The greatest mass movement of Black people in history remains that of the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League (UNIA ).
Founded on July 15, 1914 in Kingston, Jamaica by Marcus Garvey, the UNIA exploded in popularity after Garvey moved to the United States and established a branch in Harlem in 1918. Garvey’s militancy, his global vision, his unapologetically pro-Black, pro-African stance, and his demands for Black economic sovereignty and political independence – including his audacious, anti-colonial call of “Africa for the Africans, at home and abroad” – held an obvious appeal to Black folk. This was especially so given the horrific increase in anti-Black violence and colonial repression throughout the Black world in the aftermath of World War I. By the 1920s, thousands of UNIA divisions had been formed in more than forty countries and the organization counted millions of members around the world.
Targeted by the US government and attacked by African-American leaders across the ideological spetrum, while also a victim of his own failures of management, Garvey was arrested and jailed for mail fraud in 1922, convicted in 1923, and deported back to Jamaica in 1927. While a handful of UNIA divisions have continued to operate to this day, the organization declined following Garvey’s deportation. However, the impact of Garvey, Garveyism, and the UNIA persists. Garvey helped to usher in the development of Black consciousness and he influenced later generations of Black activists fighting for civil rights and African and Caribbean independence. Likewise, the celebrated iconography of the UNIA – the black star and the red, black, and green flag , for instance – have been embedded within the visual languages of Black nationalism and pan-Africanism. Garvey, wrote C.L.R. James in A History of Pan-African Revolt , “made the American Negro conscious of his African origin and created for the first time a feeling of international solitarily among Africans and people of African descent.”
In August 1920, during the peak years of the movement, the UNIA convened the First International Convention of the Negro Peoples of the World in New York City. Some two thousand delegates from twenty countries gathered for a month of debates, sessions, and spectacular parades. During the final session of the Convention, delegates drafted a document that provided a comprehensive statement on global Black conditions and a systematic assertion of Black rights. Titled “Declaration of Rights of the Negro Peoples of the World ,” it remains a model for the global Black movements of our time.