Editor’s Note: Justin Hansford is a Howard University law professor, executive director of the Thurgood Marshall Civil Rights Center and elected member of the U.N. Permanent Forum on People of African Descent. His forthcoming book on the Marcus Garvey trial, “Jailing a Rainbow: The Marcus Garvey case,” will be released later this year under the imprint of Black Classic Press. Shaq Al-Hijaz is a second-year law student at Howard University and extern at the Thurgood Marshall Civil Rights Center. The views expressed in this commentary are their own. Read more opinion on CNN.
Earlier this month, President Joe Biden called out the GOP for “trying to hide the truth” about Black history. While politicians like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin have described their efforts to reform education as bans on teaching critical race theory, in reality, these bans have been invoked to prohibit teaching elements of American history, especially Black history.
The suppression of stories integral to the American narrative not only robs us of important historical lessons, but also warps our vision of ourselves and our future — and makes all of our lives less rich.
With some of this country’s most powerful political figures trying to obscure the story of Black history, now is a good time to tell the true stories of Black leaders in America — particularly ones like Marcus Garvey, who was the subject of injustice and distortion. Known superficially as a “Back to Africa” advocate (as in, repatriating Black people to the African continent), Garvey actually founded what might well have been the largest human rights campaign in the history of the African Diaspora. At its zenith, Garvey’s organization boasted a membership of at least 6 million people with chapters registered in more than 40 nations. It provided inspiration for the life’s work of many important Black leaders, including Nelson Mandela, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.
The Jamaican-born Garvey energized millions by calling for an end to colonialism in Africa, for economic justice for the entire African Diaspora and for cultural and political recognition and independence 100 years ago — a time when such declarations were just about unheard of.
As part of his push to provide economic opportunity and autonomy for Black people, Garvey started the Black-owned and -operated Black Star Line shipping company, stylized after the White Star Line, which owned the Titanic. Garvey’s ships, in theory, could have helped transport Black people back to Africa, facilitated trade throughout the diaspora and instilled pride while providing a vision of economic empowerment.
Instead, Garvey’s movement splintered in the summer of 1923, when a federal judge in the southern district of New York convicted him of mail fraud for sending out advertisements for the purchase of stock in the Black Star Line, even though the shipping company was failing economically. The government not only accused Garvey of seeking to sell stock for too high of a price, but it insinuated that Garvey’s entire career was nothing more than a Ponzi scheme designed to make a quick buck.
To the contrary, historians have for decades believed that Garvey was framed for political reasons. Indeed, as one of us has documented, the entire legal process dripped with injustice and animosity toward Garvey. For example, both the trial judge and an appellate judge were conspicuously friendly with Garvey’s political opponents.
In fact, even the initial charges can be traced directly to espionage and efforts to infiltrate the Black Star Line by J. Edgar Hoover, who hired some of the first-ever Black Bureau of Investigation agents in order to stop any “Black Moses” figures like Garvey from succeeding. Hoover wrote about his search to find a charge that would allow the government to deport Garvey, settling on mail fraud when other grounds for charges were unsuccessful.
After thousands of Garvey’s followers (the supposed victims of the fraud) petitioned for his release, his sentence was commuted in 1927. Ultimately, after Garvey’s political vision had been silenced, advocates for racial justice in the United States and abroad began to focus less on economic justice and more on civil and political rights for most of the 20th century. Today, the widening wealth gap and other indicators of inequality suggest that this shift in focus was costly.
Now Democratic Rep. Yvette D. Clarke of New York, first vice-chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, and Democratic Rep. Hank Johnson of Georgia are trying to set the historical record straight, recognizing the weight of evidence supporting Garvey’s innocence and identifying him as a champion for the liberation of people of African descent.
“The world deserves to know the truth about Marcus Mosiah Garvey and the truth about Black history,” Clarke declared in introducing the resolution to exonerate the civil rights leader. Johnson added that “it’s time to right this fundamental wrong” given the “utter lack of merit to the charges on which he was originally convicted, combined with his profound legacy and contributions to Black history in our country.”
To be sure, Garvey’s record involves some controversial decisions. This includes meeting with the KKK, asserting correctly that, during the 1920s, they had a strong voice in the US government. But this cannot stand in the way of learning about Garvey’s true history and exonerating him. This is more than simply an exercise in historical truth telling and providing justice for his family, although both are immensely important.
Garvey’s legacy is also relevant today because we see the same tactics — espionage and politically motivated charges — being deployed against Black leaders attempting to organize against the status quo. For example, Black Lives Matter protesters were designated as Black Identity Extremists by the FBI, and informants were inserted into their movement spaces in 2020 after the George Floyd uprisings.
As a society, we have failed to learn from Garvey’s story. That’s largely because mainstream narratives rarely teach about his legacy, and when they do, they usually fail to correct the historical inaccuracies promulgated by his wrongful conviction. By failing to learn the lessons from Garvey’s case, and by underestimating the harm of politically motivated infiltration and prosecution, we open the door to continuing these policies and practices. And this will result in shame for years to come.
Posthumous vindication for Garvey would begin the process of acknowledging that political sabotage from the government is antidemocratic and inherently wrong. And at a time when a battle is being waged against teachers and schools that dare discuss the African American experience, including threatening the banning of AP African American Studies in Florida, exonerating Garvey would be an important response. It would be a clear sign of resistance to revisionist history and the urge to promote versions of the past that fail to look critically at our path to the present.