Feb. 8, 2023

Black Nationalist Marcus Garvey Goes To Prison

Black Nationalist Marcus Garvey Goes To Prison

February 8, 1925. Leader of the Pan-Africanism movement, Marcus Garvey, enters federal prison for mail fraud, initiating a steep decline in his influence.


Cold Open

It’s February 8th, 1925, in Atlanta, Georgia.

Amy Jacques Garvey sits on a train as it rolls into the city’s station, her eyes glued on the compartment’s doors. As soon as they open, she darts onto the platform and into the station, eager to find her husband and say one last goodbye.

A few days ago, Marcus was arrested for mail fraud in New York and sent to Atlanta to serve his prison sentence. Determined to see her husband off, Amy made the journey south at the same time, arriving just after him.

As Amy runs through the station’s waiting room, she spots a group of federal marshals pushing her handcuffed husband into a government vehicle outside. Before she can lose them, Amy leaps into the backseat of a cab idling outside the station.

As she closes the door, Amy tells the driver to follow the government vehicle. But the cab doesn’t move. Amy looks up, perturbed, as the ignition turns off. With a stony expression, the driver eyes Amy, before telling her that “down here, white men don't drive colored people.”

Without pausing, Amy opens the cab door and scuttles over to another cab, this time with a Black driver. Frantically, she points to the disappearing government car and instructs him to follow it. Driver slams down the paddle, and as they draw close, Amy reaches over and honks the horn, trying to signal to her husband that she’s right behind him.

The cab tails the car all the way to the prison’s gates. But before it can make it onto the grounds, the gates clang shut. A guard raps on the window of the cab and informs Amy that she will have to wait at least two weeks to see her husband. Tears begin to roll down her face as Amy sits in silence, watching the government vehicle disappear inside the prison complex, tearing away her husband, and one of the nation’s most influential Black activists.

In 1916, 28-year-old Marcus Garvey arrived in the United States as an unknown Jamaican activist with a bold vision for a new society – one where all people of African origin were united, empowered, and proud. Over the next decade, Garvey built the largest mass movement in American history, rallying hundreds of thousands around his Black nationalist ideology, coined Garveyism. But the leader’s fortunes will rapidly change course when he is convicted of mail fraud and sent to federal prison on February 8th, 1925.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.

Today is February 8th, 1925: Black Nationalist Marcus Garvey Goes To Prison.

Act One: The Rise

It’s the morning of April 25th, 1916, on the streets of Harlem in New York City.

28-year-old Marcus Garvey pushes past the peddlers and carts surrounding the entrance to the subway station. On another day, he might have stopped to try out one of their offerings, but today, Marcus doesn’t give them a second glance. He has far too much on his mind.

A month ago, Marcus moved to America with big dreams. Back in his homeland of Jamaica, he envisioned a movement that would unify and empower Black people of African descent all across the world. In Kingston, Jamaica, he established the Universal Negro Improvement Association, or UNIA, to bring about the solidarity. But after almost two years of running the UNIA, Marcus decided it was time to bring his vision to a bigger canvas: America.

For the past few weeks, Marcus has been trying to jumpstart a career as an activist and public speaker in New York. But it's been tough. In a city as big as this one, no one knows, let alone cares, about Marcus and his ideas. But today, he hopes he might finally get his foot in the door with the help of one of the nation’s foremost Black intellectuals.

As his train wends through the city’s tunnels, Marcus stays deep in thought, trying to find the right words to entice W.E. Du Bois to care about a fledgling activist, like him. Right now, Du Bois is arguably the most prominent Black voice in America as one of the founders, and sole Black board member, of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. But Marcus is confident that if he can get Du Bois to brush shoulders with him, he’ll find a larger audience in no time.

But when Marcus arrives at the NAACP’s office, he’s told Du Bois is out of town. Deflated but undeterred, Marcus leaves a letter inviting the activist to attend, and even speak, at Marcus's first public lecture in the city, along with two complimentary tickets.

But Du Bois never shows up at Marcus’s speaking debut. In fact, nor does Marcus’s formally-scheduled opening speaker. Instead, after half hour of nervous pacing, Marcus finally takes the stage to jeers and heckles from a 36-person crowd. Then, sleep-deprived and filled with nerves, Marcus is struck with a dizzy spell. Before he can even get his first sentence out, he stumbles and falls off the stage.

