Black History Matters: Why President Obama Should Pardon Marcus Garvey

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As educators who are passionate about supporting the learning and development of all students, we acknowledge the importance of helping students reach objective metrics and indexes of accomplishment.


Too often, however, when African-American students are involved, mainstream courses and curricula do not reflect the unique contributions that African descendants continue to make to world affairs. This lack of acknowledgment and distorted telling of truth has tangible negative effects.

Consider, for example, how whitewashed curricula contribute to assertions that student who seek to perform well in school are betraying the race or are “acting white.”

Educators and other caring adults can challenge this culture by engaging in public education projects that celebrate and contribute directly to the lives of students most often neglected and ignored. The legacy of Marcus Garvey is a great place to begin to do this critical work. His contributions have been recognized all over the world. His message of self-reliance can encourage students to pursue ideas for economic innovation, and his message of political independence can lead students from underserved communities to strive for greater participation in democracy.

Today Julius Garvey is asking President Barack Obama to grant a posthumous pardon to his father, Marcus Mosiah Garvey.

By granting such a pardon, President Obama will accomplish multiple goals simultaneously. First, he will undo the injustice of Garvey’s wrongful 1923 conviction, which deprived him of a fair trial. Second, it will disseminate Garvey’s message of reaffirming pride and self-esteem in black youths throughout the world. These are laudable goals that President Obama can accomplish with a simple stroke of a pen.

Garvey arose from poor Jamaican roots to become the leader of the largest organization in the history of the black Diaspora. He was born in 1887, 50 years after enslavement ended. Garvey wanted to redeem African humanity and provide positive examples and encouragement to people throughout the African Diaspora. He launched the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League, or UNIA-ACL, in 1914. His achievement of gathering millions of followers worldwide is quite momentous considering that communications back then were light years away from what they are now.


With the support of a vast network of “Garveyites,” Garvey rose to become an undisputed forerunner of the civil rights movement and an anti-colonial champion in the Caribbean and Africa, influencing groundbreakers who would become historic figures, including Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela.

His life and movement jolted the world awake nearly 100 years ago, but the message of Marcus Mosiah Garvey could not be more relevant today. A visionary, inspiring leader and entrepreneur, Garvey wanted to uplift and empower black people around the world. He espoused black pride, self-reliance, economic independence and unity supported by the power of the African Diaspora. Unfortunately, in the 1920s this noble message was considered a dangerous threat to the status quo. And so, in 1923, Garvey was charged and wrongfully convicted in a trial that was full of judicial misconduct, documented perjury, a biased judge and an empty envelope.


In the 1940s, psychologist Kenneth Clark conducted a famous study that demonstrated that black students raised in segregated schools between the ages of 3 and 7 had already internalized that white was better than black. Given the choice between black dolls and white dolls, they chose the white ones because they were nicer and prettier. Anderson Cooper re-created this study in 2009 and found that the outcomes had not changed significantly. Not only are public schools more segregated than before, but studies have also shown that integration itself is not a meaningful solution to XYZ.

Children process information about themselves from history, often from the stories of heroes and heroines. Curricula and public discourse must make more space for telling the stores of those with whom black children can most identify. We must do more to tell the stories of ordinary people who do extraordinary things, especially when they reflect the experiences, customs and ways of being associated with individuals and communities most often erased, forgotten about and ignored.


Garvey’s history and legacy have been trammeled upon and made less available to youths today. Maybe they want to strive to fight against racism, or to learn more about the importance of being proud of their heritage.

By giving a posthumous pardon to Marcus Mosiah Garvey, President Obama can undo injustice and reaffirm the legacy of a hero in black history, ultimately solidifying his own.


The Root aims to foster and advance conversations about issues relevant to the black Diaspora by presenting a variety of opinions from all perspectives, whether or not those opinions are shared by our editorial staff.


David J. Johns is an educator and politico. A professor at American University in Washington, D.C., Johns is the executive director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans. Follow him on Twitter.


Justin Hansford is a Black Lives Matter activist and law professor at Saint Louis University. He is currently a democracy project fellow at Harvard University’s Charles Warren Center for American Studies and a visiting professor of law at Georgetown University Law Center. Follow him on Twitter.



I’m not familiar with school curriculums these days. Isn’t Marcus Garvey taught in high schools at least? What I remember from the 80s was the post civil war basics were Washington, Du Bois, Garvey, a snippet on Malcolm X, then MLK.