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The case to pardon Marcus Garvey

Marcus Garvey has influenced generations of Black leaders. His son tells Into America why he’s still fighting to clear his father's name.


Into America


Marcus Garvey: There are 400 million Africans in the world who have Negro blood coursin' through their veins. And we believe that the time has come to unite these 400 million people.

Trymaine Lee: This is Marcus Mosiah Garvey in 1921, giving a speech about the cause he dedicated his life to, pan-African unity.

Garvey: The great problem of the Negro for the last 500 years has been that of disunity.

Lee: The recording is a little hard to understand. After all, it is a century old. But he's saying that the gravest threat to the Negro people is disunity. And for any young listeners, Negro in this context is not a derogatory term.

Garvey: If you believe that the Negro has a soul, if you believe that the Negro is a man, then you must acknowledge that what other men has done Negros can do.

Lee: If you believe the Negro has a soul, he said, if you believe the Negro is a man, then you must acknowledge that what other men have done Negros can do.

Garvey: It must be done through unity.

Lee: It must be done through unity. Garvey was putting out the call for people to join his organization, the Universal Negro Improvement Association. At that point, the UNIA, and Garvey's pan-Africanist movement was the largest movement of Black people the world had ever seen.

At a time when Jim Crow was the law of the land here in the U.S. and when white colonial powers were ravaging the continent of Africa, Marcus Garvey preached a philosophy of Black self-reliance and Africa for the Africans. Garvey's influence has held sway for generations.

Archival Recording: If we must die, let it not be like hogs, hunted and penned in an inglorious part while round us bark the mad and hungry dogs, making their mark at our cursed lot.

Lee: Harlem renaissance poets, like Claude McKay, owe a debt of gratitude to Marcus Garvey.

Archival Recording: Like men, we'll face the murderers' cowardly pack, pressed to the wall, dying but fighting back.

Lee: Martin Luther King, Jr., called Garvey, quote, "The first man on a mass scale and level to give millions of Negros a sense of dignity and destiny and make the Negro feel he was somebody." Even though Marcus Garvey has been dead for 80 years, the UNIA's red, black and green flag (red for the blood shared by Africans, black for the people, and green for the future and wealth of Africa) is still synonymous with Black self-determination and, as rhetoric, has echoed in movements for racial justice and African pride for decades.

Archival Recording: I want you to repeat after me. I am.

Voices: I am.

Archival Recording: A revolutionary.

Voices: A revolutionary.

Archival Recording: He said, you know, God and nature first made us what we are. And then out of our own creative genius, we make ourselves what we want to be.

Archival Recording: Whose dream?

Voices: Our dream.

Archival Recording: Whose dream?

Voices: Our dream.

Archival Recording: Whose dream?

Voices: Our dream.

Archival Recording: Whose dream?

Voices: You can leave. I can't breathe. You can't leave. I can't breathe. You can't leave.

Lee: But like so many Black leaders, Garvey's fame and power during his lifetime attracted enemies in the white power establishment. One of the white people who felt threatened was J. Edgar Hoover. So, in the 1910s, Hoover and the FBI set out to take Garvey down. And eventually, they succeeded.

In 1923, and under really murky circumstances, Garvey was convicted of mail fraud and sentenced to prison. A few years later, President Calvin Coolidge commuted his sentence on the condition that the government deport him back to his home country of Jamaica. Garvey never returned to the U.S., dying in London in 1940. But the conviction against Marcus Garvey stands to this day. And for years, his family has been fighting for a posthumous pardon.

Archival Recording: It's a shame in terms of the judiciary and the justice system. And these injustices need to be corrected.

Lee: I'm Trymaine Lee and this is Into America. Today, Marcus Garvey's youngest son on his father's life, legacy and justice for Garvey; the movement to clear the Garvey name.

Garvey: Well, I'm Julius Garvey. I'm the second son of Marcus Garvey. And my older brother, Marcus, passed recently, last December. So, I'm the surviving son of Marcus Mosiah Garvey.

