Exoneration for Marcus Garvey?

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Exoneration for Marcus Garvey?


Sunday, April 26, 2020

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The following is a lightly edited extract from a forthcoming book by Professor Stephen Vasciannie entitled Essays on Caribbean Law and Policy to be published by the University of Technology, Jamaica Press.

Marcus Garvey was imprisoned at the Atlanta Penitentiary in 1925, following his conviction for mail fraud. The charges brought against Garvey related to the sale of stock in the Black Star Line Inc, a corporation then existing under the laws of Delaware. Garvey's imprisonment was to be for five years, but in 1927 President Calvin Coolidge commuted his sentence and had him deported to Jamaica as an alien with a felony record.

Simpson Miller

On occasion, the Jamaica Government has considered whether to seek a pardon for Garvey in relation to his conviction, and on the visit of President Barack Obama to Jamaica in April 2014, then Prime Minister Simpson Miller formally raised the question of exoneration with the American authorities.

The Jamaican Government's interest in this matter is reinforced by some members of the United States Congress and by efforts among private groups — including the UNIA — which hold Garvey in special regard.

The main argument for exoneration turns on Garvey's international impact, the value of his philosophy of racial equality, and the legacy of his political, economic and social activism on behalf of “Africans at home and abroad”. The name of such a leader, a Jamaica National Hero, should not be tarnished by a conviction for fraud, so the argument runs.

False conviction?

This argument is reinforced by the view that Garvey's conviction was falsely obtained: it is noted, in particular, that the conviction was secured on the basis of “trumped up” charges concocted by the agents of the American power structure, anxious to undermine the political prowess of “the most famous black man…in the world” (as Garvey is described by Colin Grant, in the book, Negro in a Hat (2008)). These two arguments, built, respectively, on Garvey's standing and on perceptions of systemic persecution against Garvey, may be presented independently or cumulatively to promote full exoneration.

In the discourse concerning Garvey's exoneration, certain political and legal considerations have been raised from time to time. For example, in 2011, the Obama Administration turned down a pardon request for Garvey made by a private citizen (reported by the Jamaica Observer, August 21, 2011).

White House

It is reported that the White House Pardon Attorney rejected the request on the basis that, as a general rule, the United States Government does not grant pardons posthumously. In support of this approach, the Pardon Office indicated that, in the context of limited resources, the time and effort of the office would be better spent working on applications for living persons.

The Office of the Pardon Attorney has also noted that posthumous pardons would, generally speaking, give rise to problems of proof, for the evidence on which a particular conviction is based may, with the passage of time, become very difficult and time-consuming to assess.

Not alive

The Office of the Pardon Attorney has also argued that the criteria for granting pardons may be more readily applicable to living persons, and that the grant of posthumous pardons would open the door to too many difficult cases at a time when the system of granting pardons for living persons is already overburdened.

The Office also maintains that living persons “can truly benefit from a grant of clemency”, in contrast, presumably, to persons who have passed away. In the case of an application on behalf of Marcus Garvey, these arguments are not convincing. Garvey's influence throughout the world, including his status as a forerunner of the modern American civil rights movement, should entitle him to a relaxation of the general rule against posthumous pardons; opening up a reconsideration of his case would not mean that all applications for posthumous pardons need to be taken.


Added to this, it should be noted that the general rule against granting posthumous pardons is not constitutionally mandated; nor does it take into account the possibility that Garvey's application for a pardon was turned down on the basis of racial considerations. Also, on the question of old evidence, the transcript of the case against Marcus Garvey remains available: it is, therefore, open to lawyers from the Department of Justice to undertake an assessment of the case as actually brought against Garvey up to 1925.

DuBois etc

Two additional political considerations in the exoneration debate may be mentioned at this juncture. The first concerns challenges faced by Garvey in the course of his political activism in the United States. Especially in the decade of the 1920s, Garvey became a relentless opponent of W E B DuBois and other established black American leaders, with fiery language crossing the ideological and strategic borders of the UNIA, on one side, and the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, on the other.

The main differences between Garvey and other black leaders turned on considerations such as self-determination versus integration for black people, class alliances versus racial unity in promoting the advancement of the poor, the role of self-reliance in racial advancement, and the importance of Africa to the lives of persons in the black diaspora.

Personal criticisms

At the personal level, there was also a stream of criticism of Garvey, suggesting that he lacked competence in financial matters, promoted escapism among supporters, presented unjustifiable perspectives on “racial purity”, and was willing to compromise with white supremacists. Some critics also alleged that the UNIA was not averse to relying on demagoguery and intimidation for success.

In contrast, Garvey accused DuBois and others of constructing the NAACP for the benefit of a minority of light-skinned African-Americans, challenged their support for assimilation among whites, and suggested that they were nave in their assessment of white supremacists. Thus, there was undoubted bitterness between Garvey and some of his opponents.


What bearing should this have on the exoneration effort? In my view, the history of antagonism should be acknowledged, but it should not bar exoneration. The exoneration effort, it is suggested, should turn on the importance of Garvey to the world today, his powerful legacy, and on what his ideas of self-reliance and enterprise have meant to persons in many societies.

It should also turn on the possibility that the original conviction was unsound. Against this background, it should matter little in the long run that Garvey had ideological, strategic and personal differences with various African-American leaders.

Secondly, it is fair to suggest that staunch supporters of Marcus Garvey may hold divergent opinions on the value and significance of exoneration by the United States Government. The present discussion has highlighted the perspective of those who would wish to have Garvey exonerated through formal channels.


But, as a counterview, it may be argued that Garvey's standing is already entrenched within the hearts and minds of many persons across the world. This standing will be unaffected by removal of a conviction and sentence imposed 90 years ago. And the argument continues: Why should Garvey's supporters want exoneration from a power structure that continues to oppress persons on the basis of race and colour? Why should Garvey, even to this day, need validation from “Babylon”?

On this view, exoneration may paradoxically have the effect of lending credibility to an unfair and unjust political order.

Ambassador Stephen Vasciannie has recently returned to his position as Professor of International Law at The University of the West Indies, Mona.

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