But Marcus Garvey recovers quickly from this inauspicious debut. Just weeks later, he sets off on a speaking tour around the US. For months, he traverses the country, experiencing the South’s Jim Crow era segregation, learning from the Black pastors who captivate their congregations, and building his speaking skills through appearances in lecture halls. The tour does much to enhance Marcus’s understanding of the Black American experience but it does little to build him a loyal following. Instead, Marcus’s big break comes back in Manhattan, where he meets post-office clerk turned Black nationalist, Hubert Harrison.

In June 1917, Hubert invites Marcus to share the stage at the inaugural meeting of his Liberty League of Negro-Americans. There, for the first time, Marcus finds himself in front of an audience in the thousands. And he rises to the occasion. By the end of the summer, Marcus is the league’s star speaker.

Through his speeches, Marcus sets himself apart from moderate leaders like W.E. Du Bois. Rather than fight for integration, he calls for racial separation and Black self-reliance, insisting that Black people should unite and emigrate to Africa. His defiant tone exhilarates many Black Americans, its frenzied passion tapping into their fear and resentment so many feel.

Over the next year, Marcus’s star rises rapidly. By the end of 1917, Marcus starts a New York branch of his Universal Negro Improvement Association and opens membership to anyone of African ancestry who can pay the 25 cents a-month membership fee. By the following year, the UNIA has hundreds of thousands of members across branches in 25 states and several international divisions.

Through this organization, Garvey continues to promote the “Back to Africa” movement, emphasizing the need for Black unity and self-sufficiency. And as the UNIA raises more money, Marcus starts experimenting with ways to encourage Black economic independence in America. He opens Black-owned restaurants, Black-owned grocery stores, and shopping centers. And then, in the organization’s third year, Marcus announces his biggest venture yet, the Black Star Line — a Black-owned and operated shipping and passenger line only for Black patrons. Quickly, Marcus gets to work raising stock sales, publicly declaring that any Black person who did not invest in the company was a traitor. Within just a few months, the line is able to begin operations, becoming a key pillar in Marcus’s vision of a Black-run economy.

And as the UNIA flourishes, Marcus also develops a unique cult of personality. His Black nationalist ideas are coined Garveyism, and his followers, Garveyites. At the UNIA’s first annual conference, delegates even declare Marcus the Provisional President of Africa, charging him with taking power in the continent upon its decolonization.

But while his radical vision earns Marcus many supporters, it also brings him many enemies. In and outside of the Black community, many ridicule Marcus for his grandiosity and hyperbolic language. Those within the NAACP accuse Marcus of ruining their progress toward racial integration, with W.E.B. DuBois deeming Marcus a “dangerous and embarrassing demagogue.”

But these critiques will pale in comparison to the federal government’s campaign against Marcus Garvey. Alarmed by his rise, director J. Edgar Hoover will entreat his newly-formed Bureau of Investigation to target the Black nationalist, searching for ways to deport him. With this goal in mind, the government launches an investigation into the UNIA’s economic activities, setting in motion a plot that will eventually bring all Marcus has built crashing down.

Act Two: The Decline

It’s January 12th, 1922, on 129th Street in Harlem.

Inside the back of a police car, Marcus Garvey gazes out the window as his apartment fades from view, wondering how he fell this far.

Two years ago, Marcus and the UNIA were at their pinnacle of success. But since then, the organization and its leader have spiraled toward financial ruin. Not only has the Black Star Line failed to turn a profit, but internal corruption and mismanagement have left the UNIA’s accounts a mess — a fact made sorely evident by a recent audit. Horrified, Marcus purged the organization of several key officers. But his actions weren’t enough to stop the auditors from going to the District Attorney’s office.

Last month, the IRS also decided to get involved. For years, director J. Edgar Hoover has looked for ways to bring about Marcus’s downfall. Ever since he came on the scene, the government agents have been monitoring his speeches and producing reports about Marcus’s militant rhetoric. Hoover even recruited the division’s first Black agent to spy on Marcus.

So when he learned of the Black Star Line’s financial difficulties, Hoover was quick to urge the IRS to investigate. Their search turned up old advertisements for the Black Star Line that ran in the UNIA’s magazine and various brochures. One of these advertised stock in a ship that the company wanted to buy, but did not yet own. This was enough for federal agents to descend on Marcus’s Harlem residence today with handcuffs and charges of mail fraud.

After being detained, Marcus is released on bail for $2,500. But as the shock of his arrest subsides, anger grows. But the target of Marcus’s ire is not the federal government. Instead, Marcus blames rival civil rights groups for his arrest. He insists that it’s the product of a conspiracy masterminded by the NAACP to bring down Garveyism, destroy the UNIA, and imprison Marcus.

