Marcus Mosiah Garvey was an eccentric man with arguably impossible dreams. But none of these things compare to the stranger-than-fiction story of how the pioneering Pan-Africanist read a newspaper’s announcement of his death two weeks before he actually kicked the bucket.
The paper was the Chicago Defender, founded in 1905 by Robert S. Abbott, an African-American lawyer and businessman born to parents who had been freed from slavery. By the 1940s when Garvey died, the Chicago Defender was highly regarded among America’s Black people as a leading source of news as well an outlet for the intellectual defense of Black humanity in America.
The Chicago Defender could count among its published authors some of the most illustrious African-Americans to sit behind a typewriter. They included Ida B. Wells, Langston Hughes, Louis Lomax and Gwendolyn Brooks. Clearly a distinguished publication, it does beat the imagination if the Defender’s premature declaration of Garvey’s death was because editors were no friends to Garvey’s radical Black nationalism and thus rushed to press with a rumor. Or perhaps, it was a genuine blunder.
Garvey fell from grace and the top as dramatically as he had risen and shone. A review of one of his biographic books called him a self-made man inspired the thoughts of Booker T. Washington. Garvey was neither the socialist nor scholar W.E.B. DuBois was. Rather, he was a businessman and a political organizer. Looking back, one can appreciate the magnitude of his efforts and also that the seeds he had sown gave birth to the likes of Malcolm X and Huey P. Newton.
However, there is also very little doubt about the claim that Garvey would have felt unfulfilled as he lived out the last few years of his life in a rented home in London. After his troubles in the United States where he was shipped out having been accused of mail fraud. Garvey split from his wife and children who went to Jamaica in 1935 as he went to London. He also never went to Africa himself despite being the century’s biggest proponent for Black people to return to the continent.
In January of 1940, Garvey was struck by a stroke. It was the most serious episode yet in the series of his deteriorating health status. But Garvey eventually survived this stroke, albeit with irreparable damages. By May, he was a man aware and mobile in his home in west London. At least he was healthy enough to read an issue of the Chicago Defender that had been delivered.
The headline of the issue said “Marcus Garvey Dies in London” after years of being “broke, alone and unpopular”. According to his personal secretary, Garvey’s descent towards actualizing the premature announcement was immediate after reading the report. He died a fortnight later on June 10, 1940, aged 52.