This Month in Black History: Marcus Garvey Imprisoned in Atlanta

By Kalin Thomas Contributing Writer | 2/15/2013, noon
The year was 1925. It was four years before the Stock Market Crash of 1929 and life was good for ...
Marcus Garvey

The year was 1925. It was four years before the Stock Market Crash of 1929 and life was good for many white Americans.

It was also the heyday of the Harlem Renaissance – a cultural movement also known as “The New Negro Movement.”

But black men who had served in World War I came back to a country where they were still seen as second-class citizens and couldn’t find decent jobs.

And Black America was still fighting for social and economic justice.

So the tone was set for many black Americans to find hope in the leadership of Black Nationalist Marcus Moriah Garvey Jr., whose battle cry was “Africa for Africans.”

But it was this month in Black History that Marcus Garvey was imprisoned in Atlanta on Feb. 8, 1925.

Garvey, who came to the U.S. from his homeland of Jamaica in 1919, had formed the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) in Harlem where he called for black unity, black pride, and economic self-sufficiency.

As part of the organizations economic improvement he started the The Black Star Line -- a shipping line to foster black trade.

But Garvey’s ultimate goal for the fleet of four ships was to implement his "Back to Africa" movement, to relocate tens of thousands of blacks to Liberia where they could start a new life of “freedom.”

The UNIA sold stock to black supporters and solicited for money via mail. He continued to do that even while the company was in financial straits, so the U.S. Justice Department – under the leadership of J. Edgar Hoover, who had been gunning to bring Garvey down – charged Garvey with mail fraud in 1922.

Garvey was convicted and sentenced to five years in prison and fined $1,000. Hoover also suspended all Black Star Line operations.

However, Garvey appealed acting as his own defense and was set free on bail from New York Tombs Prison three months after his arrival.

Two years later, in 1925, the federal appeals court upheld the conviction of Garvey and it was then that he began to serve his sentence in Atlanta Federal Penitentiary.

The youngest of 11 children, Garvey left Jamaica during his teen years and worked on a banana plantation in Costa Rico where he observed the poor conditions under which his fellow blacks worked.

After traveling through Central America and London, and then learning of the conditions of blacks in the United States, Garvey came to see that the plight of blacks was the same all over the world.

He became determined to change the lives of his people, and in 1914 founded the UNIA.

Although he developed a small following in Jamaica, he was criticized and ridiculed by many blacks who said he was “crazy.

In his disappointment Garvey wrote to Booker T. Washington in the United States, who encouraged him to come to America, where he eventually made his way to Harlem – home to thousands of West Indian immigrants.

Within a year, the UNIA had branches in 38 states and six countries, with a following estimated at four-million people.