Julius W. Garvey: My father, civil rights pioneer Marcus Garvey, deserves a posthumous presidential pardon
J. Edgar Hoover's FBI manipulated the system to make mail fraud charges stick against Garvey, he writes
Editor’s Note: Julius W. Garvey, M.D., is a NY-based cardiothoracic and vascular surgeon who is leading the Justice4Garvey effort seeking a posthumous presidential pardon for his father, civil rights leader Marcus Garvey. The views expressed here are his own.
If you have been following the news for the last year, you have undoubtedly read much about the activities and purview of the FBI. For me, the role of the bureau in the lives of Americans has special resonance.
To elaborate, I’d like to introduce you to my father.
In 1965, Martin Luther King Jr. visited Jamaica, where Marcus Garvey is enshrined as the country’s first national hero. In a speech there King described him as the “first man of color in the history of the United States to lead and develop a mass movement. He was the first man, on a mass scale and level, to give millions of Negroes a sense of dignity and destiny and make the Negro feel that he was somebody.
“You gave Marcus Garvey to the United States of America and he gave to the millions of Negroes in the United States a sense of personhood, a sense of manhood, and a sense of somebodiness.”
In 1919, Marcus Garvey was a popular civil rights leader and human rights advocate for African people worldwide. That same year, J. Edgar Hoover was fresh out of law school and the head of the Bureau of Investigation, which later became the FBI.
Garvey’s rise to prominence came 80 years after the end of slavery and 30 years after the beginning of colonialism worldwide. African Americans lacked full benefits of citizenship and were being subjected to the black codes, sharecropping, lynching, the Ku Klux Klan and the Southern backlash against Reconstruction. African American soldiers returning home after fighting in Europe in the 1914-18 war for democracy were asking themselves how to obtain real freedom, true democracy and an ability to shape their own destinies.
Marcus Garvey’s answer was through unity, a knowledge of your history and culture, self-sufficiency and self-determination. This found a ready response in the hearts and minds of African Americans who had been brutalized, dehumanized and depersonalized by legalized white supremacy for 300 years.
His organization, the Universal Negro Improvement Association, had its headquarters on 138th Street in the Harlem neighborhood of New York. By the 1920s, Garvey and the UNIA had a membership of 6 million spread among 1,000 divisions in 40 countries around the world. Seven hundred divisions were in the US, most of them in the South.
When he learned of Garvey’s vision and movement, J. Edgar Hoover circulated an internal memo stating his clear intention to target him.
I am “transmitting herewith a communication which has come to my attention from the Panama Canal, Washington office, relative to the activities of Marcus Garvey,” he said. Hoover described my father as “a West-Indian Negro and in addition to his activities in endeavoring to establish the Black Star Line Steamship Corporation, he has also been particularly active among the radical elements in New York City in agitating the negro movement.”
Most telling were the words that came next: “Unfortunately, however, he 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.”
It was clear that Hoover wanted my father off American soil, and the rest of his memo outlined how he planned to get there: “proceeding against him for fraud in connection with his Black Star Line propaganda.”
Garvey’s signature project for the economic development and unity of Africans worldwide was the Black Star Line Shipping Company, which was founded to transport Africans and goods between the Americas, the Caribbean and Africa. In less than one year the UNIA collected almost one million dollars, selling shares at $5 each to fund this project.
The profitability and popularity of the Black Star Line Shipping Company roused Hoover’s fear of my father’s politics and provoked him to take action against him. He proceeded to hire the first black agent in FBI history to infiltrate the organization, create internal strife and report back to him on its activities.
Eventually, Garvey and three others were charged with conspiracy to use the mails to defraud. The charges against the other three were dropped, but my father was convicted by an all-white jury on charges that were widely considered politically motivated and in a trial tainted by misconduct.
He spent almost three years in jail, when in 1927 President Calvin Coolidge, because of public pressure and on the advice of the attorney general, commuted his sentence and deported him from this country to Jamaica. He could never return to the United States, and the momentum he had built on issues of racial justice stalled. He died in London in 1940.
For decades, Hoover continued to develop his now-notorious policing tactics as he grew the FBI and used them against others: presidents, prominent politicians and social justice champions, including other significant black leaders like Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr.
The FBI’s involvement in the case against Marcus Garvey is as fresh as today’s headlines about the bureau, and political leaders in both the countries that Garvey called home have voiced a need to posthumously clear his name.
In 1983 Prime Minister Edward Seaga of Jamaica requested that President Ronald Reagan issue Marcus Garvey a presidential pardon. Every Prime Minister of Jamaica has made the same request. Most recently on President Obama’s 2015 visit to Jamaica, then-Prime Minister Portia Simpson made a similar request.
In 1987 Congressman John Conyers convened the House Judiciary Committee to hear evidence to exonerate Marcus Garvey. It never got out of committee and went no further.
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In October 2016, the Congressional Black Caucus added its voice of support in a letter to President Obama.
Hoover may be dead, but his legacy still lives and has an impact. The FBI and other law enforcement agencies cannot continue to act prejudicially against a minority of its citizens without having dire consequences for all of them. Nearly 100 years since Hoover began, we see the current FBI Director, James B. Comey, also appearing to tilt the political scales. This is déjà vu.
The president of all the people can use his executive privilege to right this wrong against some of the people. Because ultimately, it involves all the people.
In 1967, Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now… Procrastination is still the thief of time. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residues of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words: ‘Too late.’”
Dr. King was right. The time is now for President Obama to grant a posthumous pardon to Marcus Garvey.