As President Barack Obama uses his final days in office to issue a stream of commutations and pardons, there is still one presidential pardon that civil rights activists and stewards of black history hope he grants: Marcus Mosiah Garvey.
Politicians and activists ranging from Jamaican prime ministers to members of the Congressional Black Caucus and Garvey’s son, Julius Garvey, have been calling on Obama to posthumously pardon the Jamaican-born black nationalist who led the largest economic and social mass movement of blacks in the United States before his 1923 federal conviction on mail fraud.
“Everybody has been pressing him to do more pardons,” Julius Garvey said of Obama, who leaves office Friday.
On Tuesday, Obama issued 64 pardons and shortened the prison sentences of 209 individuals including that of Chelsea Manning, the transgender army intelligence analyst convicted of a 2010 leak of classified U.S. documents to the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks.
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Even though what’s left in Obama’s term can be measured in hours, Julius Garvey remains hopeful. The president could pardon his father as a way of acknowledging history, Garvey said. “He needs to recognize his debt to those who have gone before and sacrificed their lives so that he can be in the position that he is in today.”
Obama is expected to announce more commutations on Thursday. But whether Garvey will be among those pardoned remains unknown. White House spokesman Josh Earnest did not respond to the Miami Herald’s request for comment.
During an April 2015 visit by Obama with Caribbean leaders in Jamaica, the island’s prime minister, Portia Simpson Miller, told him it was “the deep desire of the government and the people of Jamaica” to have Garvey’s record wiped clean.
“I asked the president to consider the matter and to offer any support within his authority during his tenure in the White House, and beyond,” Simpson Miller said.
Obama, who made an unannounced visit to reggae icon Bob Marley’s museum during his two-day visit, never mentioned Garvey in public statements. Nor did he visit Garvey’s grave when he stopped at National Heroes’ Park to lay a wreath for Jamaican soldiers who fought and died in both World Wars.
“That surprised me and I was disappointed at that,” Julius Garvey said. “All he had to do was turn right and my father’s cenotaph was there.”
Hailed as the “Negro Moses,” Garvey was born in St. Ann’s Bay, Jamaica, in 1887. After his federal conviction, which was commuted by President Calvin Coolidge, he was deported back to Jamaica in 1927. He eventually died in England in 1940 at age 52.
In 1964, Garvey’s body was brought back to Jamaica and he was buried at National Heroes’ Park. Five years later, he became Jamaica’s first National Hero. His likeness is on the country’s $20 bill and 25 cent coin, and his teachings have inspired everything from the black-consciousness Rastafari movement to the Nation of Islam and Kwanzaa.
Given what Marcus Garvey represents to us and the influence he has had in life and even more so in death, it warrants this symbolic gesture by the first black president
said Steven Golding, son of former Jamaican Prime Minister Bruce Golding and head of Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) in Jamaica
Historians and ardent supporters of Garvey’s teachings, known as Garveyism, have long insisted that his U.S. conviction was politically motivated. The mail fraud charge stemmed from using the U.S. mail to sell stock for a new ship for Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). Garvey used his Black Star Line to build self-determination and economic empowerment among the African diaspora by ferrying goods and people to cities in Latin America.
“The evidence is there — the cover-up, the conspiracy, the obsession of [Federal Bureau of Investigation Director] J. Edgar Hoover in getting rid of Marcus Garvey,” said Steven Golding, son of former Jamaican Prime Minister Bruce Golding and head of Garvey’s UNIA in Jamaica.
Golding said Obama could clear Garvey’s name as a way of acknowledging the black community that supported him.
“Given what Marcus Garvey represents to us and the influence he has had in life and even more so in death, it warrants this symbolic gesture by the first black president,” he said.
The fight to remove the stain from Garvey’s legacy goes back to 1987, when New York Congressman Charles Rangel introduced legislation asking for the exoneration. He reintroduced the bill every year, telling members of the House in 2004 that the bill’s passage was long overdue.
“The injustice done to him reminded me every day of the injustice done to all black people, including myself, during that time,” Rangel, a Democrat, said at the time.
Last year, after those and other efforts continued to fail, Julius Garvey filed a petition with the U.S. Department of Justice and with the White House Council.
To simplify it and call it a ‘Back to Africa’ movement is nonsense, or to even call it a black nationalist movement is nonsense. It was a Pan-African movement,
Dr. Julius Garvey on his father Marcus’ teachings.
At the same time, supporters signed a petition and issued letters of support. Among them, members of the Congressional Black Caucus, 18 House members and nearly 500 school children.
“We believe that Marcus Garvey meets the criteria for a posthumous pardon, based on his efforts to secure the rights of people of African descent and the utter lack of merit to the charges on which he was convicted,” Rep. Yvette Clarke, D-New York, said.
Why hasn’t Obama issued a pardon? Perhaps because even after his resurgence in the 1960s, Garvey and his teachings continue to be the subject of debate and controversy among scholars. Was he a con artist who used his shipping and passenger line, the Black Star Line, to promote the return of blacks to Africa? Or was he truly a leader whose preachings of self-reliance and economic empowerment among blacks made him a target?
Julius Garvey said labeling his father’s work as a “Back to Africa” movement is part of the overly simplistic and misrepresentation of the civil rights leader: “The colonization of Africa was certainly part of it, but to simplify it and call it a ‘Back to Africa’ movement is nonsense, or to even call it a black nationalist movement is nonsense. It was a Pan-African movement.”
A medical doctor, Julius Garvey was 7 when his father died. Now 83, he recently visited Jamaica where he’s filming a documentary of his father’s life. While there, he donated his dad’s National Hero medal to a museum.
He hopes, he said, that young people will see it and know that they can also become, “a National Hero for Jamaica or somebody close to that.”