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Obama and exonerating Marcus Garvey

Published:Tuesday | April 7, 2015 | 12:00 AMRupert Lewis

President Obama's visit to Jamaica and the meeting between the president and Jamaica's prime minister, Portia Simpson Miller, provides a unique opportunity for the plea to exonerate Marcus Garvey, Jamaica's first National Hero.

The case against Marcus Garvey arose from the allegation that Garvey and members of his staff attempted to sell stock for a ship in the Black Star Line that had not yet been purchased. American historian Adam Ewing, in a recent book, notes, "Negotiations to purchase a transoceanic vessel from the US Shipping Board in order to carry passengers and supplies to West Africa were first drawn out, and ultimately undermined, by the [Federal] Bureau of Investigations. UNIA efforts to advertise passage on the ship, to be named the SS Phyllis Wheatley, and the subsequent failure of the Black Star Line to complete the sale, formed the core of the Department of Justice's prosecution against Garvey." ( Ewing, The Age of Garvey, p.115)

This case was a culmination of a series of efforts to criminalise and deport Garvey. Theodore Kornweibel, another American historian, has shown "no black militant drew more investigation and surveillance by the Military Intelligence Division, State Department, and Bureau of Investigation ... than Marcus Garvey". According to Ewing, "J. Edgar Hoover, the new head of the Bureau's anti-radical division, noted that 'there might be some proceeding against him for fraud in connection with his Black Star Line propaganda' (p.114)

There were many issues that meant the trial was not a fair one. The jury was all-white. Garvey asked that Judge Julian Mack be dismissed from the case because of Mack's affiliation with the NAACP, a rival organisation of the UNIA. The trial took place in New York in May-June 1923. The evidence against Garvey and three UNIA officers was of an empty envelope with the Black Star Line stamp and no enclosure but there was reasonable assumption by the prosecution that the envelope received by one Benny Dancy contained information from the Black Star Line.

Garvey, along with three UNIA officers, Orlando Thompson, vice-president of the Black Star Line; George Tobias, treasurer; and Elie Garcia, secretary, were charged with using mail to defraud, but Garvey was the only one sentenced to five years' imprisonment, fined US$1,000, and he was required to pay the costs. Garvey did not send out mail on behalf of the Black Star Line but the three other officers were acquitted.

On September 10, 1923, Garvey was released on bail after a three-month imprisonment in Tombs Prison. The Immigration Department prepared a deportation case against Garvey. Garvey lost his appeal and was arrested in New York on February 5, 1925 and taken to the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary to serve five years. On November 18, 1927, President Coolidge commuted Garvey's sentence and he was deported and never allowed to travel to the United States. The most damaging consequence has been the stigmatisation of Garvey as a fraudster, which was meant to discredit his programme.

The details of his Jamaican conviction are as follows: In 1929 (following his deportation from the US in 1927), Garvey was convicted twice for contempt of court in August and September. The first conviction was based on Garvey's refusal to turn over UNIA records during the case of Marke v The UNIA Inc. He was fined 25 pounds sterling.

The second conviction was based on a campaign speech connected with the launch of his People's Political Party (PPP). In the speech, he called for the imprisonment of corrupt judges. He was fined 100 pounds sterling and received imprisonment for three months in the St Catherine District Prison. In 1987, Marcus Garvey was pardoned by then Governor General Sir Florizel Glasspole for the two convictions in Jamaica. The instruments (dated August 16, 1987) are on file at King's House.

We recommend that any commission or committee appointed by the ministry to oversee the request to the United States government for Garvey's exoneration should solicit the advice of Garvey scholars in Jamaica and overseas. Notwithstanding the legal analysis, the historical and political contexts in which this conviction occurred are vital to understanding the reasons behind it.

If we call on the US to expunge, Jamaica also needs to do the same.

Rupert Lewis is a historian and Garvey scholar. Email feedback to