Jack Johnson pardon a century overdue
February 25, 2011 - 2:07 am
It was a century ago, and a black man reigned supreme as the heavyweight champion of the world. White America didn’t particularly like that — and liked Jack Johnson even less.
He had beaten Jim Jeffries in the Fight of the Century, throwing a downer on the Fourth of July celebration in 1910. Many who dared to cheer for him were beaten around the country, so when Johnson returned victorious to Chicago, his friends posted handbills laying out the rules for his homecoming party:
Don’t talk to white strangers.
Don’t drink any gin.
Don’t tote a gun.
But be there.
Jack Johnson was there, but he didn’t always play by the rules. He liked white women and flaunted it, a crime worse to many Americans at the time than a black man winning the heavyweight title.
It cost him nearly a year in prison and stole from him what could have been the best years of his boxing career. Through it all, Johnson was unrepentant, knowing he was the victim of a frame-up due solely to the color of his skin.
He died a convicted felon, likely never dreaming there might be a day the wrongs would be made right.
President Barack Obama could take care of it all with a stroke of his pen. The fact that he hasn’t already is as puzzling as it is troubling.
Obama had the perfect chance to give Johnson a posthumous pardon last July 4, 100 years to the date after his win over Jeffries. A resolution calling for the president to do just that already had passed both houses of Congress, and the campaign for the pardon had serious celebrity and political star power behind it.
But the president passed on the opportunity, and nothing has indicated he’s given it much serious thought since.
Sure, more pressing matters face the leader of the free world. But this is such a no-brainer that the only opposition so far comes from stuffed shirts in the Justice Department who say pardons should be reserved for those still living.
Among the pardon backers is filmmaker Ken Burns, whose 2005 documentary, "Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson," detailed the case against Johnson and the sentencing judge’s determination to "send a message" to black men about relationships with white women. Burns helped form the Committee to Pardon Jack Johnson, which, since 2004, has been lobbying for a pardon.
More recently, Arizona Sen. John McCain and New York Rep. Peter King said they plan to reintroduce a congressional resolution urging a pardon. Another legislator, Rep. Charles Rangel of New York, said he plans to mention it to Obama’s new chief of staff, William Daley, and Attorney General Eric Holder.
There’s no need for a lot of talking, if only because it’s hard to dispute the facts of Johnson’s conviction in 1912 for violating the Mann Act by transporting a woman across state lines for immoral purposes. The first famous black athlete in America was railroaded by a white establishment appalled by his refusal to behave the way they believed a black man should.
Johnson fled the country rather than go to prison, fighting abroad in Europe and even Cuba before returning seven years later to serve 10 months in Leavenworth, Kan. By then his career basically was over, though he would fight on into the 1930s. He died in a car accident in 1946 at age 68.
Johnson scared a lot of people, and not just those who got into the ring with him. Brash and flamboyant, he was an educated man who was conversant in several languages, often read novels in French and played music on his Renaissance-era viol. He was a threat because he commanded so much attention, and it was telling that a quarter century passed before another black man — Joe Louis — became heavyweight champion again.
Why Obama didn’t act last year is unclear, particularly since there seems to be little political risk associated with a posthumous pardon. Johnson was a victim of his times, and clearing his name in the history books isn’t a notion that is terribly controversial.
It’s nearly 100 years late.
And it can’t come soon enough.
Tim Dahlberg is a Las Vegas-based national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.