Lee: Julius Garvey was born in Jamaica in 1933, the second and youngest child to Marcus and Amy Garvey. Marcus Garvey died when Julius was just seven years old. By then, the UNIA movement had lost steam. But Marcus Garvey was still a revered figure. Julius Garvey can still recall the first time he realized his father was more than just his dad.

Garvey: I was in school at Wolmer's Boys' School in Jamaica. And we had a cafeteria where we'd go for lunch. And the lady who was serving the lunch leaned over and said, "Oh, you know, your father was a great man." So, that's the first time somebody outside of my mother had said that.

And it came to me. I said, "Wow, my dad is a great man." So, that was the first public, shall we say, acknowledgment to me. And then, of course, from then I learned more and more about him. And my understanding of his mission and his accomplishments widened over time.

Lee: Julius grew up to be a surgeon. He's Dr. Garvey now and has lived in New York for several decades. Dr. Garvey only had a few years with his father before he died. But his mother made sure her sons knew exactly who Marcus Garvey was.

Garvey: My mother raised me because my father died when I was very young. I was seven years of age. So, she would tell me who he was in terms of the wider sense, not just as my dad.

Lee: Marcus Garvey was born in August 17th, 1887, in St. Ann's Bay, Jamaica. From an early age, Garvey was drawn to the written word. With the help of a godfather, he became a printer's apprentice at the age of 14. Then he took those skills with him to find work in Kingston. By the time he was 20, Marcus Garvey had a job as a foreman at a printing press.

Garvey: And then after a couple of years, what happened was that the printers went on strike. He didn't have to go on strike because he was management. He was a master printer. But he sympathized with them and went on strike with them.

Lee: This principled stand got Garvey fired from his job. He found work at the government printing office and started his first newspaper, the Watchman. But it only lasted a few issues.

Garvey: In any event, I'm not sure why he decided to travel in the Caribbean. But he went to Costa Rica. At that time, it was a lotta farming going on; United Fruit Company, et cetera.

Lee: Old colonial powers were sucking everything of value they could from stolen and occupied land. Slavery had been abolished but freed people didn't get land or money. Instead, corporations came in and propped up regimes in Central America and the Caribbean. Then, they'd work hand in hand to exploit the land and people of their natural resources and labor.

Garvey: People were, quote, "Free," but they had no land, so they had no way to develop. So, many, many people left, for example, Jamaica and other places looking for work. So, he worked on the farms and then he also went to Panama and worked on the Panama Canal. So, he went and traveled there for two years (Nicaragua, Honduras, et cetera) and came back to Jamaica.

Lee: When Garvey wasn't doing manual labor, he was reporting on the conditions of his fellow Black workers for different newspapers around the region. After traveling around Central America and the Caribbean, Garvey briefly returned to Jamaica before heading out again in 1912, this time, to London; the seat of British colonial rule.

Garvey: He worked on the docks. He went to university, took some courses there. He was a journalist for the African Times and Orient Review which was a magazine.

Lee: That's where Garvey discovered the writings of Booker T. Washington and reached out to him.

Garvey: He had read, you know, Up from Slavery, back in 1914 and had corresponded with Booker T. because he-- he was interested in what Booker T. was doing at Tuskegee in terms of the Tuskegee Institute.

Lee: Everywhere Marcus Garvey went, one thing stood out to him: African people were always pushed to the bottom rung of the social ladder and stripped of their true history and power.

Garvey: It came to him from his perspective that something had to be done. And it came to him that he was the one that had to do it. This was his thinking in terms of the redemption of African civilization, you know, more or less, from the ground up and in its totality.

So, what he created when he came back, the Universal Negro Improvement Association, and African Communities League, was essentially a nation in exile, he saw it as uniting all African people across the globe. And at that time, it was estimated that we were 400 million.

And the concept was to bring us all together because we had a unique history. We were the first people. We had the first civilization. He knew all about the pharaohs. He knew all about Kemet in Egypt and Kush and Nubia and so on. This was his idea of recreating African civilization for African people (those in Africa and those in the diaspora) that went in the face of the racist system, for example, in the United States and the colonial systems that were bleeding the resources out of the Caribbean as well as the African countries.

