Friday, February 25, 2011

Remembering Marcus Garvey

Marcus Mosiah Garvey was born on the northern coast of Jamaica. His mother, Sarah, had eleven children, but only two (Marcus and a sister) reached adulthood. His father and grandfather were master masons who built  houses but were eventually reduced to making tombstones and vaults for coffins. Marcus’ lucky break occurred when he was apprenticed to the printing offices of his godfather, Alfred E. Burrows. There, he quickly learned the trade and devoured books and newspapers. Eventually, Marcus landed a position in the government’s printing office and started his own (albeit short-lived) newspaper.

Garvey left Jamaica in 1910 and traveled to Ecuador, Venezuela, Columbia and throughout Central America. He returned home briefly in 1912, then headed for England and the Continent. While in London, he spent many hours in the visitor’s gallery in the House of Commons and took his place in Hyde Park’s notorious Speaker’s Corner.

On August 1, 1914, Garvey announced the creation of a new organization, the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League (or UNIA). The organization had several “goals.” Among them were the promotion of “the spirit of race pride and love,” assistance to “the needy,” civilization of the “backward tribes of Africa,” universities and colleges for the “education and culture” of boys and girls “of the race,” and the promotion of “Christian worship among the native tribes of Africa.” By 1916, the UNIA had attracted one hundred members, but Garvey was not pleased with what he perceived to be a lack of enthusiasm.

He credited Booker T. Washington’s Up From Slavery with inspiring him to become a leader of his race, so a speaking tour of United States in 1916 seemed logical. In the space of a year, Garvey spoke in thirty-eight states. In Harlem (a temporary base of operations), Garvey gave numerous speeches in churches and took a job as a printer. He also renewed his activities as a public street and sidewalk speaker. Biographer Judith Stein notes that when Garvey gave his first formal speech, he was heckled until he passed out and fell off of the stage. But soon he was speaking to hundreds, then thousands, of listeners and charging relatively high fees.

Garvey also groomed the UNIA into a more serious economic force. In January of 1918, he launched the Negro World, the UNIA’s New York Newspaper. At its peak, the ten to sixteen page weekly page newspaper “Devoted Solely to the Interests of the Negro Race” was distributed throughout the world. Estimates of its peak circulation ranged from sixty to two hundred thousand. In 1919, Garvey declared the UNIA would have “absolutely no association with any political party” as all of the parties were “white men” that “lynch and burn Negroes.” At UNIA events, he encouraged African Americans to start “business enterprises” of their own because “commercial and industrial” activity was becoming the basis of “racial greatness.” In May of 1919, Garvey practiced what he preached by announcing his plans to create the Black Star Line.

The Black Star Line was advertised as an “opportunity” for “every black man, woman and child [to] climb the great ladder of industrial and commercial progress.” The Black Star Line would “enter the commercial world and trade [with] brethren across the seas.” Garvey hypothesized that the enterprise would “lift the standing of the Negro race throughout the civilized world.” Potential stockholders were attracted by the promise of “large profits and dividends.” Garvey thought of himself as a kind of new-wave black leader and began to criticize “old time Negroes” and the “Old Crowd” in his speeches. The first ship was launched in October of 1919 and another was purchased the following September. Garvey’s brand of leadership seemed to be headed for the top. Indeed, by January 1920, the Justice Department considered him the foremost "pro-negro agitator" in New York.

But management problems seem to plague the enterprise at every step. Beneath the constant barrage of “reorganization” schemes, a recurring theme seemed to slowly emerge. Garvey was constantly charged with (or suspected of) using funds in an inappropriate manner. Stein notes Garvey "more often was seen in three piece suits” and “gave the appearance of living well.” When Garvey was shot by George Tyler (a former employee who had loaned him money), some may have seen the incident as a mere variation on the theme. Soon, he would be fighting “white men on the outside and black men on the inside.”

But Stein argues Garvey’s shooting had the immediate effect of making him (and his cause) more popular. Black Star Line shares quickly doubled. A third ship was purchased and, in August of 1920, twenty-five thousand people attended the first UNIA convention in Madison Square Garden. Convention Delegates enthusiastically elected Garvey as Provisional President of Africa and published a Declaration of Negro Rights. Tony Martin observes, Garvey “was unquestionably the leader of the largest organization of its type in the history of the race.”

A 1922 tour of the southeastern United States added a little flair to Garvey’s reputation and completely baffled the government agents who were monitoring his behavior. In South Carolina, Garvey gave tribute to the south for having “lynched race pride into the Negroes.” In New Orleans, he said he was in no way “vexed” with the white man for “Jim Crowing” him. Garvey said street-cars and railroads were invented by the “white man” for his own “convenience.”

On June 22, he actually met for two hours with the second in command of the Ku Klux Klan. Garvey emerged from the meeting with the view that the Klan simply favored the position of “whites” (contra hostility toward “blacks”). He also accused the NAACP (whom he called “the National Association for the Advancement of Certain People”) of increasing the difficulties of African-Americans by “always endeavoring to encourage forced companionship between the races.” In Garvey’s mind, there could be no “coming together” of the races because each had “a distinct destiny.”

