White House officials did not respond to requests for comment on a potential pardon of Garvey for his 1923 conviction for mail fraud.
“President Biden has made statements in his inaugural address about the dream for justice not to be delayed any longer,” said one of Garvey’s sons, Julius Garvey, 88, a vascular surgeon who lives in New York. “We will take him at his word. Racial injustice was done to my father more than 100 years ago. He committed no crime. What he was trying to do was elevate the status of African Americans and Africans across the world.”
Marcus Garvey, a revered human rights activist, newspaper owner, Black nationalist leader and orator, was known worldwide as a leader of the “back to Africa” movement, seeking to create a self-governing Black nation. Garvey founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), which advocated for the “general uplift of the Negro peoples of the world.”
Its members adopted the “Declaration of the Rights of the Negro Peoples of the World,” a bill of rights for Black people, which would later inspire leaders such as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Rep. Shirley Chisholm (D-N.Y.), Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya, Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana and Nelson Mandela of South Africa, according to Tony Martin, chair of the Department of Black Studies at Wellesley College, in testimony at a 1987 congressional hearing on Garvey’s conviction.
Garvey was born on Aug. 17, 1887, in St. Ann’s Bay, Jamaica. He studied law and philosophy at the University of London’s Birkbeck College. In 1914, after returning to Jamaica, he founded the UNIA.
Two years later, Garvey migrated to the United States. His speeches, highlighting Black beauty and advocating self-determination, were electrifying. Membership in the UNIA grew exponentially, and Garvey’s followers, who became known as “Garveyites,” pledged allegiance to the red, black and green Pan-African flag, designed by Garvey.
In 1919, Garvey founded the Negro World newspaper, whose contributors included Zora Neale Hurston, Arthur Schomburg, William H. Ferris and Norton G.G. Thomas. The paper was translated into Spanish and French and distributed worldwide, with front-page editorials by Garvey advocating for Black liberation from racial injustice.
The Negro World was banned by colonial powers in some of the African territories they occupied. According to the documentary “The Story of Marcus Garvey,” the Negro World was smuggled into British-occupied Kenya by Black seamen. The paper was read aloud, and children were instructed to memorize Garvey’s editorial. They then went into villages to recite Garvey’s message.
In the 1920s, people in the Belgian Congo could receive the death penalty for reading the Negro World, according to testimony at the 1987 congressional hearing.
In 1920, the UNIA elected Garvey as the provisional president of Africa. By 1923, Garvey’s movement had more than 6 million followers throughout the United States, the Caribbean, Central America and Africa.
The parents of Malcolm X — Earl Little and Louise Little — were Garveyites, according to “The Autobiography of Malcolm X.” Malcolm X wrote that he attended meetings with his father: “I remember how the meetings always closed with my father saying, several times, and the people chanting after him, ‘Up, you mighty race, you can accomplish what you will.’ ”
In 1919, Garvey purchased an auditorium in Harlem, which he called Liberty Hall, where he delivered passionate speeches calling on Black people to build an independent nation in Africa.
Garvey preached to Black Americans that their history did not begin with enslavement and that they came from a great civilization. “I am the equal of every White man,” Garvey said. “Always think of yourself as a perfect being.”
Garvey’s slogan became “Africa for Africans,” a call for the continent to oust colonizers. “We are organizing to drive every pale face out of Africa,” he said.
His growing movement made him a target of the U.S. government’s Bureau of Investigation, which would later become the FBI.
“Mr. Hoover, in his role as director of investigations on ‘Negro Activities,’ became obsessed with extinguishing the flames of the man who had become known as the ‘Negro Moses,’ ” then-Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.) testified at the 1987 hearing.
Hoover pursued Garvey with a vengeance, as Garvey delivered fiery speeches against the backdrop of race massacres in East St. Louis and Houston. During his travels, the UNIA established more than 700 branches in cities across the country.
As Garvey preached about the importance of Black economic independence, he opened several businesses, including the Black Star Line shipping and passenger company, which he said would help facilitate the travel of Black people to Africa. It was one of the first Black-owned shipping companies in the world.
“The company was incorporated with capital stock equivalent to $5 million today,” said Anthony T. Pierce, a partner at the law firm Akin Gump, which is representing Garvey’s family in the request for a presidential pardon. “It was the audacity of founding the Black Star Line that drew the attention of federal investigators. And ultimately, the company’s financial downfall led to Garvey’s prosecution for mail fraud in a trial replete with reversible errors and questionable evidence.”