And we had a great need in terms of who are we after these people have been telling us that we're subhuman. Marcus Garvey was saying, no, we're not subhuman. We have a great history. It's unique. It's the longest in the world. So, let's recapture that, you know, and let's put our own systems in place.

Lee: Marcus Garvey got back to Jamaica in 1914. And, inspired by his travels, he founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association. And a year later, he left Jamaica once again and took his mission to the United States.

Garvey: In one year, he went through, you know, more than 30 states on his own dime, you know, seein' the conditions of African peoples.

Lee: Marcus Garvey eventually settled in Harlem in 1917 where he found work as a printer. But every night, he set up a soapbox on a street corner, preaching to anyone willing to listen about the plight of Africans here and abroad, and urging them to join the UNIA. The soil in Harlem was fertile for the seeds of Black pride that Marcus Garvey was sowing.

Garvey: Because that was a time of the great migration.

Lee: Black folks escaping the oppressive racism of the South found that the North was no promised land.

Garvey: Of course, there was the prejudice up north as well.

Lee: Marcus Garvey and the UNIA offered an antidote. They established Black-owned businesses so people could keep their dollars within the community. They had a restaurant and a doll shop that made Black dolls for Black children. They founded the Black Cross Nurses and the Negro Factories Corporation.

The UNIA's newspaper, the Negro World, grew to be one of Harlem's most popular Black-owned publications. The Harlem Renaissance poet, Claude McKay, called the paper the best-edited, colored weekly in New York. Plus, Marcus Garvey wasn't just Black; he was Black and proud. His ostentatious military-style outfits and pan-African parades were reminders that Black people could create community in our own reflection.

Garvey: So, there was the creation then of a new culture, if you will. And this is what gave birth to the Harlem renaissance. A lot of people don't credit Marcus Garvey and the UNIA with it. But where else was Black consciousness coming from? It was coming out of the UNIA because a lot of what was going on then, you know, people were straightening their hair and people were bleaching their skin and so on, and that certainly wasn't Black consciousness.

And creativity doesn't come out of that kind of step-and-fetch-it thing. Creativity comes out of your own understanding of yourself as a human being. And you dig deep into yourself in terms of your own ability to create. You have to respect yourself and love yourself to be creative. And that was the message that Marcus Garvey brought with the UNIA and ACL.

Lee: Marcus Garvey's ultimate goal was to build Africa for the Africans; those who'd been lost or stolen from the motherland; a place where anyone of African descent could make a home. It would be self-governed and self-sufficient, a celebration of the continent's and its people's great history.

One way he hoped to make this dream come true was by founding the Black Star Line. This was a shipping company designed to foster trade between Africans on the continent and throughout the diaspora, and to take Africans in the diaspora back to the motherland.

But Garvey was a writer and a leader, not a shipping expert. And even though Black Star Line ships, like the SS Frederick Douglass, sailed between the U.S. and Caribbean for a few years, the company struggled from the beginning. Still, this small amount of power was too much for white authorities who deemed Marcus Garvey and the UNIA a threat to the United States. He became public enemy number one and Hoover set out to destroy him.

Garvey: Well, you know, the biggest enemy in some sense was J. Edgar Hoover, who was a young law school graduate and he was looking for something to cut his teeth on. And there was a lot coming out of World War I, you know, looking for subversives, so to speak.

Lee: There's an internal bureau memo from Hoover, dated October 11th, 1919. In it, he calls Garvey a, quote, "Exceptionally fine orator," and says it's unfortunate that Garvey hasn't broken any federal laws that would allow him to be deported. But Hoover wasn't givin' up.

Garvey: And, of course, J. Edgar Hoover hired his first Black agents, were hired to infiltrate the organization. I think there were three or four of them.

Lee: That also just sounds crazy, right. Like, the first Black agents were hired to target Marcus Garvey.

Garvey: Absolutely. To report back to J. Edgar Hoover what was going on inside the organization and then to disrupt the organization in any way that they could. So, this was a project that was going on from 1919.

Lee: Finally, one of those agents informed Hoover that Garvey's paper was goin' to run an advertisement for the Black Star Line, calling for people to invest in the company. But the ad featured a ship that the UNIA hadn't finished buying yet. Hoover decided this was false advertising. And because this business was being done through the U.S. Postal Service, Hoover directed his team to charge Garvey with mail fraud. The case went to trial in 1923.

