Push is on to clear Marcus Garvey’s name


WASHINGTON – Nearly 100 years after a politically motivated criminal conviction on federal mail fraud charges – and on what would have been his 129th birthday – the descendants of Jamaican-born Black activist Marcus Garvey and members of Congress are pushing for his legal exoneration.

Garvey is well-known within the worldwide African Diaspora for developing and advocating a Pan-African philosophy known as “Garveyism” that sought to empower people of African descent.

Young activist
Marcus Mosiah Garvey began his activism when he left Jamaica at the age of 23. He traveled to England, but later returned to Jamaica to found the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) in 1914. He came to the United States in 1916 and he organized the UNIA’s New York division the following year.

Garvey promoted the idea of Black people returning to Africa – but not all of them. Many would be “no good there,” he once wrote, according to the book “The Philosophy and Opinions of Marcus Garvey.” He also tried to develop colleges and industries in Liberia, but faced opposition from European colonial powers.

Critical thinker
Garvey’s movement took Black America by storm, and his book influenced succeeding generations of Black activists.

His shipping line, Black Star Line, was launched in 1919 with the vision of eventually transporting African-Americans to Africa to visit and live, as well as opening trade between Black-owned businesses and African countries. He raised more than $1 million from Black Americans to fund the venture.

That year, an assistant district attorney in the New York District Attorney’s office, Edwin P. Kilroe, questioned Garvey about UNIA activities. Garvey fired back with an editorial in the organization’s newspaper, the Negro World. He was sued for libel, but the case was later dropped.

On FBI radar
The scrutiny didn’t stop there.

J. Edgar Hoover – who in the 1960s and ‘70s was to use the power of the Federal Bureau of Investigation in what became known as COINTELPRO (Counter-Intelligence Program) to destroy Black political leaders and organizations such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and the Black Panthers, to name a few – began to watch Garvey.

In 1919, Hoover was a young FBI agent.  He wrote then in an FBI memo that Garvey was “an exceptionally fine orator, creating much excitement among the negroes through his steamship proposition.

“It occurs to me…that there might be some proceeding against him for fraud in connection with his Black Star Line propaganda and for this reason I am transmitting the communication to you for your appropriate attention,” Hoover wrote.

Charged, convicted
Not coincidentally, Garvey was eventually charged with mail fraud related to the sale of Black Star Line stock and convicted in 1923. He was sentenced to five years in prison.

President Calvin Coolidge commuted his sentence after four years and Garvey was eventually deported to Jamaica, where he lived from 1929 to 1935. He then moved to London and never returned to America before he died in 1940.

Garvey’s family is seeking a posthumous presidential pardon. A petition for pardon was filed with the White House Counsel and the Justice Department on June 24 by Garvey’s son, Dr. Julius W. Garvey.

Precedent for pardon
Garvey’s supporters compare him to 2nd Lt. Henry Ossian Flipper, the first Black West Point graduate, who was court-martialed and dismissed from the Army. A review found that Flipper’s court-martial was unjust and President Bill Clinton pardoned him posthumously.

In a recent statement, Garvey’s supporters said his conviction was “motivated by a desire on the part of the federal government to discredit, disrupt and destroy Garvey’s civil rights movement.”

Furthermore, they added, his conviction was “executed through court surveillance and deception, with undercover agents posing as Garvey supporters” and “aided by judicial proceedings that have been condemned as factually unsound and politically and racially motivated.”

Alex Ganitano of CQ-Roll Call contributed to this report.


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