When, in 1921, Garvey’s company announced to stockholders it would buy two more ships, a newspaper that competed with the Negro World published an investigation claiming the U.S. Department of Commerce had no record of those ships.
In 1922, Garvey and three business associates were indicted on charges of “conspiracy to use the mails in furtherance of a scheme to defraud,” according to congressional records. Garvey and his associates were charged with sending promotional circulars through the mail “with intent to defraud their recipients by selling stock in what had become a worthless corporation.”
The ads showed a photo of a ship dubbed the SS Phyllis Wheatley. At the time, Black Star Line did not own the ship but was in negotiations to buy it. “It was a Catch-22 situation for the UNIA — the sale of stock was needed to raise the funds necessary to fully complete the transaction that would legally transfer the ownership and operation of the ship to the Black Star Line,” Barbara Bair, an editor of “Marcus Garvey Life and Lessons,” said in 2001. “But at the time, the UNIA did not officially own the ship in question for which it was issuing stock.”
During his trial, Garvey fired his lawyers. Relying on his great oratory skills, he decided to defend himself. The prosecution relied on a key witness, Benny Dancy, a porter at Pennsylvania Station in New York City, who bought 53 shares of stock in the Black Star Line, according to 1987 congressional testimony.
“The government introduced into evidence at the trial an empty envelope addressed to Dancy, claiming that a letter promoting the stock purchase had been mailed inside of it,” according to congressional records. “Dancy testified at the trial that he had supplied the envelope to the Government agents but he could not remember the specific contents.” Dancy also testified that he had been coached by the FBI on the kind of testimony to give.
On June 21, 1923, after a five-week federal trial, Garvey was convicted of mail fraud and sentenced to five years in prison. He was also fined $1,000. The three other defendants in the case were acquitted.
Pierce argued, “Marcus Garvey was targeted because of political and social efforts, not because of anything to do with the Black Star Line.”
Garvey was convicted of defrauding one investor out of $25, Pierce said, and “for that, he got five years in prison.”
Garvey’s followers gathered a petition with thousand of names of individuals and organizations, demanding Garvey’s release from a penitentiary in Atlanta.
Even then-Attorney General John Sargent questioned the legitimacy of Garvey’s conviction. “I am inclined to think that the facts as reported to the Department are perhaps somewhat severely stated and are susceptible of modification and explanation in many respects,” Sargent wrote at the time.
Thousands of Garveyites wrote to President Calvin Coolidge, requesting he grant Garvey a presidential pardon.
Instead, on Nov. 18, 1927, Coolidge commuted Garvey’s sentence. Nine of the 12 White jurors who voted to convict Garvey said they supported the commutation of his sentence. Garvey was released from the penitentiary and deported to Jamaica. He later traveled to London, where he died in 1940.
On Feb. 23, 2021, Rep. Yvette D. Clarke (D-N.Y.) introduced a resolution expressing “the sense of the House of Representatives that Marcus Garvey should be recognized as a leader in the struggle for human rights and that the President should take measures to exonerate him of charges brought against him.”
Clarke said in an interview that she believes Garvey should be exonerated — a legal process that would clear him of wrongdoing. “A pardon implies guilt,” Clarke said. “The real transparency comes from looking at the records of J. Edgar Hoover and looking at his history and past with respect to the Black community.”
Clarke, whose parents are from Jamaica, where Garvey is a national hero, said her grandfather was a Garveyite follower there.
“As a student of Garvey’s teaching,” Clarke said, “I felt if I were ever in a position to bring sunlight to the way in which he was railroaded, I would take that opportunity.”
Justin Hansford, a professor at Howard University Law School and executive director of the Thurgood Marshall Civil Rights Center, said there is a growing movement among students and social justice activists to fight for a pardon of Garvey.
“People are recognizing the importance of facing sins as a nation,” Hansford said. “When it comes to Marcus Garvey, not just an individual was harmed, not just a family was harmed, but millions of people around the world are harmed by the destruction of the social justice movement. The U.S. government played a role in the false conviction of Marcus Garvey.”
Julius Garvey said he wants his father’s name and reputation restored.
“President Biden has an understanding of what we as a people have gone through,” said Julius Garvey. “I think he owes something of his presidency to African Americans. It is time for this to be righted with someone whose only crime was to help his people.”