Julius Garvey, the son of black nationalist Marcus Garvey, is pacing the lobby of a Washington hotel. His collar is starched. His glasses polished. He holds a stack of fliers displaying photos of his famous father under a headline that reads, “The Exoneration of Marcus Garvey.”
Julius Garvey, an 83-year-old vascular surgeon, is on a mission to clear his father’s name, tarnished by a 1923 federal mail-fraud conviction that he believes was bogus. He wants the country’s first African American president to pardon the fiery founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association. Marcus Garvey, who died in 1940, led a “back to Africa” campaign that made him a seminal figure in the push for racial and economic justice for black people.
“My father was central to the civil rights movement in the early 20th century,” said Julius Garvey, who lives on Long Island. “His organization was the dominant civil rights organization. It shaped the thinking of that part of the century. It gave birth to the Harlem Renaissance. ‘Black is beautiful’ — my father was the basis for that ideology.”
Marcus Garvey’s activism is chronicled in the Smithsonian’s new National Museum of African American History and Culture. His son was among the 7,000 dignitaries, celebrities and elected officials who were invited to the museum’s opening, where President Obama spoke about the nation’s history of racial oppression.
The Obama administration rejected a posthumous pardon for Marcus Garvey five years ago. And Julius Garvey says he knows that time is running out, both for him and for Obama’s tenure in the White House.
“It’s urgent from the point of view of this president, because his term is up,” Garvey says. “The point is the injustice has been allowed to sit for [almost] 100 years. It is a continuing injustice that needs to be corrected.”
Marcus Mosiah Garvey was an immigrant from Jamaica who had already founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association when he arrived in the United States in 1916. Eventually, the UNIA claimed millions of members around the world — although those figures remain in dispute.
In 1918, Garvey established the Negro World newspaper and a year later bought an auditorium in Harlem. He called it Liberty Hall, where thousands flocked to hear him speak.
“Black people are subjects of ostracism,” Garvey said in 1921 to thunderous applause. “It is sad that our humanity has shown us no more love — no greater sympathy than we are experiencing. Wheresoever you go throughout the world, the black man is discarded as ostracized, as relegated to the lowest of things — social, political and economical.”
Garvey preached that the problem could be solved only through black pride and self-reliance.
In 1920, the UNIA elected Garvey “Provisional President of Africa.” In an iconic photo, Garvey and members of the association later marched through the streets of Harlem in military uniforms, carrying banners that read, “We Want a Black Civilization.”
To ferry black people and cargo to Africa, Garvey launched a steamship line, which he called the Black Star Line. The company sold stock for $5 a share, allowing black people to own a piece of the business.
This sale, along with Garvey’s rhetoric and following, attracted government attention. Soon after World War I, Garvey was targeted by future FBI director J. Edgar Hoover — as part of a “lifelong obsession to neutralize the rise of a black liberator,” Julius Garvey said.
In documents released later, the FBI acknowledged that it began investigating Garvey to find reasons to “deport him as an undesirable alien.”
In 1921, Garvey’s steamship company announced to stockholders it would buy two more ships. But a newspaper that competed with the Negro World published an investigative article claiming the U.S. Department of Commerce had no record of those ships.
Garvey, his treasurer and secretary were arrested and charged with using the Postal Service to defraud stockholders.
Garvey’s lawyer, William C. Matthews, urged him to plead guilty. Instead, Garvey fired Matthews and defended himself. On June 21, 1923, after a month-long trial in the Southern District of New York, Garvey was convicted of mail fraud and sentenced to five years in prison.
He had served nearly three years of that time when President Calvin Coolidge commuted the sentence. Garvey was deported to Jamaica, where he is regarded as a national hero. He died in London in 1940.
“We believe Marcus Garvey was the subject of racial and political animus,” said Anthony T. Pierce, a partner at Akin Gump law firm, who filed the pardon petition with the Department of Justice and the office of the White House counsel. “Garvey was targeted by J. Edgar Hoover. He did it in the same way he targeted Martin Luther King several decades later. The main goal was to get evidence to deport Garvey, because he was a rabble-rouser and a political threat.”
The petition, filed this past June, argues that Garvey was innocent, that he did not receive a fair trial, that a witness perjured himself and that the judge sided with the prosecution.
A spokeswoman for the Justice Department, which analyzes pardon requests, said she could “confirm that the department has received a petition but cannot comment beyond that.”
Julius Garvey was 7 years old when his father died. By then, an ocean separated them. His most vivid memory is throwing snowballs in his dad’s backyard in Britain.
Julius and his older brother, Marcus Garvey Jr., now 86 and an engineer living in Florida, grew up in Jamaica with their mother, Amy Jacques Garvey.
“My mom talked about the injustice done to my father,” Julius Garvey said.
It always has been difficult for him to reconcile his father’s conviction with “this great ideal of American justice,” he said. “That is still grievous. It scratches that area of me sensitive to social-justice issues. This hits a nerve for me, because I’ve been conditioned about social justice all my life. I’m 83. I’d like to see this corrected in my lifetime.”