It would seem to make sense that the first African American president should pardon Jack Johnson, the first African American to win the heavyweight boxing title. Johnson won the title in 1908, exactly a century before President Barack Obama won his historic election.
No crime committed. In 1913 Johnson was convicted by an all-white jury of violating the Mann Act that made it illegal to transport women across state lines for immoral purposes. What that actually meant was that Johnson was romantically linked with a white woman he accompanied across state lines, someone he would eventually marry. However, the authorities at the time were hell-bent on teaching him a lesson and sending a message to other “uppity” African American men to “know their place” and not engage in intimate relationships with white women. Johnson fled the country but eventually returned and served a jail sentence of almost a year at the Leavenworth penitentiary.
Political cover. Everyone from filmmaker and documentarian Ken Burns to Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) has urged that Johnson be pardoned. Burns took up the cause in 2004 when he helped form the Committee to Pardon Jack Johnson. He filed a petition with the Justice Department that was never acted upon during the Bush administration. With the arrival of an African American president who is himself a biracial child of an interracial marriage, there was speculation that the pardon was imminent. However, the family and supporters of Johnson are still awaiting this simple act of justice that would exonerate the boxing champ.
In 2013 the U.S. Senate by voice vote approved a measure urging the President to posthumously pardon Johnson. According to espn.go.com, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and McCain believe a pardon would restore Johnson’s good name and correct an historical wrong.
“A posthumous pardon would represent a final vindication to Mr. Johnson’s family and to the ignominious stain on our nation’s history, and highlight the achievements of an athlete who was forced into the shadows of bigotry and prejudice,” McCain wrote in 2009, according to the Associated Press . “Mr. Johnson’s conviction was motivated by nothing more than the color of his skin. As such, it not only injured his family, but also our nation as a whole.”
No worries of a Willie Horton. One of the great concerns about pardoning someone is that they can come back to haunt you, as 1988 Democratic presidential hopeful Michael Dukakis discovered when Willie Horton, a prisoner he released, committed another heinous crime and it came back to torment Dukakis’s campaign. But the record is pretty much closed on Jack Johnson. He has been in his grave for over 65 years and won’t come back to bite anyone.
Reasons for not pardoning Johnson? According to abcnews.com, in 2009 the Justice Department’s pardon attorney Ronald L. Rodgers wrote a letter to McCain and to U.S. Rep. Peter King (R-NY) informing them that as a policy the department does not process pardons for dead people. The department’s limited resources “are best dedicated to requests submitted by persons who can truly benefit from a grant of the request,” Rodgers wrote. However, Rodgers indicated that notwithstanding the department’s policy, Obama still has the authority to pardon whomever he wishes, “guided when he sees fit by the advice of the pardon attorney.” Furthermore, the pardon attorney pointed out that both President Clinton and President George W. Bush issued one posthumous pardon.
“The Justice Department is stating that, historically, it is the president who grants posthumous pardons,” King said, according to abcnews.com. “I agree and respectfully urge that President Obama grant a pardon to Jack Johnson.”
Johnson’s victory over Tommy Burns at the height of the Jim Crow era in 1908 led to the search for a “Great White Hope” who could whip him. In 1910, former champion Jim Jeffries came out of retirement but lost in a match labeled “The Battle of the Century,” resulting in deadly race riots. Johnson’s conviction on trumped-up charges was as much about derailing his career as it was about punishing him for violating anti-miscegenation laws.
The urgency of a 2013 pardon is that it will symbolically be granted one hundred years after the racially-motivated felony conviction. How ironic that McCain, the man Obama beat in 2008, is eager to pardon Johnson but the first African American president cannot see the merit in doing so. African Americans sometimes note that Obama seems reluctant to do these obvious things because he is fearful of being viewed as being too “pro black.” American politics often works in a counter-intuitive manner. That is why it would have been easier for McCain to issue the pardon for Johnson, and is why a rabid anti-communist like Richard Nixon could visit China, or Ronald Reagan could sign the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday into law.
As Ken Burns wrote, ” Johnson was everything that a black man of his era was not supposed to be: outspoken, articulate, intelligent, powerful, wealthy, good-looking and charming. This made him a hero to most of black America, but it also made him a dangerous enemy to much of white America. His mere presence threatened the notion that African Americans belonged to an inferior, subservient race.”
There is no good reason not to pardon legendary boxer Jack Johnson, and the sooner the better.