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Let Garvey's record stand

Published:Thursday | April 16, 2015 | 12:00 AM

It really doesn't matter to me if the great Marcus Garvey's criminal record in the United States (US) or in Jamaica, for that matter, ever gets expunged. I'll explain why later. However, for those who are moved to push for it to happen, I say more power to them. I hope, though, that they don't become so singularly focused on this goal that they unintentionally reduce Garvey's legacy to his periods of imprisonment. Nevertheless, their ultimate motives are noble and they deserve respect for trying to right what they see as a wrong done to someone they revere.

I think that those who seek a posthumous exoneration for Garvey may do well to focus more on the reasons they feel that his convictions were unjustified. It seems to me that much of the public outcry for Garvey's exoneration made recently, as we ride this current wave of attention on the matter, has been superficial and consequently useless.

There should be more attention paid to the details that prove that Garvey was unjustly convicted on mail fraud charges in the US and on contempt of court charges here in Jamaica. Simply calling for the US to exonerate Garvey because he's a national hero in Jamaica is not at all convincing. It's pointless. It's also pointless to contain these more detailed arguments to academic halls and other official settings. Break it down for the average Jamaican who might not have all the facts, and that way, you might win more support.

Use the same media where calls are made for exoneration to explain how the courts got it wrong on Garvey and why the only fair thing to do in 2015 is wipe the man's record clean. I feel that if the facts are solid, a majority of right-thinking Jamaicans and Americans would get behind the cause. They just need the details. Greater support would strengthen the push, and this can only benefit the campaign. I don't see a downside.

My own thinking, though, is that Garvey's legacy is in no need of repair. He was named a national hero of Jamaica for his life's work. His criminal convictions in Jamaica and the United States were part of the struggles he faced in doing his life's work as a pioneer of black empowerment. These convictions on his record, if unjustified, are badges of honour and should remain part of historical record signifying the sacrifices Garvey made as he championed the causes in which he believed.

If it is that he was convicted on trumped-up charges without a fair trial, keeping the records as they are only demonstrates to future generations the hostile system which Garvey was bold enough to challenge. An unfair criminal record does nothing more than contextualise Garvey's fight for empowerment.

South Africa's Nelson Mandela spent 27 years of his life locked in a prison cell. This is perhaps the most widely known fact about the man. Those nearly three decades constitute an immeasurably significant part of Mandela's life story and more than anything, represent the magnitude of his sacrifice. It would be unfair to him, and to Garvey, to even symbolically clear their records.


darkness of our past


There is a lot to learn from history. Civilisation's highs and lows are laid bare for successive generations to scrutinise. If Garvey was victimised, as we hopefully move towards a future of greater enlightenment, looking back at his record will show the darkness of our past and hopefully motivate us to resist ever going back.

Garvey famously said: "A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots." Let history stand as it is.

Reward Garvey in 2015, but not with symbolic gestures. Let us pledge instead to teach his story, all of it, to current and future generations. Tell the people of his inspiring words, work and his criminal convictions. This is Garvey's story in its totality, and this is the Garvey who can serve as a much-needed motivator to countless people worldwide still struggling to fulfil the destiny that he envisioned for them.

- Robert Lalah is features editor and author of 'Roving with Lalah'. Send feedback to and