IF AMERICANS know anything about Marcus Garvey, it is merely that he was a "Negro agitator" or a man unjustly convicted of mail fraud. I propose that, on this 100th anniversary of his birth, we should instead remember him as one of the great sons of Africa.

Garvey came to this country in 1916 to visit Tuskegee Institute, hoping to create a similar industrial and agricultural training center in his native Jamaica. Instead, he settled in Harlem and built his Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League, the world's foremost organization of blacks at the time with upwards of six million members.

Though accused of many things, Garvey was not a real "criminal." What made him the target of four years of government infiltration, investigation, persecution and eventual prosecution was his championing the cause of racial independence for African-Americans. Garvey sought to "unite into one solid body, the 400 million {blacks} of the world for the purpose of bettering our industrial, commercial, educational, social and political condition."

His movement coincided with the Bolshevik "red scare," and his own radicalism contributed to the climate that caused government officials to classify any manifestations of black pride and nationalism as dangerous ideologies. He was targeted and his leadership penetrated by at least one Justice Department agent as well as by immigration and postal investigators.

There also was black opposition to Garvey. Garvey was stout and his dark skin was a badge of identification with rural southern life, the very things the newly organized National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and National Urban League were trying to leave behind. Black intellectuals considered Garvey pompous in his uniforms and epaulets. And there was much embarrassment when his Black Star Lines steamship Kanawha was plagued with mechanical problems on its maiden voyage. Still, the unlettered black masses flocked to his parades and meetings.

The man who brought fraud proceedings against Garvey was the 24-year-old director of the Justice Department's General Intelligence Division -- a lawyer named J. Edgar Hoover who decades later tried to shame Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. After complaining in a 1919 memorandum that Garvey "has not as yet violated any federal law whereby he could be proceeded against as an undesirable alien for deportation," Hoover recommended going after him for fraud in connection with the sale of Black Star stock through the mails.

By 1922 the stage had been set for Garvey's undoing. Though he was a poor manager and could never attract truly qualified professionals to help him, it has never been shown that he profited personally from any of his ventures. In January 1922 he was charged with mail fraud. A month later, another indictment charged him and three associates with mail fraud and conspiracy; Garvey's trial was postponed for 11 months until a third indictment added an additional mail-fraud charge.

On June 18, 1923 Garvey was found guilty of one count of the second indictment. His co-defendants were acquitted. Garvey was given themaximum sentence: a five-year term in the U.S. penitentiary in Atlanta, a $1,000 fine and court costs. Although his trial produced a 2,816-page transcript, his appeals hearing 18 months later lasted only one day and failed. On Feb. 8, 1925 Garvey entered prison.

His efforts for a pardon began almost immediately. On June 13, 1925 Garvey wrote President Calvin Coolidge outlining his reasons for his request: 1. He was not guilty, and had been framed and convicted on prejudice. 2. His appeal was hastily judged. 3. A pardon would convince black Americans of the humanity of the Republican president and party. 4. He was sick and willing to leave the country after a reasonable time. The application failed, as did another the following December.

On Jan. 17, 1927 Garvey again wrote Coolidge, stating that he had then served two years of his sentence in strict accordance with prison rules. His application contained affidavits from nine of the 10 jury members who could be located, recommending a pardon or commutation of his sentence. The law firm Kohn & Nagler submitted a supplemental memorandum pointing out that despite insinuations, Garvey's organization had kept records of all monies received; that the organization had accumulated hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of property in New York City, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Chicago, as well as Cuba, Central America and the West Indies; that the 1,400 UNIA-ACL branches world-wide had buried thousands of members, cared for the sick and helped members in times of distress; and that the charges upon which Garvey was prosecuted were never voiced by any members of his organization but rather by enemies and rivals.

On Nov. 12, 1927 Attorney General John G. Sargent recommended the commutation of Garvey's sentence on grounds that he had served most of it, that further imprisonment would have a bad effect on Garvey's followers "who comprise a considerable portion of the Negro population of the United States" and that he already was under order of deportation to Jamaica and could be deported immediately. On Nov. 18, 1927 Coolidge signed the order;, and on Dec. 2, Garveyn was deported from New Orleans to Jamaica on the S.S. Sarmacca.

In 1939, Garvey applied for a pardon to restore his civil rights so he could gain temporary readmission to the U.S. On June 10, 1940, before his application could be acted on, Garvey died in London.

Now, almost 60 years after Garvey was deported, another Garvey movement is growing in Harlem. Led by Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.), it takes the form of a concurrent resolution introduced in the House "expressing the sense of the Congress that the mail fraud charges brought against Marcus Garvey by the Federal Government were not substantiated and that his conviction on those charges was unjust and unwarranted."

On July 28, a House Judiciary subcommittee chaired by John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), held hearings to examine Garvey's conviction. The hearing room was full of Jamaican-style "dreadlock" hairstyles and colorful clothing, reflecting Garvey's adoption of the colors red, black and green for the flag of the "black nation" and his status as an official national hero in Jamaica. In the audience were Jamaican Ambassador Keith Johnson, Garvey's two sons Dr. Julius Garvey and Marcus Garvey Jr., a distinguished panel of scholars and black nationalists, representatives of the Woodson-Banneker Division of the UNIA/ACL still operating here in Washington, members of the National Black United Front, the Nation of Islam, Nationhouse and other black nationalists and Rastafarians.

This is not the first congressional proposal to exonerate Garvey. As unlikely a supporter as Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) offered an amendment to the Martin Luther King Holiday Bill in 1983 saying: "Since Marcus Garvey is known universally throughout the world as the Father of Black Nationalism, and: Since the writings of Marcus Garvey have served an an inspiration to all those who favor opportunity for all, and the doctrine of self-help, and: Since the conviction of Marcus Garvey in 1923 occurred in an atmosphere charged with emotionalism and publicity, and the excessiveness of the sentence was recognized by President Coolidge in 1927, commuting that sentence; Therefore let it be stated that it is the sense of Congress that the President should remove this cloud over the reputation of Marcus Garvey by granting a full pardon of any crimes of which he may have been convicted."

Whatever Helms' motive for offering the amendment (some felt he was trying to sabotage the King holiday, and the amendment was overwhelmingly defeated) Helms no doubt appreciated the fact that Garvey's movement was expressly anti-communist. As he said in support of the resolution: "Marcus Garvey had a dream, and it was the dream of thousands of black Americans. It was the dream of black achievement, of black participation in the free enterprise system, and of black leadership throughout the world.".

I agree with Garvey's great ambition. I believe like Garvey that black people can, through organization, "shake the pillars of the universe." He articulated that blacks should be proud of being black and should devise solutions to their own problems: "Remember that you are men, that God created you Lords of this creation. Lift up yourselves, men, take yourselves out of the mire and hitch your hopes to the stars; yes, rise as high as the very stars themselves."

On this 100th anniversary of his birth on Aug. 17, 1887 in St. Ann's Bay Parish, Jamaica, all Americans should see the case of the Right Excellent Honorable Marcus Mosiah Garvey as an opportunity for the nation to demonstrate its ability to pardon.

Askia Muhammad is a Washington writer and photojournalist and a frequent commentator on National Public Radio.