Two Views: Marcus Garvey the Leader and the Threat

Today’s blog was written by Timmia King, undergraduate student at Howard University and spring intern in the Textual Processing Division at the National Archives at College Park, Maryland

Coming into this project, I did not think I would find many records relating to Marcus Garvey. One thing I failed to realize, is that today, although we remember him as a great race leader who inspired feelings of self-pride and a want for self-determination of the African people, by the United States government he was thought of as a threat. He was called a “Negro Agitator” in the long tradition of “Negro Agitators” that came before him and after him such as Ida B. Wells and Martin Luther King, Jr. His organization, the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), was labeled an unAmerican organization that incited racial violence. Sections of the United States government watched everyone and everything connected to him.

World War I Draft Registration Card for Marcus Garvey (NAID 641770)
World War I Draft Registration Card for Marcus Garvey (NAID 641770)

The Records of the Department of State (RG 59) contain quite a few records of his and his wife’s activity within the United States and throughout the US sphere of influence. Government workers followed his activity and sometimes went as far to request other countries not to allow him into their country. The predecessor of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (The predecessor of the FBI was a section of the Department of Justice called the Bureau of Investigation (BOI). Within the BOI there was a General Intelligence Division called the “anti-racial division” which was headed by J. Edgar Hoover.) also followed his activities closely in an effort to shut down his organization. There are five different court cases that the United States waged against Marcus Garvey. United States of America v. Marcus Garvey, Elie Garcia, Orlando M. Thompson and George Tobias (NAID 7388866) would prove to be the one that effectively weakened his organization’s power within the United States. As a result of the court case, he was convicted, jailed and then eventually deported.  After his deportation in 1927, the organization rapidly lost membership and influence.

Declaration of Intention for Marcus Garvey (NAID 12044571)

It is one thing to hear about how much of an impact Garvey had on people and how widespread his organization’s influence was and it is another thing to see it. He was watched by the government but he was also watched by the masses. In Records of the Office of the Pardon Attorney from 1846 – 1989 (RG 24) there are records relating to requests for the pardon of Marcus Garvey. Many groups of people sent letters and signed petitions pleading the pardon office for clemency on Garvey’s behalf. These petitions came from places such as New York, Panama, Cuba and Mississippi. These pardon files show the impact his organization had on the masses. Although files from the United States government might have painted Garvey and his organization as a threat to American security, people of today remember him much as those that petitioned for his release back in the 1920’s. They viewed him as a leader. But perhaps, it is good to occasionally step into another time and another person’s shoes and view him in different ways. Here, I have been given the chance to do just that.


Leave a Reply