Academic journal article Journal of Pan African Studies

Marcus Garvey and President Obama's Missed Opportunity

Academic journal article Journal of Pan African Studies

Marcus Garvey and President Obama's Missed Opportunity

Article excerpt

President Barack Obama issued 212 presidential pardons and 1715 commutations during his tenure, but he refused to sign a presidential pardon for the Right Honorable Marcus Mosiah Garvey, National Hero of Jamaica (1887-1940). This despite pleas from the Congressional Black Caucus, which included civil rights movement elders such as Representatives John Conyers, John Lewis, and Charles Rangel, as well as the former and current prime ministers of Jamaica, Garvey's son, Dr. Julius Garvey, and thousands of activists from all over the world.

Falsely convicted on charges of mail fraud in 1923, Marcus Garvey served two-and-a-half years in the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary before his sentence was commuted by President Calvin Coolidge in 1927. After many attempts to gain a presidential pardon, the first of which was initiated by Garvey himself, the election of President Obama raised hopes that attempts to clear Garvey's good name would finally be realized.

In Dreams from my Father, then senatorial candidate Barack Obama expressed his awareness of Garvey's stature within the Pan-African community when he quoted one of Garvey's signature phrases, "Rise up, ye mighty race!" This was widely interpreted by many Garveyites as a sign that Obama would change US policy toward Garvey and many other black leaders whose actions where criminalized by the Bureau of Investigation (forerunner of the FBI) and the Department of Justice.

There were other signs that President Obama, who was fond of quoting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s statement "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice," believed in the values for which Garvey and King had sacrificed their lives. During his tenure, as Ta-Nehisi Coates has pointed out, President Obama often lectured the black community on the need for education and adherence to the values of hard work and self-reliance. And who embodied these ideals better than Marcus Garvey?

Garvey came to America a penniless immigrant in 1916, and ended up changing the way black people thought about themselves. According to the Black Business Network, "by 1917 Garvey and 13 members founded the UNIA, which by 1921 had over eight million members worldwide. He established a newspaper, The Negro World, which at its peak had a weekly circulation of over 500,000; a shipping line, the Black Star Line, which was founded with ten million dollars in investment capital; the Negro Factories Corporation, which generated income and provided jobs through its numerous enterprises, including a chain of grocery stores and restaurants, a steam laundry, tailor shop, dressmaking shop, millinery store, publishing house and doll factory. …

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