For those who celebrate the life and legacy of Marcus Moziah Garvey, 1987 stands out as a watershed year both in recognizing the contributions of the Jamaican-born Black nationalist and leader of the Pan-Africanism movement and for addressing a historical injustice.
First, family, friends and advocates of Garvey, who sought to unify and connect people of African descent throughout the world, heralded the centennial of his August 17, 1887 birth.
But perhaps even more significant, 1987 serves as the beginning of an initiative to secure a posthumous pardon for Garvey, who J. Edgar Hoover, first director of the FBI, referred to as a “notorious negro agitator.” The initiative, Justice4Garvey, seeks to clear the name and reputation of Garvey who many still believe suffered the fate of many other Black activists, singled out for his views which ruffled the feathers of white America and white supremacists.
Garvey once told the members of his Universal Negro Improvement Association (in 1921), “If you want liberty, you yourselves must strike the blow. If you must be free, you must become so through your own effort . . . Until you produce what the white man has produced, you will not be his equal.”
Details Behind Garvey’s Political Demise
In 1923, after a controversial trial, Garvey would be found guilty of mail fraud in connection with a brochure for the Black Star Line which included a photo of a ship before the company actually had a vessel in its fleet. Garvey would be sentenced to a maximum of five years in prison. Upon his release, after serving three years of his sentence, he would be deported from the U.S.
Garvey, in his famous paper, “First Message to the Negroes of the World from Atlanta Prison,” wrote these powerful thoughts.
“After my enemies are satisfied, in life or death I shall come back to you to serve even as I have served before. In life I shall be the same; in death I shall be a terror to the foes of Negro liberty.”
Garvey’s son, Dr. Julius Garvey, 88, said he hopes that while there have been times since 1987, when he believed that his father’s name would finally be cleared, he now believes that “with a Democratic president (Biden) and a vice president of Caribbean/Indian heritage, we have a much chance of success.”
“We’re trying to mobilize support and get Biden to pay attention,” said Dr. Garvey, the youngest of two sons born to Marcus Garvey and the only living offspring (Marcus Garvey Jr. died Dec. 2020).
“Before President Obama left office, Congresswoman Yvette D. Clarke (D-NY), along with 17 other members of the House of Representatives, sent a letter and presented legislation calling on him to pardon my father,” he said. “That fight continues, as Obama did not pardon my father, much to our disappointment.”
“People need to go back and study the history and the way the federal government unjustly went after my father. During his time in prison, people in the U.S. and around the world wrote hundreds of letters protesting his arrest and conviction. That’s why President Calvin Coolidge eventually commuted my father’s sentence. But to make sure they were rid of him, while he had applied for U.S. citizenship several times, the government was able to simply deport him.”
In the petition which Rep. Clarke sent to Obama, she said the following.
“Marcus Garvey has inspired generations of leaders, from the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to President Nelson Mandela. His efforts to organize the African Diaspora across nations in support of freedom and self-determination were critical to the movements for independence in Africa and the Caribbean and to the Civil Rights Movement here in the United States. When Marcus Garvey formed the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League, most of the nations of the Caribbean were colonies of the British Empire, and African Americans in the United States – nearly 40 years after the end of the Civil War – were effectively denied their human rights. Marcus Garvey offered to his people a different vision for the future and, even as we continue to work toward his dream, he would have been proud to witness our achievements.”
“Despite that legacy, however, Marcus Garvey has never been fully exonerated from racially-motivated charges of mail fraud. Recognizing that prosecutors and the government mishandled the case, President Calvin Coolidge commuted the sentence at the earliest possible opportunity. We believe that Marcus Garvey meets the criteria for a posthumous pardon, based on his efforts to secure the rights of people of African descent and the utter lack of merit to the charges on which he was convicted. We ask therefore that President Obama work with the Department of Justice to secure a pardon for this man of accomplishment and high distinction,” she wrote.
Will Justice Be Served?
Dr. Garvey, both a father and grandfather, said his fight should not be one waged by the ancestors of Marcus Garvey alone.
“If you don’t know your history, you will keep repeating it,” he said. “Eighty-one years after my father’s death, the police have become militarized – even kneeling on the backs of Black men like George Floyd. We’ve had the Black Panthers – now we have Black Lives Matter.”
“But how far have we really progressed? Blacks must know our history. Otherwise, while you think we’re moving forward, we’re actually standing still.”
“Marcus Garvey has not received his just due but one day, he will. America stands as the only country that has criminalized him. He’s a hero among the Organization of American States (an international group founded April 1948 for the purposes of solidarity and cooperation among its member states within the Americas). There are streets and parks named after him throughout England, Jamaica and Africa.”
“Unfortunately, many African-Americans have fallen victim to assimilationist philosophies and don’t understand what Marcus Garvey wanted for his people – for us – an end to our oppression. If you’re not in charge of your own community and your own way of life, you’re not on an equal basis with white, as my father often said. That means, Blacks in America still are not free,” Dr. Garvey said.