Obama should pardon persecuted civil-rights advocate Marcus Garvey

Civil-rights advocate Marcus Garvey seated at his desk in 1924.
Civil-rights advocate Marcus Garvey seated at his desk in 1924. via Getty Images

As the days of President Obama’s tenure run down, civil-rights advocates hope that he will add one more accomplishment to his legacy: a posthumous pardon for Marcus Garvey.

Garvey, one of the earliest leaders of the American civil-rights movement, was an early 20th century advocate for political and economic independence for people of African descent all over the world. He founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association and the African Communities League. His work also triggered scrutiny from J. Edgar Hoover, who led the government’s surveillance of Garvey in an effort to disrupt the civil-rights movement.

In 1923, Garvey was convicted of mail fraud and sentenced to five years in federal prison. The evidence against him was generated by undercover agents posing as Garvey supporters and bolstered by judicial proceedings that have since been largely condemned as tainted by racial animus. Most experts now agree that the “mail fraud” charge that Hoover’s agents manufactured rested on weak evidence and was essentially a technicality used to inflate charges against the activist. It was a political prosecution against a political agitator.

In 1927, President Calvin Coolidge commuted Garvey’s sentence. But Garvey still was deported to Jamaica, his birthplace. He died in London in 1940.

For decades, the Garvey family and several members of the Congressional Black Caucus have pressed for a presidential pardon. Garvey’s son, Dr. Julius Garvey, is spearheading the current campaign for a pardon, Justice4Garvey. Justin Hansford, a professor of law at St. Louis University, is representing the Garvey family in the most recent effort to persuade Obama to pardon Garvey as one of his final acts in office. Hansford says: “We must vigilantly highlight, condemn and repudiate these types of surveillance practices and politicized prosecutions like the ones that felled Garvey.”

A pardon for Garvey would restore the good name of a man dedicated to empowerment for black people. But the act would also provide a powerful symbolic gesture. Hansford says it would relay a commitment for protecting civil-rights activists from politically motivated prosecutions. And it would further evince that the work of civil-rights activists is to be praised, not persecuted.

We have just observed a national holiday set aside for Martin Luther King, Jr. — himself a target of government harassment because of his civil rights work. Obama should use his power to pardon Garvey, whom King once called, “The first man, on a mass scale, to give millions of Negroes a sense of dignity and destiny.”

Now is the time to give Garvey the dignity he deserves. President Obama should grant his posthumous pardon.

Olympia Duhart is a professor of law at Nova Southeastern University Shepard Broad College of Law. She is former co-president of the Society of American Law Teachers.