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Please, Posthumously Pardon Marcus Garvey

Early this week, The Gleaner, Jamaica’s oldest and most respected daily newspaper, reported on that country’s continuing efforts to pave the way for the United States – and specifically, President Barack Obama – to grant a posthumous pardon to Marcus Mosiah Garvey, Jr., for his 1923 mail fraud conviction.

Born on August 17, 1887, in St. Ann’s Bay, Jamaica, Garvey was a civil rights activist, the founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), and a strong proponent of black nationalism and Pan-African philosophy. Garvey is not only Jamaica’s “first national hero,” he is revered by millions throughout the Caribbean, Central America, Canada, Africa, the United States, and indeed, all over the world. “Garveyism,” while (still) controversial in some quarters, has long been internationally recognized for its strong and enduring influence on the Nation of Islam, Rastafarianism, and the Black Pride movement. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said Garvey was “the first man on a mass scale and level to give millions of Negroes a sense of dignity and destiny.”

Writing for Fusion, Casey Tolan notes that “[a]s Garvey’s popularity grew, he attracted the attention of a young J. Edgar Hoover.” Hoover “put Garvey under surveillance, and in 1919, he wrote a memo about his investigation of the activist. Garvey had ‘been particularly active among the radical elements in New York City in agitating the negro movement,’ Hoover wrote. Hoover lamented, “[u]nfortunately, however, [Garvey] has not yet violated any federal law whereby he could be proceeded against on the grounds of being an undesirable alien, from the point of view of deportation.”

Just four years later though, in 1923, Hoover’s secretive and vindictive persecution of Garvey did lead to Garvey’s federal prosecution, conviction, jailing (for two years and nine months), and eventually deportation, on mail fraud charges. The charges were brought in connection with the sale of stock of Garvey’s Black Star Line, an ambitious all-black shipping company that Garvey founded. Garvey was “accused of trying to defraud his customers by advertising a ship that was not yet in his possession.” Tolan observes: “Modern day research suggests [however] that the trial was politically motivated to blunt the rise of a powerful black organizer.”

Objectively, what the Office of the Pardon Attorney, and ultimately, President Obama, should consider, is: if Garvey had had access and been able to present Hoover’s 1919 memo as evidence of his selective prosecution, there is no question he would have had meritorious grounds for the dismissal of his mail fraud case. (As Justice Thurgood Marshall noted in his dissenting opinion in Wayte v. United States, 470 U.S. 598, 624 (1985) (“[M]ost of the relevant proof in selective prosecution cases will be in the Government’s hands.”)

At page 15 of his 1997 book, The Ordeal of Integration: Progress and Resentment in America’s “Racial” Crisis, Orlando Patterson, a professor and historical and cultural sociologist at Harvard University, writes: “The prejudices of centuries die hard, and even when they wane, the institutional frameworks that sustained them are bound to linger.” It doesn’t have to be that way for Marcus Garvey.

The Office of the Pardon Attorney and President Obama should heed Marcus Garvey’s sage counsel in a speech in Nova Scotia in 1937 – words Bob Marley helped immortalize decades later in his 1980 masterpiece, Redemption Song – and “emancipate [them]selves from mental slavery,” so Marcus Garvey’s legacy can finally be free.

Answering questions on April 9, 2015, following a speech at the University of the West Indies in Kingston, Jamaica, President Obama said: “I think that all people want basic dignity and want basic freedom, and want to be able to worship as they please without being discriminated against, or they should be able to speak their mind about an important issue pertaining to their community without being arrested.” That’s true today, but it was also true of Marcus Garvey in 1923.

Having been sentenced to prison and addressing a crowd at Liberty Hall in New York City, Garvey said: “We are not fighting America; we are fighting hypocrisy and lies, and that we are going to fight to the bitter end. Now understand we well, Marcus Garvey has entered the fight for the emancipation of a race; Marcus Garvey has entered the fight for the redemption of a country.”

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Stephen Cooper is a former D.C. public defender who worked as an assistant federal public defender in Alabama between 2012 and 2015. He has contributed to numerous magazines and newspapers in the United States and overseas. He writes full-time and lives in Woodland Hills, California.

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