Before he leaves office, President Obama must posthumously pardon Marcus Garvey

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Simply put, President Obama should grant a posthumous pardon to historic civil rights leader Marcus Garvey.

Here’s why.

The Justice4Garvey campaign aims to do more than create a symbol and correct a record by obtaining a pardon of Garvey. It shines a light on the crime of racially motivated political trials. It speaks out against the use of the law to limit political activism — especially on racial justice issues.

We are entering a time when the levers of government power may soon fall into the hands of an administration that is not necessarily committed to civil rights.

These are social justice principles worth defending now.

Garvey’s story provides us with a teachable moment, and President Obama can give that story widespread circulation with a pardon. Few people know that longtime FBI director J. Edgar Hoover’s career-long ambition to “Prevent the rise of a ‘Messiah’ who could unify and electrify the militant Black Nationalist movement” began with Marcus Garvey.

Soon after he joined the FBI in 1919, Hoover hired the first black FBI Agent, James Wormley Jones, to infiltrate Garvey’s organization. The “mail fraud” charge against Garvey that they manufactured rested on the flimsy evidence of a single empty envelope.

The substance of it — the false claim that Garvey’s entire career was a Ponzi scheme designed to financially exploit his own people — hurt Garvey’s heart to the core. Still, with a hostile judge standing watch, a hostile federal prosecutor implored a hostile all-white-male jury to convict Garvey in 1923. The prosecutor asked, “Gentleman — will you let the Tiger loose?” Garvey never had a chance.

He received the harshest penalty possible under law: five years in prison and a large fine. Shortly thereafter, he was jailed and deported in 1927. Years later, after a false report of his own death, Garvey read his own obituary and saw that this conviction loomed large in the telling of his life story. He had a stroke soon thereafter, arguably dying of a broken heart.

A posthumous pardon for Marcus Garvey would do more than simply correct this grave injustice. It matters because it could have an impact on social justice issues we face today. It can reaffirm that regardless of short term expediency, the legacy of political prosecutions never goes away. Also, schools and educators can teach the philosophy of Marcus Garvey, which was a vision and movement to uplift blacks through pride, economic independence, and self-reliance. Below are examples of how his philosophy and ideas spoke to higher values:

  • Self-Esteem: “If you haven’t confidence in self, you are twice defeated in the race of life. With confidence, you have won even before you started.” In the context of a denigrated post-Reconstruction environment, he supported black self-esteem.
  • Pan-Africanism: “I know no national boundary where the Negro is concerned. The whole world is my province until Africa is free” His global vision allowed for the creation of allies around the world.
  • Education: “A reading man and woman is a ready man and woman, but a writing man and woman is exact.” He emphasized the importance of intellectual development.
  • Economics: “A race that is solely dependent upon another for its economic existence sooner or later dies.” His “Black Star Line” was designed not simply to take people on a trip back to Africa but to create a mechanism for international trade throughout the Black Diaspora, something that unto today has never happened.

When Marcus Garvey was enshrined as Jamaica’s First National Hero, Martin Luther King Jr. said, “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.”

King continued by saying that Marcus Garvey was “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.”

His life influenced several other historic figures who followed, including Kwame Nkrumah (who led Ghana to independence and served as the first Prime Minister and President), Jomo Kenyatta (who led Kenya to independence and was the first President and Prime Minister), Sam Nujoma (who served three terms as President of Namibia), Nnamdi Azikiwe (a leader in modern Nigerian nationalism), and Nelson Mandela.

This is also why 18 Members of Congress; The Congressional Black Caucus; Nelson Mandela’s grandson, Ndaba Mandela; Jamaica Prime Minister Andrew Holness; and other prominent people and organizations have joined in urging President Obama to grant this posthumous pardon before he leaves office.

They did this because Marcus Garvey and the positive message he shared matters.

It’s time, Mr. President, to posthumously pardon Marcus Garvey before you leave office.

Justin Hansford is a Black Lives Matter Activist and law professor. He is currently a democracy project fellow at Harvard University’s Charles Warren Center for American Studies and a visiting Professor of Law at Georgetown University Law Center. Follow him on Twitter @Blackstarjus