I never knew Marcus Garvey. He died when I was 6 years old. But my mother heard him speak when he visited Guy’s Hill back in her childhood. And, if my information is correct, my granduncle, the Rev. William Graham, advised and encouraged him.
To my mother, Garvey seemed rather strange. In those days black men did not command the kind of respect they did in later years – after Jamaica achieved independence from England. Today, black leaders occupy the highest positions of power and privilege in Jamaica, which is only to be expected as the country’s population is overwhelmingly black.
Back in the Twenties and Thirties, Garvey’s ideas were considered – to say the least – unusual. If my memory is accurate, he was among the first, for example, to claim that Jesus was not a white man. He urged the black diaspora to return to Africa and called on black people everywhere to join forces and reclaim their dignity. “Our union must know no clime, boundary, or nationality… let us hold together under all climes and in every country,” he said.
To Americans like FBI czar J. Edgar Hoover, his ideas were seditious. Hoover is suspected of framing Garvey and having him put in jail. The Jamaican-born agitator was convicted of mail fraud in 1923 and was deported after spending two years and nine months in an Atlanta prison.
Now, nine decades later, Jamaicans want Garvey pardoned. The American conviction is a blemish on the legacy of a native son who is revered in the island today. He was the first person to be proclaimed a National Hero when Jamaica became independent. And to Rastafarians, Garvey is a prophet.
The Jamaica Observer reports:
Florida-based Jamaican-born attorney Donovan Parker has been writing to president Obama every week since January requesting a posthumous pardon for Garvey, who many believe was set up by the J Edgar Hoover-led Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI), fearful of his widening popularity among downtrodden US blacks.
In a shocking response – shocking to Jamaicans like me, anyway – the Obama Administration has refused. The Observer reports:
In a tersely worded reply to Parker’s request, White House Pardon Attorney, Ronald Rodgers said such a move would be a waste of time and resources since Garvey had been dead for ages.
“It is the general policy of the Department of Justice that requests for posthumous pardons for federal offences not be processed for adjudication. The policy is grounded in the belief that the time of the officials involved in the clemency process is better spent on pardon and commutation requests of living persons.
“Many posthumous pardon requests would likely be based on a claim of manifest injustice, and given that decades have passed since the event and the historical record would have to be scoured to objectively and comprehensively investigate such applications, it is the Department’s position that the limited resources which are available to process requests for Presidential clemency — now being submitted in record numbers — are best dedicated to requests submitted by persons who can truly benefit from a grant of the request,” Rodgers replied on behalf of Obama, who is the first black president in the history of the United States.
This might seem like quite a reasonable argument. But it is an unfortunate one.
Respect is important in the Jamaican culture. And, to me, this shows disrespect not only for Garvey’s memory but also for the sovereign nation of Jamaica.
I see this as one more example of the Obama Administration’s deplorable tone deafness. Hundreds of thousands of Jamaicans now live in the United States – one small city, Miramar, has about 50,000 residents from the island. And many of us have become citizens. President Obama has enjoyed enthusiastic support from the Jamaican diaspora. We expect him to be more sensitive to our feelings.
I certainly do not think the president is personally to blame, but I wonder at his administration’s political insensitivity. The elements in American society who elected Obama have been poorly treated. Black unemployment, for example, is more than twice the national average. The anti-war movement and other progressives are ignored and derided. Organized labor is so disenchanted that the AFL-CIO has threatened to withhold financial support in next year’s elections.
To me, this is a poor re-election strategy for the nation’s first black president.