Family members, celebrities, and legislators are endorsing a campaign and petition that seeks a presidential pardon for the late Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion whose supremacy in the ring led to his vilified undoing by white supremacists.
U.S. Senate minority whip Harry Reid, former Republican presidential candidate John McCain, and former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson are among many calling for President Barack Obama to pardon Johnson, a victim of Jim Crow justice.
In June 1913, Johnson was convicted and sentenced to one year and a day in prison under the Mann Act, a law that “prohibited white slavery and interstate transport of females for ‘immoral purposes.” Intended to prevent prostitution and human trafficking of vulnerable young women, the ambiguous wording of the law made it possible for prosecutors and an all-white jury to criminalize Johnson’s relationship with his white girlfriend Lucille Cameron.
Congress passed a resolution in 2009 that encouraged Obama to pardon Johnson. Having the nation’s first black president pardon the world’s first black heavyweight champion from a racially motivated Jim Crow conviction is simply expected.
However, government representatives say there are those who are alive now today who are ahead of Johnson in line for a pardon. Along with the long queue, Obama’s track record with granting executive clemency is discouraging — he has granted 39 and denied 1,333 presidential pardons, making him one of the stingiest presidents ever in terms of granting clemency.
No individual should be given preferential treatment, especially when granting executive clemency — doing so would undermine the nation’s entire criminal procedure. However, not granting Johnson a pardon would undermine the national court system even more so, as well as stirring up feelings of racial maliciousness that are better left buried.
Johnson wholeheartedly meets the requirements for a pardon. Cameron refused to testify against Johnson simply because the accusations were unfounded — Cameron and Johnson were in a consensual relationship, and Johnson was not enslaving Cameron into prostitution. However, prosecutors found another white woman who was willing to talk, providing the baseless lies needed for a grand jury to wrongfully convict Johnson under the Mann Act.
His aggressive attitude in the boxing ring baited intense notoriety and hatred amongst white America. Johnson’s blows and jabs were wrought with a punishing intensity that came out full-force only when facing a white opponent. English heavyweight boxer Sir Henry Cooper observed that Johnson’s “main object in life was to put the white man in his place.”
He began in 1908 by stripping the champion title from Canadian Tommy Burns. Then, in 1910, he faced Jeff Jeffries, a former heavyweight champion who was dragged out of retirement by white America, crowned as the “Great White Hope” who would finally pummel Johnson back into his place. Johnson obliterated Jeffries. These defeats led to riots and as much as twenty lynching incidents across white America.
Johnson spent his entire life sparring white supremacists for his black peers, and he did so at the cost of his happiness. Not only was his remarkable career marred and discarded — his whole life was turned into white supremacist stomping grounds. The American criminal court system should be held accountable for the wrongful conviction of Johnson, and Obama has a responsibility to grant Johnson his presidential pardon. Only then can Johnson’s legacy be remembered fondly and honorably.