By the time the UNIA convention gathered in 1922, a “Garvey Must Go” campaign was gaining momentum. On January 1, 1923, one of Garvey’s more prominent critics, the Reverend James Eason, was shot and killed after a public speech. Stein's biography of Garvey notes he “openly bragged about the death” and “many” of his associates believed he had “ordered” it. Before he died, Eason expressed his view that Garvey supporters had shot him in order to prevent him from testifying at an upcoming mail fraud trial.

Garvey was arrested January 12. The following day, he told a crowd that he was innocent but seemed to admit that something illegal had taken place. The twenty-seven day trial of Garvey, Olando M. Thompson, Elie Garcia and George Tobias began on May 21, 1923. Hundreds of people surrounded the precinct to see (and cheer for) Garvey, who told them he would be “free” in a “few hours.” Prosecutor Maxwell Mattuck questioned the intentions of Black Star Line officers and produced thirty witnesses with more than a few hours of stories of chaos and mismanagement. Maxwell estimated that between thirty and forty thousand Negroes had been “swindled” and “bunked” out of at least one million dollars.

Garvey pushed his lawyer aside after one day and took over his own defense. This strategy made the presence of “leading” newspapers a virtual certainty and, according to the New York Times, resulted in “frequent intervals” of laughter. The Amsterdam News noted Garvey’s “loose rambling defense” and “stumbling, irrelevant, often pointless cross examinations.” In the rare instances where points were made, they were rarely useful to his side of the case. One cross-examination, for example, led a witness to reveal that there had been an improper relationship between Garvey and an unmarried secretary.

Along the way, Garvey admitted that UNIA money was indeed supposed to have been invested in the purchase of a ship. But Garvey detached himself from the critical decisions of the UNIA and shifted the blame to Orlando Thompson (the organization’s Secretary General). The two remaining defendants followed his lead and also pointed their fingers at Thompson. The jury of twelve “white” men took a full nine hours to deliberate, but it did not buy into the explanation.

Judge Julian W. Mack sentenced Garvey to five years in prison and fined him one thousand dollars. The Judge also billed Garvey for court costs and denied bail. Garvey explained the maximum sentence by the fact that Judge Mack was contributor to the NAACP and predicted “hell will be turned loose all over the country” if he were sent to prison. In fact, a newspaper had already reported that, during the trial, Judge Mack, Prosecutor Mattuck and jurors had received letters which threatened their lives if Garvey were found “guilty.” He also threatened to go on a “hunger strike” as a “protest against white injustice and prejudice.” He then developed the notion that he was the victim of an “international frame-up.” In his view he was “punished for the crime of [a] Jew,” prosecuted by “another Jew,” and sentenced by an “eminent Jewish Jurist.”

Around this time, W.E.B. Du Bois wrote that Garvey was “either a lunatic or a traitor” and “without a doubt, the most dangerous enemy of the Negro race in America and in the world.” Garvey’s appeals failed and he entered the Atlanta penitentiary on February 8, 1925. He began his sentence by returning a compliment to DuBois. In his first “message” from prison (dated February 10), Garvey wrote:
I want you, the black peoples of the world, to know that W.E.B. DuBois and that vicious Negro-hating organization known as the Association for the Advancement of “Colored” People are the greatest enemies the black people have in the world. Don’t allow them to fool you with fine sounding press releases, speeches and books; they are the vipers who have planned with others the extinction of the “black” race.
On June 5, Garvey submitted a lengthy, and somewhat rambling, plea for a presidential pardon. Garvey claimed he knew nothing of mailings to persons who testified in the case against him. Nor did he know the persons themselves. He also noted that he had to defend himself at trial (because of a “discovered conspiracy”) and, as a result, “certain points of law” should have been raised. He then accused the trial judge of helping the prosecutor and interacting inappropriately with members of the jury. The application also emphasized the judge’s relationship with the NAACP (and W.E.B. DuBois) and placed further blame on Communists, Catholics, Jews and an employee in the Department of Justice named Amos.

More directly, Garvey wrote that he was “not guilty” and had, in fact, been “framed up.” His conviction was the result of “prejudice” because of his “color and place of birth.” And, having an intuitive appeal for the political use of clemency, Garvey made the not-so-subtle suggestion that a pardon would “convince millions” that a “black man aspiring for the highest and best for his race can get justice under a Republican form of Government presided over by a Republican President.” He also tossed in that he was “chronically sick” and confinement was “undermining” his health. The conclusion of the application featured some lines from My Country Tis’ of Thee and the signatures of two bankers a lawyer, a judge, a physician and a real estate broker.

