Heard on the Hill

Who is Marcus Garvey? And Should His Name Be Cleared?

On his 129th birthday, his family wants a posthumous presidential pardon

The descendents of political leader Marcus Gravey are seeking a posthumus presidential pardon. (Courtesy Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons)

Jamaican political leader Marcus Garvey inspired a Pan-Africa philosophy known as Garveyism that sought to empower people of African descent. 

The controversial figure founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association in 1914 and organized a shipping line with the vision of eventually transporting African Americans to Africa. But he also was convicted on mail fraud charges in 1923.

Nearly 100 years after his sentencing — and on what would have been his 129th birthday — his descendants and members of Congress are pushing for his exoneration.

The family is seeking a posthumous presidential pardon for Garvey. A petition for pardon was filed with the White House Counsel and the Justice Department on June 24 by Garvey's son, Julius W. Garvey.

Supporters are holding a press conference at 1 p.m. Wednesday at the National Press Club, 529 14th St. NW. Congressional Black Caucus members have sent statements in support, including New York Rep. Yvette D. Clarke.

Garvey began his activism when he left Jamaica at 23. He traveled to England but later returned to Jamaica to found the UNIA. He came to the United States in 1916 and organized the New York division of the UNIA the following year.

His shipping line, Black Star Line, was launched in 1919.

That year, an assistant district attorney in the New York District Attorney's office, Edwin P. Kilroe, questioned Garvey about UNIA activities. Garvey fired back with an editorial in the organization’s newspaper, the Negro World.

He was accused of libel but the case was later dropped.

Garvey's movement was popular in the United States. One international UNIA convention in Madison Square Garden was attended by 25,000 people.

Garvey wanted to provide African Americans with opportunities to move to Africa. He also tried to develop colleges and industries in Liberia but faced opposition from European colonial powers.

Garvey promoted the idea of a return to Africa by members of the African diaspora — but not all of them. Many would be “no good there,” he once wrote, according to the book "The Philosophy and Opinions of Marcus Garvey."

J. Edgar Hoover's FBI also investigated Garvey and the UNIA.

He was eventually charged with mail fraud related to Black Star Line stock.

Garvey was sentenced to five years in prison in 1923. He publicly blamed Jewish jurors and a Jewish federal judge, and his supporters claimed the prosecution was politically motivated.

After his release from imprisonment, he returned to Jamaica where he lived from 1929 to 1935. He then moved to London, where he died in 1940 after suffering two strokes.

Today, Garvey's supporters compare him to 2nd Lt. Henry Ossian Flipper, the first black West Point graduate, who was court-martialed and dismissed from the Army. A review found that Flipper's court-martial was unjust and President Bill Clinton pardoned him posthumously.

In a recent statement, Garvey's supporters said his conviction was “motivated by a desire on the part of the federal government to discredit, disrupt and destroy Garvey’s civil rights movement.” Furthermore, they added, his conviction was “executed through court surveillance and deception, with undercover agents posting as Garvey supporters” and “aided by judicial proceedings that have been condemned as factually unsound and politically and racially motivated.”

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