Garvey: But then, essentially, there was no evidence. Plus the fact that the person actually perjured himself and was coached to perjure himself by the prosecuting attorney. This was discovered in court. I mean, it's absolutely, totally ridiculous.

Lee: The jury convicted Garvey anyway.

Garvey: And he was imprisoned in Atlanta. He spent two years and nine months in Atlanta. But people who were agitating for his release right from the beginning; thousands and thousands of people and petitions, et cetera. And Coolidge and his attorney reviewed the case and the attorney said, you know, we really have no reason to hold this gentleman. And so, Coolidge commuted the sentence at that time. But the stipulation was that he had to be deported. So, 1927, the sentence was commuted and he was deported back to Jamaica.

Lee: J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI would go on to target Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X and the Black Panthers. Hoover was obsessed with the idea of a Black messiah. And Marcus Garvey was the first in a long line of Black leaders he feared would fulfill that role. Do you think your father was, like, fully aware of the lengths the government was going, like, to try to undermine and take him down, J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI? He knew?

Garvey: Absolutely. Absolutely. He wasn't a dunce. He was brilliant and he knew exactly what the price of leadership was. And if you look at one of his quotes, he says, "Leadership means everything: pain, blood and death." He knew that. And you know, you look at Malcolm X. Malcolm X knew he was gonna die.

But this did not deter him. And Martin Luther King knew he was gonna die. He says, "I may not get there with you but I've been to the promised land." I mean, these are genuine leaders who give themselves totally to the movement and for their people's advancement.

And they know the price. In Atlanta, he said, "If I die in Atlanta, you know, my job is not finished. Wrap the red, black and green around me and I'll come back in death. I'll be the real Marcus Garvey and I'll come in the pestilence and the storm," or whatever, and so on, "And bring the millions of African ancestors to aid and help you in the fight for liberty and prosperity." So, he knew and he was prepared. He was not unwilling. I mean, he took that as a mantle and said yes; I accept this.

Lee: We'll be right back. Julius Garvey knew from an early age that he wanted to be a doctor.

Garvey: Somebody asked me recently how did I choose medicine. I had a dog, was my best friend growing up, and the dog got sick and I didn't know how to help the dog. And we didn't have vets in those days in Jamaica, at any rate. I just had to stand there and watch my dog die. So, that's how I decided to become a doctor; someone who could take care of illnesses, not so much for a dog but for people.

Lee: Dr. Garvey was just seven years old when his father died from a stroke. And even though he went into a different line of work than his father, Marcus Garvey was still a guiding force in Dr. Garvey's life.

Garvey: He said, you know, "God and nature first made us what we are. And then out of our own creative genius, we make ourselves what we want to be." So, I kind of absorbed that from my understanding of him and what my mother told me about him which was his dedication. He was very much a self-made and self-taught person. And I think I absorbed some of that because, ultimately, you find out (everybody finds out) that education is something that you have to do yourself.

Lee: Did it ever feel like too much pressure? Like, a certain point in life where it was like, this is a lot to handle? Like, I'm the youngest of Marcus Garvey's sons?

Garvey: No. And I think the key thing that you said there is youngest. Well, there are two of us. I had an older brother and his fortune or misfortune was that he was Marcus Garvey, Jr. So, the pressure more or less fell on him as a junior to try possibly to accomplish, you know, what the senior accomplished.

So, whether it was my own personality or not, I never felt pressure. I always was that kind of person. I liked to enjoy myself as a kid. I was interested in playing soccer and cricket, more so than my studies so that, you know, I did not allow things to weigh on me.

But I did feel pressure, and this came a lot through my mother, that you can't let down the Garvey name. Don't forget, you're a Garvey, you know. You can't disgrace the Garvey name. So, there was that pressure, so to speak, in terms of being somebody of substance, if you will, and not, you know, giving into the usual teenage or young adult rascality. So, that kept me on the straight and narrow path.

Lee: Speakin' of your mother, tell us about who she was.

