Obama Leaves Office Without Pardoning Black Nationalist Marcus Garvey

Julius Garvey, son of Marcus Garvey, the
activist who spearheaded a “Back to Africa” movement in the United
States, poses for a portrait at the New York City park named in his
father’s honor.

In one of his final acts in office, President Obama issued hundreds of commutations and pardons. But he declined to act on a petition for a posthumous pardon of Marcus Garvey, the legendary black nationalist movement leader who was convicted in 1923 on what his family called “politically motivated and bogus” charges of mail fraud.

“We are disappointed the president decided it was not something he wanted to do,” said one of Garvey’s sons, Julius Garvey, 83, a vascular surgeon who lives in New York.

Julius Garvey, who argued that his father was targeted by then-FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s “obsession to neutralize the rise of a black liberator,” said the White House did not give a reason for its refusal to grant the pardon. The Obama administration also rejected a posthumous pardon in 2011.

[Marcus Garvey’s son wants President Obama to pardon his famous father]

Julius Garvey, who led the “Justice4Garvey” campaign to exonerate his father, said Friday there was also disappointment in Jamaica, where government leaders, including recent prime ministers, had urged Obama to grant the pardon. Garvey was deported to Jamaica in 1927 after his prison sentence was commuted by President Calvin Coolidge. He is considered a national hero there. 

Black nationalist Marcus Garvey is shown in a military uniform as the ‘Provisional President of Africa’ during a parade in Harlem in 1922. (N/A/AP)

“They had made phone calls,”
said Garvey, who was a child when his father died in 1940. “People were making phone calls. Everybody was hopeful right down to the last minute.”

Last year, Garvey filed another petition with the Justice Department and the White House Council to clear his father’s name.

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“We worked very hard,” he said. “We had all the evidence. We had great support from the Congressional Black Caucus, from senators and many significant people.”

Thousands of people signed a petition requesting a Garvey pardon and sent letters of support.

Supporters included: Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Chris Murphy (D-Conn.); Reps. John Lewis (D-Ga.), James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), Yvette D. Clarke (D-NY), Gregory W. Meeks (D-NY) and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.).

The congressional effort to pardon Garvey was championed for years by former congressman Charles B.Rangel (D-N.Y.), but the proposed legislation never passed. In 2001, Rangel submitted a resolution calling Garvey “innocent of the charges brought against him by the United States government” and wrote “the case against Marcus Garvey was politically motivated, the charges unsubstantiated, and his conviction unjust.”

Marcus Mosiah Garvey was an immigrant from Jamaica who had founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association before arriving in the United States in 1916. Eventually, the UNIA claimed millions of members around the world, though those figures remain in dispute.

In 1918, Garvey established the Negro World newspaper and a year later bought an auditorium in Harlem. He called it Liberty Hall, where thousands flocked to hear him speak.

“Black people are subjects of ostracism,” Garvey said in 1921 to thunderous applause. “It is sad that our humanity has shown us no more love no greater sympathy than we are experiencing. Wheresoever you go throughout the world, the black man is discarded as ostracized, as relegated to the lowest of things  social, political and economical.”

Garvey preached that the problem could be solved only through black pride and self-reliance.

In 1920, the UNIA elected Garvey “Provisional President of Africa.” In an iconic photo, Garvey and members of the association later marched through the streets of Harlem in military uniforms, carrying banners that read, “We Want a Black Civilization.”

To ferry black people and cargo to Africa, Garvey launched a steamship line, which he called the Black Star Line. The company sold stock for $5 a share, allowing black people to own a piece of the business.

This sale, along with Garvey’s rhetoric and following, attracted government attention. Soon after World War I, Garvey was targeted by Hoover, the future FBI director.

In documents released later, the FBI acknowledged that it began investigating Garvey to find reasons to “deport him as an undesirable alien.”

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In 1921, Garvey’s steamship company announced to stockholders it would buy two more ships. But a newspaper that competed with the Negro World published an investigative article claiming the U.S. Department of Commerce had no record of those ships.

Garvey, his treasurer and secretary were arrested and charged with using the Postal Service to defraud stockholders.

Garvey’s lawyer, William C. Matthews, urged him to plead guilty. Instead, Garvey fired Matthews and defended himself. On June 21, 1923, after a month-long trial in the Southern District of New York, Garvey was convicted of mail fraud and sentenced to five years in prison. He served three years before his sentence was commuted.

Julius Garvey said he won’t give up his quest to clear his father’s name. He hopes President Trump’s administration will do what Obama’s didn’t. “We will explore that avenue as time goes on,” he said.

DeNeen L. Brown

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