Proverbs 29:18 says “where there is no vision, a people perish.” The U.S. Government’s long campaign to discredit civil rights leaders has limited our vision by limiting whose vision we think is credible and worth listening to and analyzing. Too often we follow the status quo visions of leaders not chosen by us; the strategies of those made most visible by the mainstream. Beyond enslavement, Jim Crow, and mass incarceration, the harms we have suffered include this: the political crime of limiting our political vision and the spiritual crime of limiting our spiritual vision of self.
Any effort to heal our racial wounds as a nation must acknowledge that.
Removing the confederate flag from the state capitol, removing the name of an enslaver from a university building, and removing the stain of an unjust conviction from the name of a deceased civil rights hero, these are all symbolic acts. They mark progress primarily in the realm of public memory. But this is the realm that hosts the development of critical consciousness—or fails utterly to do so. It couldn’t be more important.
Officially launching last August (after earlier attempts beginning in 1987), Justice4Garvey is the effort seeking a posthumous pardon by President Obama for Marcus Mosiah Garvey. Support has grown rapidly since then. Eighteen members of Congress; The Congressional Black Caucus; Grammy-Award Winner Kenny Gamble; Nelson Mandela’s grandson, Ndaba Mandela; Jamaica Prime Minister Andrew Holness; The National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education; The National Minority Business Council; The Society of American Law Teachers; and other prominent people and organizations have voiced support and written letters to the president urging him to grant this posthumous pardon before he leaves office. They did this because it matters.
Few people know that longtime FBI director J. Edgar Hoover’s stated career-long ambition to “prevent the rise of a ‘Messiah’ who could unify and electrify the militant Black Nationalist movement” began with Marcus Garvey. Soon after he joined the FBI in 1919, Hoover hired the first Black FBI agent, James Wormley Jones, to infiltrate Garvey’s organization. The “mail fraud” charge against Garvey that they manufactured rested on the flimsy evidence of a single empty envelope. The substance of it—the false claim that Garvey’s entire career was a Ponzi scheme designed to financially exploit his own people—hurt Garvey’s heart to the core. Still, with a hostile judge standing watch, a hostile federal prosecutor implored a hostile all-white-male jury to convict Garvey in 1923. The prosecutor asked, “gentlemen,will you let the tiger loose?” Garvey never had a chance. He received the harshest penalty possible under law, five years in prison and a large fine. Shortly thereafter he was jailed and deported in 1927. Years later, after a false report of his own death, Garvey read his own obituary and saw that this conviction loomed large in the telling of his life story. He had a stroke soon thereafter, arguably dying of a broken heart.
Why should we care about this today? As a political thinker, Garvey’s life and ideas influenced leaders throughout the world in the 20th century. The reach of his influence includes Malcolm X, Kwame Nkrumah, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Even today, his core ideas, if reanimated by the public discussion following his Presidential pardon, can inspire a new generation:
Self-Esteem: “If you haven’t confidence in self, you are twice defeated in the race of life. With confidence, you have won even before you started.” In the context of a denigrated post reconstruction environment, he supported Black self-esteem.
Pan-Africanism: “I know no national boundary where the Negro is concerned. The whole world is my province until Africa is free.” His global vision allowed for the creation of allies around the world.
Education: “A reading man and woman is a ready man and woman, but a writing man and woman is exact.” He emphasized the importance of intellectual development.
Economics: “A race that is solely dependent upon another for its economic existence sooner or later dies.” His “Black Star Line” was designed not simply to take people on a trip back to Africa, but to create a mechanism for international trade throughout the Black Diaspora, something that unto today has never happened.
There is an exhibit of Marcus Garvey’s life and legacy in the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture because of his significant range of contributions. His ideas influenced the leaders of the civil rights movement, the anti-colonial movement, and even the leaders of today’s Black Lives Matters movement. But only a posthumous pardon can officially exonerate him under law and give America the chance to officially right this wrong. Garvey taught us that, “A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin, and culture is like a tree without roots.”
It’s time Mr. President, to posthumously pardon Marcus Garvey before you leave office. The time is now.
Justin Hansford is a currently a democracy project fellow at Harvard University’s Charles Warren Center for American Studies.