In late March, Portia Simpson Miller, the prime minister of Jamaica, spoke to an audience of Jamaican Americans at St George’s Episcopal Church in Manhattan. She addressed a range of issues. But when the prime minister was asked about Marcus Garvey, the Jamaican-born pan-African leader, and his deportation from the US in the 1920s, she responded passionately.
“We are a great people. We have produced many great sons and daughters,” she said. “I will have to raise [the matter] with President Obama when he visits Jamaica.”
She continued, “That great man should never be seen as a criminal. That great man. I believe his name should be expunged from the record [of criminals].”
Miller kept her word, and when US President Barack Obama stopped by Jamaica on his way to the Summit of the Americas on April 10, she asked him to posthumously pardon Garvey.
Youth today are not familiar with the ideas and influence of Marcus Garvey. His name is not sampled in hip-hop tracks the way Malcolm X’s name is, he is not the subject of Hollywood films, nor is his visage held up at rallies the way Martin Luther King’s image appears at rallies for Obama.
Yet Garvey was critical to the 20th century black freedom movement and set the stage for the rise of the aforementioned leaders.
Born in Jamaica in 1887, Garvey founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association on the island in August 1914, as a black nationalist organisation that would unite Africa and her people in diaspora. When he moved to New York in 1916, he successfully transformed the UNIA into a mass movement.
He launched the Negro World as the UNIA’s mouthpiece, and built a number of corporations including the Black Star Line shipping company aimed at repatriating blacks to Liberia. His activism and growing political influence drew the attention of law enforcement and in particular J Edgar Hoover, who began tracking his economic activities.
If the current campaign in Jamaica could get the support of African states and Muslim majority-states, the US may have to respond and Garvey’s name would be cleansed once and for all.
The Bureau of Investigation (as the FBI was then called) would eventually bring charges of mail fraud against Garvey. Garvey was tried in June 1923 and sentenced to five years imprisonment. In November 1927, US President Calvin Coolidge commuted Garvey’s sentence and the activist was deported from the US. He would return to Jamaica, and then move to London where he died in 1940.
In 1964, two years after Jamaica gained independence, Garvey’s remains were exhumed, brought to the island and buried, with the government declaring him Jamaica’s first national hero. Soon after, a campaign would begin to pardon Garvey – a campaign that is picking up steam. Garvey long claimed that his trial was politically motivated and a gross miscarriage of justice.
As Rupert Lewis, a political theorist and Garvey expert at the University of the West Indies wrote recently, “Garvey did not send out mail on behalf of the Black Star Line” and the three UNIA officers on trial with him were all acquitted. “The most damaging consequence has been the stigmatisation of Garvey as a fraudster, which was meant to discredit his programme,” he added.
US denial of black rights
It’s worth noting that Garvey wasn’t the only Caribbean-born thinker who was deported from the US during the 20th century: the Marxist theorist C L R James and journalist Claudia Jones, both born in Trinidad, were also deported from the US in the mid-1950s for their leftist activism – and would settle in London.
Since independence, successive Jamaican governments have asked the US to pardon Marcus Garvey. In 1982, then Prime Minister Edward Seaga made the request to Ronald Reagan when he visited Jamaica. A resolution was even written and brought to the US House Subcommittee on Criminal Justice in 1987, but never pushed through.
The campaign to “exonerate” Garvey picked up again when Obama came to power. Donovan Parker, a Jamaican-born attorney (now based in Florida) has been writing to Obama every week since January 2011.
“Marcus Mosiah Garvey is also a National Hero of Jamaica, West Indies and a leading forebear of the African American civil rights experience,” writes Parker. “It is full time that this extraordinary human being of humble beginnings and strong moral character be pardoned by the pen of [a US] president.”
A petition of signatures was submitted to the White House in 2013. The response from the White House has been consistently negative: “It is the general policy of the Department of Justice that requests for posthumous pardons for federal offences not be processed for adjudication. The policy is grounded in the belief that the time of the officials involved in the clemency process is better spent on pardon and commutation requests of living persons.”
The White House has not responded to Miller’s recent plea to Obama.
As long as the push to pardon Garvey is coming only from Jamaica, the US can dismiss the requests. But if a transnational effort were launched that raises global awareness of Garvey’s central role in 20th century pan-Africanism and anti-imperialism, the campaign could have more success.
As a young man, Garvey worked for the African Times and Orient Review, a London-based pan-African publication with global circulation, that sought to unite pan-African and pan-Islamic movements. His UNIA stood in solidarity with anti-colonial uprisings in Egypt, India and Morocco, its anthems and literature often drawing on Islamic themes and motifs (The Negro World would sometimes refer to Garvey as a “child of Allah”).
If the current campaign in Jamaica could get the support of African states and Muslim-majority states, the US may have to respond and Garvey’s name would be cleared once and for all.
Hisham Aidi teaches at Columbia University. He is the author of the critically acclaimed Rebel Music: Race, Empire and the New Muslim Youth Culture, a study of black internationalism and global youth culture.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.