But government prosecutors did not take a break after the first conviction. On October 18, 1924, in the middle of the 1924 UNIA convention, Garvey was indicted for fraud and perjury in income tax returns. More specifically, Garvey was charged with having reported an income of only four thousand dollars when, in fact, his salary was ten thousand dollars. The case was eventually dropped, but Stein observes government prosecutors “plied the pardon attorney” with “their version of events.” On August 10 and September 18, 1925, Garvey was informed that his application for a pardon was not forwarded to the president because none of the persons consulted by the Justice Department recommended clemency.

It was obvious that Garvey was going to have to be less legal and more political. His pardon could not be won by nuancing the lawyer-types in the Justice Department with conspiracy theories and song lyrics. Stein notes he began to "direct a steady stream of visitors” from his cell and “countless correspondents to pressure politicians for a pardon.” Petition drives gathered thousands of signatures in support of clemency. A Dean and President of Howard University supported Garvey’s application. Representatives Royal Weller (D-New York) and George Huddleston (D-Alabama) and Senator James Watson (R-Indiana) supported clemency as well.

On October 2, 1927, the Department of Justice rejected Garvey’s plea for parole. The following November, it was announced that President Coolidge had rejected another application for an immediate pardon. When asked directly about Garvey’s application, the President would reply that the matter was in the hands of the Justice Department.

Clemency arrived abruptly on November 18. Two years and nine months later, the President commuted the sentence of prisoner 19359. The Annual Report of the Attorney General for 1928 noted Garvey’s term would not expire until October 15,1928. But he had served “the major portion” of his sentence and “was subject to deportation.” The Attorney General, John G. Sargent, therefore recommended that the sentence be “commuted to expire at once” ... in order to expedite the deportation!

Sargent believed Garvey’s conviction and punishment were deserved, but he was said to be influenced by the views of “numerous delegations” that he and the pardon attorney had spoken to. He was eventually convinced that “none” of the UNIA contributors believed that they had been defrauded. Instead, UNIA contributors retained “their entire confidence in Garvey” and believed prosecution and imprisonment were acts “of oppression of the race” and “discrimination against Garvey as a Negro.” Martin notes that one Harlem demonstration on Garvey’s behalf attracted one hundred and fifty thousand people.

N.A.A.C.P. official William Pickens claimed later that a “friend” of his impressed the Justice Department with the argument that the Coolidge Administration could gain ground with black voters in the 1928 election if Garvey were released. Edmund David Cronon observes Coolidge may have been swayed by the fact that Garvey’s Negro Political Union “had campaigned actively for the Republicans in the election of 1924.” Regardless, on December 2, Garvey boarded the SS Saramacca and waved good-bye to hundreds of friends and admirers - or thousands, depending upon whom you read. Some members of the crowd waved banners that read GOD SAVE OUR PRESIDENT.

Garvey’s influence began to decrease the minute he departed for Jamaica. He held the sixth UNIA convention in August of 1929, formed a new political party and ran for a seat in the legislative council. He actually won one election while he was out of the country and another while he was sitting in jail. In 1940, he died in London, not far Speaker’s Corner, the place where he cut his teeth as a provocative thinker and public speaker.

Four decades after his death, Marcus Garvey was the subject of House Resolution 2339 in the Ninety-eighth Congress. In August of 1986, the House of Representatives voted in favor of a Resolution designating the third Monday in January as a Federal legal holiday commemorating the birthday of Martin Luther King (House Resolution 3706). Two months later, Resolution 2339 attempted to amend the King Resolution to contain language which expressed the sense that Congress desired the President to grant a full pardon to "the late" Marcus Garvey, "black nationalist leader." Those who favored the amendment compared Garvey to Dr. King, noting Garvey dreamed of "black achievement, black participation in the free enterprise system, and black leadership throughout the world." They also pointed out the fact that the Prime Minister of Jamaica, Edward Seaga, had already asked President Reagan to grant a full pardon to Garvey.

What justification would there be for such a pardon?

It was argued that clemency would have symbolic value, drawing the peoples of Jamaica and the United States together. It would also remove "a cloud" that "history" had cast over the name and career of Garvey who "ran into" legal problems "not because of his dishonesty, but because of poor management of his business affairs." Remarkably, the resolution described President Coolidge's commutation as evidence of the "excessive severity" of Garvey’s sentence! The Resolution was defeated by a vote of five to ninety-two.

In 2002, Charley Rangel (D-NY) sponsored House Resolution 50 (which was tabled in the 107th Congress) calling on President Bush to pardon Garvey. Said Rangel, "Today, he stands out in the pantheon of Black America's greatest and most controversial leaders." In 2003, House Resolution 74 called Garvey's conviction a "miscarriage of justice." In February of 2009, the 111th Congress considered House Concurrent Resolution 44 expressing the Congressional sentiment that "the President should grant a pardon to Marcus Mosiah Garvey to clear his name and affirm his innocence of crimes for which he was unjustly prosecuted and convicted."

1 comment:

Justin said...

Thanks for this post, this is great information. Readers may also be interested in an article I wrote on Garvey's trial, which can be found here:

blogger templates | Make Money Online