Family of Marcus Garvey seeks pardon in waning days of Barack Obama’s presidency
With less than a week left, there’s still hope
When the name Marcus Garvey comes up, most people remember him as the “Back-to-Africa” guy. But that’s one of the biggest misconceptions about the charismatic black leader who founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) and the Black Star Line Steamship Corp., a shipping company.
“The Black Star Line was designed to create a means for economic trade between blacks in the U.S. and those on the African continent, so that they could create a mechanism for economic development that didn’t depend on Jim Crow segregation and the economy that was based on it in the 1920s,” said Justin Hansford, an associate professor of law at St. Louis University and a visiting professor at Georgetown University Law School. “He argued for self-determination, for the need for these people to define their own political institutions and to create their own independent power bases. That was a revolutionary idea at the time, and it caught on like wildfire.”
Garvey’s message of self-reliance and economic independence appealed to many who were fed up with the racism and discrimination that defined segregation, as well as the hypocrisy of America. The UNIA, which Garvey founded in 1914, had more than 5 million members in 40 countries by 1921. But in May 1923, the black nationalist was convicted of mail fraud related to the business of the Black Star Line and sent to prison. And though former President Calvin Coolidge commuted Garvey’s sentence in 1927, the Pan-African leader was deported to his native Jamaica and not allowed to return to the United States.
“It was a political move to stop the civil rights movement in the ’20s. It effectively destroyed Garvey’s movement,” said Hansford, a democracy fellow at Harvard University’s Charles Warren Center for Studies in American History. “[FBI director] J. Edgar Hoover, who helped to get these trumped-up charges, did it to Dr. Martin Luther King and again in the ’70s against the Black Panther Party with COINTELPRO in later years. But it began with Garvey.”
In a 2009 law review article published in the Georgetown Journal of Law and Modern Critical Race Perspectives, Hansford outlined the case for a Garvey exoneration. He pointed to the lack of evidence and perjury by the only witness. But Hansford also argued in the law review that Garvey was targeted by Hoover and the U.S. government because of his political activity.
“He was someone who inspired a new vision of the self and a new amount of self-confidence for an entire generation of African-Americans,” Hansford said. “That approach of using the law for political purposes to specifically isolate black radical thinkers or African-American civil rights is dangerous and it hurts democracy.”
Though Coolidge commuted Garvey’s sentence, his conviction was left in place. For the past three decades, Garvey’s family has sought to clear his name.
In the 1980s, Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Michigan) introduced legislation for a Garvey pardon, and as late as 2009, Rep. Charles Rangel (D-New York), the former chairman of the House Committee on Ways and Means, submitted a resolution stating that “the president should grant a pardon to Marcus Mosiah Garvey to clear his name and affirm his innocence of crimes for which he was unjustly prosecuted and convicted.” But the resolution never received enough votes in Congress to pass.
“Basically what we’ve tried to do is get an exoneration because he was not guilty of any crime,” said Julius Garvey, Marcus Garvey’s youngest son.
A board-certified cardiothoracic and vascular surgeon who practices in New York, Julius Garvey was only 7 years old when his famous father died in 1940.
“We were admonished to grow up to be like our father — a man of substance and of worth, who contributed and gave his life for his people,” said Julius Garvey, 83.
Today, the son is working to restore the family name. Garvey has enlisted the help of the law firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP in Washington, D.C., which has taken on the case pro bono. The firm filed the official pardon request in June 2016 with the Department of Justice’s Office of the Pardon Attorney.
“The trial was simply unfair,” said Tony Pierce, litigation partner at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, of Garvey’s conviction. “After his commutation, nine of the 12 jurors who voted to convict him supported the petition to have his sentence commuted. Calvin Coolidge’s own attorney general wrote Coolidge and said he believed that the facts underlying Garvey’s conviction had been overstated — that Garvey’s victims never believed he had defrauded them and saw his imprisonment as discriminatory and oppressive acts on the part of the government.”
Pierce also said that the prosecution witness admitted that the prosecutor and investigator instructed him on what to say and a juror had a seemingly cozy relationship with the judge.
“A pardon is basically the head of the government that prosecuted him saying that we were wrong and you should not have this on your record,” Pierce said. “It basically clears his record.”
The effort to get a posthumous presidential pardon for Marcus Garvey has received support from the civil rights community, including Andrew Young, Malcolm X’s daughter Attallah Shabazz, members of the Congressional Black Caucus and students. The National Minority Business Council even sent a special appeal to the first lady. The letters of support and background on the pardon effort can be found on Justice4Garvey.org.
Pierce said the pardon petition included the support letters and information surrounding Garvey’s arrest and conviction. It was presented in a lengthy document prepared for the pardon attorney. After an internal review, the pardon attorney will make a recommendation to the White House.
“We put the record in front of them,” Pierce said. “We’ve given them all the information, data they need after an exhaustive effort on our part.”
But Pierce said that posthumous pardons are rare and that only two have been granted. Former President Bill Clinton granted the first posthumous pardon in 1999 to Henry O. Flipper, the first black cadet to graduate from West Point and the first African-American officer in the U.S. Army. Flipper was accused of embezzlement and dishonorably discharged in 1882.
Julius Garvey, however, said a pardon for his father is a “no-brainer.”
“Everywhere in the world he’s honored as a great person who changed history — Canada, Latin America, Africa. He was the first national hero in Jamaica,” said Julius Garvey, who has three children and three grandchildren. “He has been voted one of the 50 great political thinkers of all time by the University of Durham in England. He’s not some little idiot with a ‘Back-to-Africa’ movement, or somebody who was swindling a group of people.”
In the United States, there are parks and streets named after Marcus Garvey, his son pointed out, adding that even Martin Luther King Jr. admired his father.
“Martin Luther King, in 1965, said Marcus Garvey was the first person to give black people in the United States a feeling that they were somebody,” said Julius Garvey. “You can draw a straight line from Marcus Garvey to Black Lives Matter and see that we’re still struggling for full citizenship and just the right to be human within our society and not somebody who should be marginalized, imprisoned or destroyed.”
The petition for a posthumous pardon is, as Julius Garvey said, “on the president’s table.”
But time is running out. President Barack Obama has only a week left in office.
“President Obama has an opportunity to do this through the executive privilege that he has,” said Julius Garvey. “It’s a social injustice. It’s been hanging in the air for almost a hundred years, and it’s time to be corrected.”
Pierce said if the pardon doesn’t happen before Obama leaves office, he will continue to work to exonerate Marcus Garvey.
“I’m not giving up,” Pierce said. “So if the Obama administration is foolish enough not to do this, this effort will continue.”