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Begging Your Pardon,
Marcus Garvey

Why Pardon Garvey?

Est. read time: 5 min


I     n the past few months, I have received numerous requests to sign a petition calling on President Barack Obama to pardon Marcus Garvey before he leaves office and to encourage my networks to do likewise. I note that even Sir Hilary Beckles, Vice Chancellor of the University of the West Indies, has joined the growing band of people demanding a pardon.

I have to say that I see a problem with this initiative/petition on two counts.

The first is that I do not believe that Marcus Mosiah Garvey went to his grave conflicted by the belief that he had committed a crime and had to beg for anyone’s ‘pardon’. On the contrary, he was acutely aware that the USA had committed a crime against him and had used and abused all its power to thwart his efforts and traduce his integrity and global ambitions, while having no right whatsoever to lay claim to the moral high ground, especially given the barbaric acts they were committing against Africans and indigenous peoples right there in America at the time (and continue to do to this day through their policing, judicial and prison systems).

If the Call is for Garvey to be exonerated because he did not commit a crime, then demanding a ‘pardon’ simply does not make sense. Fact is that the charge and conviction were contrived and politically motivated in the first place and should be expunged and the whole truth be told about what the State Department thought of Garvey and how they set about to trap, malign and silence him. Evidence of the extent of that is readily available. The FBI has released files that show that its infamous director, J.Edgar Hoover, targeted Garvey because of his anti-imperialist rhetoric and his large following across the African Diaspora and because of what Julius Garvey, 83 year old son of Marcus Mosiah, describes as ‘Hoover’s ‘lifelong obsession to neutralize the rise of a black liberator’. The FBI has acknowledged that Hoover targeted Garvey to find reasons to ‘deport him as an undesirable alien’.

Garvey was convicted of ‘mail fraud’ in June 1923 for selling $5 shares to finance the purchase of another ship for his steamship company, the Black Star Line, a ship which the FBI claimed he had not yet acquired. Despite appeals, Garvey spent three and a half years of a five year sentence in prison before his sentence was commuted by President Calvin Coolidge. Garvey was deported back to Jamaica in 1927.

It seems to me that calling out the FBI and the US Government for their political persecution of Marcus Garvey, which they repeated with Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, the Black Panthers and more, is a totally different political project than seeking to get Obama or anyone else to ‘pardon’ Garvey.

The second problem I have is with the Jamaican state’s belated crowning of Garvey as ‘a National Hero’ and their latter day support for this petition/campaign.

Charity is more credible when it is seen to begin at home. If Jamaica wants Obama or whoever succeeds him to pardon Garvey and clear his name, it should have first quashed his conviction for sedition, a conviction secured by a colonial administration that in an earlier age executed Sam Sharpe, Paul Bogle and hundreds more freedom fighters for daring to demand fundamental human rights, bread, freedom and justice. That, surely, should have been a prerequisite to the otherwise farcical and populist gesture of making Garvey a ‘National Hero’. To continue to have that conviction for sedition on the nation’s record of crimes against the Crown, while the Prime Minister of the country visits another sovereign state and implores them to pardon his country’s ‘National Hero’ is simply too ridiculous for words.

Garvey, or anyone else arraigned and convicted for sedition or treason against the imperial crown and the colonial regime with its jackboot on the necks of the people should be considered true patriots and liberators, not criminals. The Jamaican state should therefore have given a lead to the USA on this matter long ago.

I fear that the unintended consequence of winning a ‘pardon’ for Garvey, if indeed that were to be the eventual outcome of the petition, would be to sanitise him and his political activism and drag him screaming into collusion with a suspect consensus of what the state, in the USA as under the British Crown in Jamaica, considered acceptable political activity, while it continued to heap oppression relentlessly upon the masses of African people. I have no doubt that Garvey would have been inspired by the words of the famous Abolitionist Frederick Douglass who said more than a century ago:
Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have the exact measure of the injustice and wrong which will be imposed on them!

These empty gestures are but a massive distraction. What is worse, even if the liberal establishment were to accede to demands for a pardon, it would simply give them a cause to celebrate how benign and big hearted they are, while still perpetrating the worst inhumanities against people of African heritage.

The establishment destroyed Marcus Mosiah Garvey, but it could not destroy his spirit and his soul. That spirit lives on in the hearts, consciousness, political orientation and deeds of millions of people across the world. It behoves us therefore to keep his memory alive, through all the various art forms that define him, and especially through the work we do to connect new and emerging communities in the Global African Diaspora with his story and his vision, and the relevance of both to us today.


– GJ

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