like the Ku Klux Klan, and suspected that Garvey was a Con Man using politics to drum up support for his businesses. For his part, Garvey disliked Dubois both because Dubois was a card-carrying Communist — a philosophy Garvey disdained as being designed to solve the political and economic problems of White people exclusively — and because Garvey considered Dubois a Category Traitor for his willingness to work with white liberals for integration.