The youngest son of Pan Africanist Marcus Garvey honored what would have been his father’s 129th birthday by calling on President Barack Obama to grant a posthumous pardon to the civil rights leader, who was wrongly convicted of mail fraud almost 100 years ago. Dr. Julius Garvey, activists and supporters also used the occasion to launch a grassroots campaign to push for the pardon.

Marcus Garvey Pardon_Dale

Dr. Julius W. Garvey, son of Marcus Garvey (pictured) wants President Barack Obama to clear his father’s name from a mail fraud conviction that caused Marcus Garvey to be deported from the United States to his native Jamaica. (AP Photo)

Besides clearing Garvey’s name, the pardon would legitimize him, the ideology behind his Pan-African movement and the movement itself, the younger Garvey said during a news conference at the National Press Club on Aug. 17.

“It’s sort of like coming out of the closet — you don’t have to whisper,” said Garvey, a surgeon in New York. “There’s still something subversive about the idea of Garvey and that has to be lifted.”

The Garvey family and supporters are hoping Obama grants the pardon before he leaves the White House in five months. If it doesn’t happen during Obama’s presidency, the family’s legal team will continue the fight under future presidents, said lead attorney Anthony Pierce, a partner at Akin Gump Strauss Howard & Feld.

The Garvey family’s legal team filed a petition for pardon to the Department of Justice in June, a move that ignited the legal process. The legal team sent the same petition to the White House three days later as a courtesy, Pierce said.  But the family waited until Marcus Garvey’s birthday to announce their legal action and community movement.

The push to pardon Garvey now heads to the court of public opinion, as there are no more legal steps to take, said Justin Hansford, another member of the Garvey family’s legal team.

“What we’re looking for from supporters is to begin a letter writing campaign … and to express your support …  so that we can let the president know that people throughout the diaspora are desperately in support for this measure to be taken,” said Hansford, a fellow at the Harvard University Democracy Project.

Garvey came to the U.S. from Jamaica in 1916. It was here that he expanded his Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), which advocated for the social, political and economic independence of the African diaspora. The UNIA represented the largest movement of the African diaspora in history. At its peak, it counted nearly 6 million members in 40 countries.

  1. Edgar Hoover, director of what was then the Bureau of Investigation, the precursor to the FBI, was obsessed with “getting rid of a Negro agitator,” and ran an investigation into Garvey, the petition said. The U.S. government charged Garvey with mail fraud over his passenger and cargo shipping line. He was convicted in 1923 and sentenced to five years in prison. President Calvin Coolidge commuted that sentence on Nov. 18, 1927, and Garvey was deported the next day. He died in 1940 in London and was buried in Kingston, Jamaica. He would spend the rest of his life trying to clear his name, the petition said.

In 1987, a Congressional inquiry and a review of the historical record concluded Garvey was wrongfully convicted. The Garvey family’s lawyers argue that the conviction effectively ended the movement Marcus Garvey birthed, hurt his family and community and led to his own demise. They say a posthumous, presidential pardon is the only way to rectify the situation.

With the first Black president in office in office and the Black Lives Matter movement in full swing, now is the time to exonerate Jamaica’s first national hero, the younger Garvey said.

“It’s the right time to join with us between 1916 and 2016 because the system has not changed in order to give the Black boy and Black girl dignity in their place in American society,” he said.

Meanwhile, the current pardon petition isn’t the first attempt to clear Garvey’s name. A Florida attorney submitted weekly requests for Garvey’s clemency to the White House in 2011, according to the petition. But the White House rejected the petition and urged the filer to send it to the DOJ. Those efforts had nothing to do with the Garvey family.

Presidential pardons are rare and have only been granted twice, according to a 2011 paper by Stephen Greenspan. Those pardons occurred under presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.