In response, W.E.B. Du Bois publishes a scathing article, condemning Marcus and his claims. He and other Black leaders soon join forces to head a vehement “Garvey Must Go” campaign to speed up legal action against Marcus. The nation’s mainstream papers also pick up the story, painting Marcus as a con artist who swindled his supporters to invest in a dubious enterprise.

But much of Black America still sides with Marcus. So the night after his arrest, Marcus decides to appeal to the people in a speech at a public hall. Before he even says a word, the crowd of over a thousand erupts in cheers and applause. Any scorn in the room is directed only to the reporters scribbling away in the corner.

Buoyed by this reception, Marcus goes on a speaking tour across the country, trying to keep a hold of his national popularity. And to his delight, he finds it well intact. If anything, his celebrity is growing. Many believe Marcus’s theory that he was simply a victim of a conspiracy against him. But the court is harder to convince. When Marcus’s case goes to trial the following May, he is convicted and sentenced to 5 years in prison for mail fraud.

The conviction sends Garveyites into uproar. A week after his sentencing, thousands march to denounce it as a miscarriage of justice. The Marcus Garvey Committee on Justice soon forms and mounts a petition drive to free Marcus. After a three-month stint in New York’s prisons, the committee's calls are finally answered; Marcus is awarded bail when he appeals his conviction.

For the five months after that, Marcus walks free. He even tours the country on another speaking tour condemning his conviction. But in early 1925, his freedom comes to an abrupt end when the US Court of Appeal upholds the original court decision. Upon his return to Manhattan, Marcus is apprehended and then taken to the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary where he is incarcerated on February 8th, 1925.

Marcus’s imprisonment becomes a major turning point for the UNIA. With its founder behind bars, membership quickly wanes and the organization’s financial struggles intensify. Within a year of Marcus’s incarceration, the UNIA’s Manhattan office building is sold for nonpayment of taxes.

But many Black Americans remain staunch supporters of Marcus Garvey, viewing his imprisonment as a form of racial oppression rather than justice. In 1927, the US Attorney General receives a petition with 70,000 signatures urging for Marcus’s release. In response, new President Calvin Coolidge agrees to commute Marcus’s sentence, on the condition that he is immediately deported.

Back in Jamaica, Marcus will continue his activism and public speaking. But amid the Great Depression, financial strain will force him to change direction and become an auctioneer. The pivot will deeply depress Marcus who will later describe himself at this point in time as “a broken man, broken in spirit, broken in health and broken in pocket.” Dissatisfied with his life, Marcus will move to London with his family. There, he will try to restart his activism and rebuild the UNIA. But Marcus will never regain his former influence, and the UNIA will never reach its former glory. Instead, Marcus will find himself isolated, ostracized, and forced to reckon with a blemished legacy.

Act Three: The Aftermath

It’s late May 1940 in West Kensington, London.

Inside his home, the now 52-year-old Marcus Garvey struggles to sit up in bed as his secretary places a stack of newspapers beside him.

The last decade has not been kind to Marcus. After his imprisonment and deportation, his career floundered. Two years ago, his wife left him and returned to Jamaica with their children. Now, his health is failing him too. A recent stroke has left Marcus partially paralyzed and largely bedridden. The only glimpses of the world Marcus gets now are from his daily diet of newspapers. But today, the publications only add to his woes.

As Marcus sifts through the day’s papers, a headline catches his eye: “Marcus Garvey Dies in London.” Confused, he searches the other newspapers only to find more obituaries. By all accounts except his own, Marcus Garvey is dead.

It will take a week for most newspapers to issue corrections. But by then, wakes and memorials are held across the United States and Caribbean. Marcus finds himself both eulogized by former critics and vilified by old friends. Against his secretary’s wishes, he insists on reading even the most unkind news stories about his passing. And after two days of reading their damning words, Marcus suffers another stroke, bigger than the last. Two weeks later, he does finally and actually passes away.

Though Marcus Garvey will die in relative obscurity, after his death, his former fame will eventually return. Twenty-four years after his passing, Marcus’s remains will be sent to Jamaica for a state funeral, and he will be honored as the country’s first national hero. By the end of the 20th century, Marcus will be credited by many as one of the era’s most influential Black leaders, responsible for the largest mass movement in African-American history. For all his controversy and stalled aspirations, his impact on Black culture and politics will prove undeniable, enduring long after Marcus Garvey entered federal prison on February 8th, 1925.


Next onHistory Daily. February 9th, 1897. In response to the massacre of a trade delegation, the British army invades the Kingdom of Benin and overthrows its government in a campaign known as the Punitive Expedition.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing by Mollie Baack.

Sound design by Derek Behrens. 

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Alexandra Currie-Buckner.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.