Marcus Garvey's family asks President Obama for a posthumous pardon

On what would be the civil rights activist's 129th birthday, Marcus Garvey's son began to push for President Obama to posthumously pardon his father. 

AP/File
Marcus Garvey is shown in a military uniform in August 1922 as the 'Provisional President of Africa' during a parade on the opening day of the annual Convention of the Negro Peoples of the World at Lenox Avenue in Harlem, New York City.

On Aug. 17, 2016 – the date that would have marked Marcus Garvey's 129th birthday – his family and supporters began a public push for a presidential pardon to clear the civil rights activist's name from a mail fraud conviction. 

The Jamaican-born Garvey was deported to his native country in 1927 after spending two-and-a-half years in prison in the United States. During his time in the US, Garvey became known for founding the Pan-African movement, which advocated for all people of African descent to return to the continent.

Though his beliefs were controversial and criticized by some African-American leaders, such as NAACP founder W.E.B Du Bois, others, including Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., said they considered him to be the founder of the civil rights movement. 

"Everyone stands on the shoulders of everyone who comes before. There would be no black president if it wasn't for the civil rights movement," said Marcus's son, Julius Garvey, during a press conference on Wednesday at the National Press Club. "The civil rights movement started with Marcus Garvey, as acknowledged by Brother Malcolm, as acknowledged by Martin Luther King, and acknowledged by anyone who knows history. The president stands on that foundation." 

In 1914, in his native Jamaica, Garvey founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), which called for separation from whites and urged people of African descent to reclaim European territories in Africa. Two years later, he expanded the UNIA in New York City.

Garvey and the UNIA established the Black Star Line in 1919, a shipping company meant to promote trade between Africa and the US. By 1920, the UNIA boasted 4 million members, making it what was considered to be the largest secular organization in African-American history. 

"Garvey's genius was the ability to build the world's most expansive black mass movement of the likes we have never seen since," said Quito Swan, an associate professor of Africa diaspora history at Howard University in Washington, D.C., to NBC News. 

But Garvey's ideology – in particular, his belief that blacks should be politically, socially, and economically segregated from whites – drew criticism from a number of his peers fighting for integration, including NAACP founder W.E.B. Du Bois, who once called Garvey "the most dangerous enemy of the Negro race in America." 

Despite his significant role as an early leader in the civil rights movement, Garvey's name is not as ubiquitous as other figures, such as Martin Luther King Jr., or Rosa Parks. His son, Julius, attributes this in part to his mail fraud conviction. 

"It was very difficult for me as a young man to reconcile what I knew about my father, personally, and what I knew about my father from my mother, to reconcile that with a criminal conviction when it was clear when he gave his whole life and sacrificed his family for African people," said the younger Garvey on Wednesday.

Julius, other family members, supporters, and fans, have filed a pardon request with the White House. If President Obama does not grant the request, they said, they would continue to file requests with future presidents. 

"Legally, there's not much more to be done," said former NAACP President Kweisi Mfume, who attended the news conference, to the Associated Press. "This is now in the court of public opinion."

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