Social activists have called on President Obama to posthumously pardon Marcus Garvey, the 20th-century black nationalist who was convicted of mail fraud in 1923 based on what some have called a racially motivated investigation orchestrated by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover.
Dr. Julius Garvey, the youngest son of the late civil rights leader, was joined by activists, academics and attorneys Wednesday to demand his father’s exoneration in a press conference at the National Press Club.
“I had to grow up with the fact that my father was a convicted criminal, convicted in the United States of America which is the biggest and the strongest country in the world,” Dr. Garvey said. “It was very difficult for me as a young man to reconcile what I knew about my father, personally, and what I knew about my father from my mother, to reconcile that with a criminal conviction when it was clear when he gave his whole life and sacrificed his family for African people.”
A Jamaican national hero, Marcus Garvey in 1914 founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), which promotes the social, political and economic freedom of blacks by advocating their “return” to African nations. Shortly after establishing the organization, Garvey emigrated to the United States with the goal of expanding the group.
Quito Swan, associate professor of Africa diaspora history at Howard University, credits Garvey with being the first person to build “the world’s most expansive black mass movement.”
Garveyism flourished under the Harlem renaissance of the 1920s, attracting the attention of Hoover and the FBI. For several years, the bureau monitored Garvey, and eventually recruited its first black informants to infiltrate UNIA with the goal of bringing charges against its leader.
In 1923, the Pan-Africanist leader was accused of advertising that a ship he didn’t own was part of his Black Star Line fleet. Following a month-long trial, Garvey was convicted of mail fraud and sentenced to five years in prison.
President Calvin Coolidge commuted his sentence in November 1927, and Garvey was deported back to Jamaica, abruptly ending his civil rights work in the U.S.
Garvey’s legacy has long been overshadowed by his criminal record. Through a presidential pardon, his family seeks to clear his name.
“Everyone stands on the shoulders of everyone who comes before. There would be no black president if it wasn’t for the Civil Rights movement,” Dr. Garvey said. “The civil rights movement started with Marcus Garvey, as acknowledged by Brother Malcolm, as acknowledged by Martin Luther King, and acknowledged by anyone who knows history. The president stands on that foundation.”
The fight to exoneration Garvey has been an ongoing struggle. The presidential pardon petition is being spearheaded by the D.C. based law firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, which is representing the case pro bono.
The petition was filed June 24 with the Justice Department, and a copy was sent to the White House on June 27.
The Garvey family says they have been fighting to clear Marcus Garvey’s name for nearly 30 years.
During Mr. Obama’s April 2015 trip to Jamaica, Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller said she asked the president to offer an official pardon of Garvey.
The Obama administration has remained adamant that delivering posthumous pardons is the duty of the U.S. Supreme Court, not the president.
White House pardon attorney Ronald Rodgers responded to a 2011 petition filed by Jamaican attorney Donovan Parker seeking to pardon Garvey, noting that presidential pardon policy is “grounded in the belief that the time of the officials involved in the clemency process is better spent on pardon and commutation requests of living persons.”
Mr. Obama has commuted a historic number of inmates serving long sentences for drug crimes. But this is no indication how the administration will respond to this plea.
While posthumous presidential pardons are rare, both Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush delivered pardons of this kind in their final years in office, making a pardon for Garvey not impossible.
“The reality is there’s never been a better time to do so,” said Saint Louis University law professor Justin Hansford. “I believe we’re at a turning point in our racial justice history. We’re at a time where we’re trying to affirm, perhaps for the first time ever, that yes, black lives do matter in this country. This is an important part of that process.”
The Garvey family says the response to the petition has been overwhelming. Letters of support from Judge Greg Mathis, Grenadian politician Brenda Hood, former U.N. ambassador Andrew Young and several members of the Congressional Black Caucus were shared at Wednesday’s press conference, illustrating the widespread support for the civil rights leader.
The social justice activist say that through the exoneration of Marcus Garvey’s crimes, Mr. Obama has the opportunity not only to clear an innocent man’s name but also to validate the importance of black lives.
“I think what the BLACK LIVES MATTer movement is showing us is that our young black children are tired,” said Dr. Garvey. “They’re tired of living in a society that marginalizes them and restricts their opportunities to be full human beings. That’s the way it was when Marcus Garvey came to America.”
• Julia Porterfield can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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