Marcus Garvey, founder of the UNIA, was one of the most famous political prisoners of the early twentieth century. Of course, the official records won't say that. They never will. Marcus Garvey's arrest and eventual conviction on charges of mail fraud had less to do with a criminal enterprise and more to do with J. Edgar Hoover's desire to crush the growing popularity of Garvey's movement. According to Jérémie Kroubo Dagnini, Garvey, who had left Jamaica in 1916, had become by 1919, "one of the best known Black leaders in the USA and perhaps in the entire world":
In 1919, there were about thirty UNIA branches throughout the USA and over 2, 000, 000 members worldwide. Through the UNIA, Garvey created, among other things, a printing house, factories, trading companies and schools with the single aim of improving the life of Black people. Among his numerous accomplishments, was his weekly newspaper, The Negro World which enabled him to inform readers about UNIA activities and thus convey a Pan-African message.
Hoover, who had become aware of Garvey's influence, had long sought to deport Marcus Garvey, but as he lamented in a memorandum to Special Agent Ridgely:
Unfortunately, however, he [Garvey] has not as yet violated any federal law whereby he could be proceeded against on the grounds of being an undesirable alien, from the point of view of deportation.
Hoover, determined to stop Garvey, at the height of segregation in America, "hired the first full-time black agent in the Bureau's history" It wasn't long until the FBI had evidence of criminal activity and it occurred through the sale of stocks in Garvey's beloved Black Star Line, which by 1921 was on the verge of bankruptcy. In order to save the company, Garvey became desperate. According to Robert Hill, Garvey committed a grave error:
In the brochure is a picture of a ship which purports to have been the SS Phyllis Wheatley. It was -- a ship that Garvey was negotiating for and did not own. And it seems that someone etched into the bow of the ship the words "The SS Phyllis Wheatley." In other words it was a misrepresentation. It gave the impression that Garvey and the Black Star Line owned the ship when in fact there was no such ship.
In January 1922, after thousands of brochures had been mailed to supporters, Garvey was arrested on mail fraud. Hannah-Grace Fitzpatrick explains:
Garvey’s leadership unravelled as his growing popularity and the success of the movement had made him a target of the federal government, which eventually led to his downfall. J. Edgar Hoover was then working for the Department of Justice and had a vendetta against Garvey sending a black agent to infiltrate the UNIA and build a legal case against him. Eventually he was charged with defrauding one man of $25.
In his seminal book, Negro with a Hat, Colin Grant provides more information about the case:
In order for Garvey to be found guilty of fraud, the prosecution would have to prove that the president-general [Garvey] had sent out adverts through the post, encouraging investors to buy shares in the Black Star Line knowing that these shares would be worthless. Strangely, the case turned on any empty envelope. The prosecution maintained that its witness, Benny Dancy, had been sent a BSL circular advertising shares in the SS Phyllis Wheatly, but Dancy's only proof an empty envelope bearing a BSL stamp. Dancy had received envelopes previously that contained BSL letters, and assumed such was the case with this envelope now being put forward as evidence; it was just that the letter contained in the empty envelope had been mislaid. (369)
Based on this evidence, the jury found Marcus Garvey guilty of mail fraud and Garvey was sentenced to five years in prison. In other words, Marcus Garvey was convicted of a Federal crime, mail fraud, on the evidence of an empty envelope.
After reviewing the evidence, the H. CON. RES. 44 by the 111th Congress in in the House of Representatives came to this conclusion and passed a resolution to "restore the good name of Marcus Garvey":
Marcus Garvey was innocent of the charges brought against him by the United States Government.
Unfortunately, the bill was stuck in committee and nothing else was ever done. It is for this reason my fellow co-signees and I are urging President Barack Obama to issue a full pardon and to restore the "good name of Marcus Garvey."
If you think there was a miscarriage of justice, please add your name to the online petition to President Barack Obama to exonerate Marcus Garvey for the felony conviction on one count of mail fraud and to restore the "good name of Marcus Garvey."