Garvey: Well, she was a fantastic lady. She was mother to myself and my brother. She was wife to my dad. She was muse to my dad. He tested his ideas on her. She was brilliant in her own right. She was trained as a legal secretary, which was sort of unusual for women in those days.

So, she was accomplished and she had the intelligence, to a large extent, to match his. So, she would argue with him. He would try out his ideas on her. And in terms of the organization itself, I mean, she ran the woman's page. And of course, after his death, I mean, there are a number of pan-Africanists, if you will, who she kept in communication with. She was communicatin' with W. E. B. Du Bois and so on.

Lee: Dr. Garvey and his family had been pushing for a posthumous pardon for his father for years. I spoke to him back in January, 2017, in the final days of the Obama administration. He was hoping that President Obama, the first Black president, would be the one to grant Garvey a pardon. When you think about this fight and the idea that we're in the last days of President Obama's presidency, what are you hoping?

Garvey: Well, we stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before. And he was the progenitor of the civil rights movement here, the human rights movement across the world. I think this president has to understand that he's standing on the shoulders of those who have gone before in terms of the civil rights struggle, and understand that this in itself is important to his own legacy.

Lee: But Obama didn't go for it and Dr. Garvey was left with questions.

Garvey: Well, you know, there was definite disappointment because, you know, the Black president from that perspective, it was disappointing. On the other hand, we understand that the president and the presidency is beholden in some sense to the power structure of the country.

And to go against it, you know, can be detrimental. We see what happened to Bobby Kennedy, JFK, Martin Luther King, when you go against the system in that way. So, you know, what can I tell you? It didn't happen. I can't tell you the reasons why. But certainly, it's difficult to go against the grain of the system.

Lee: Are you hopeful that your father's name will be cleared and he will actually be pardoned? Do you believe it'll happen and do you think it'll happen in your lifetime?

Garvey: Yes, it will happen with this presidency and, hopefully, in my lifetime, you know. But it will happen and will happen in this presidency, yes. I am hopeful of that. I'm convinced of that, yes.

Lee: Yeah, I think Joe Biden is in a bit of a different position because he doesn't have to either defend or deflect his Blackness in any way, right. So, he can be the Lyndon Johnson of this. He's done things already. We'll just say that he wasn't bound and he wasn't dealin' with a complicated nature to his Blackness the way Obama was. So--

Garvey: Yeah.

Lee: --you know, why not? Let's all be hopeful.

Garvey: Yeah.

Lee: What would it mean personally for you to have your father pardoned and his name cleared? And what do you think it'll mean for not just Black America but America?

Garvey: Well, you know, Marcus Garvey's honored the world over. He's not just Jamaica's first national hero but he's a hero of the organization of American states. He has statues and roads named after him all over the world; many African countries and many Latin American countries.

I've been to places in Costa Rica and Panama with his names and so on and so forth. This was my dad's concept. We're a nation. We're a people. We count. You know, we are now 1.3 billion people with the richest continent in the world. So, we need to be respected and be respected for who we are, what our history has been, all that we have gone through.

And we need to make that plain. And this was part of other people respecting us. And if they don't respect us, then we won't respect them. It's as simple as that; mutual respect. You know, we don't have to take a backseat to anybody, (LAUGH) you know. We're not sitting in the back of the bus. We're sitting anywhere in the bus that we see an empty seat, et cetera. And this is how it's gonna go forward. And I think everybody needs to get on board with that because the world has changed.

Lee: Dr. Garvey, I wanna thank you so much. It's an honor and privilege to have this conversation with you. Thank you for carvin' out so much time for us. We really do appreciate it.

Garvey: Well, it's been my pleasure. Thank you so much for having me.

Lee: We always wanna hear from you. You can tweet me at Trymaine Lee. That's @trymainelee, my full name. Or write to us, that was IntoAmerica@NBC, and the letters U-N-I dot-com. Into America is produced by Isabel Angel, Allison Bailey, Aaron Dalton, Max Jacobs, Joshua Sirotiak and Aisha Turner. Original music is by Hannis Brown. I'm Trymaine Lee. See you next Thursday.