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AP Photo
An undated photo of Jack Johnson, the
first black man to win the heavyweight
boxing title.

Members of Congress Pursue Pardon for Heavyweight Fighter Johnson

April 01, 2009 09:30 AM
by Emily Coakley
There's hope that a new president means a pardon for the man who broke racial barriers at the turn of the 20th century and was punished for his lifestyle.

Pardon Campaign Has Been Long

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Those who have been campaigning for the boxing legend are reintroducing legislation today asking President Barack Obama to pardon Jack Johnson, who in 1913 was convicted of violating the Mann Act, which prohibited taking women across state lines for “immoral purposes.”

“I had admired Jack Johnson's prowess in the ring. And the more I found out about him, the more I thought a grave injustice was done,” Sen. John McCain told The Associated Press in an interview. The Arizona senator has supported efforts to pardon Johnson for a number of years.

In September, the U.S. House of Representatives asked President George W. Bush for a posthumous pardon for the world’s first black heavyweight boxing champion. The measure was never passed in the Senate.

Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., wrote the resolution, and in September told the BBC that Johnson “was a victim of the times.” A Congressional resolution requesting the pardon said his conviction was a result of racism, his success in boxing and his “relationships with white women,” according to the BBC.

“The athlete’s lifestyle was flamboyant and he openly dated white women,” Newsday reported in September.

Opinion & Analysis: Pardon overdue

In 2005, Steve Wilstein, an Associated Press columnist, wrote, “Justice is long overdue Jack Johnson.” He called on the president to pardon Johnson when a PBS documentary by Ken Burns called “Unforgivable Blackness” was scheduled to debut. Burns, Wilstein said, called Johnson “an utterly American hero.”

Wrote Wilstein: “It’s the failure of all biographies of Johnson, Burns acknowledged, to grasp quite how a kid from Galveston did what he did, swimming upstream against the tide of the universe and essentially getting away with it.”

Key Players: Jack Johnson and the “Great White Hope”

Johnson defeated Tommy Burns and won the heavyweight title in 1908, prompting a search for a “Great White Hope” who could defeat him. The search ended in a July 4, 1910, fight against Jim Jeffries, who came out of a five-year retirement. Ron Flatter, writing for ESPN, said a promoter drew 22,000 boxing fans to Reno, Nev., for the fight.

Jeffries gave up in the 15th round, and said of the fight, “I could never have whipped Johnson at my best. I couldn't have hit him. No, I couldn't have reached him in 1,000 years.”

Johnson, who spent his childhood working on boats in Galveston, won $117,000 in that single match, wrote Flatter.

Gerald Early, author of “The Culture of Bruising: Essays on Prizefighting, Literature, and Modern American Culture,” wrote that Johnson was a cultural icon who received more press than any other person, black or white, at the height of his career.

“And, like the true pop culture figure, the way Johnson lived his life and, particularly, the way he conducted his sex life mattered a great deal to the public. He was scandal, he was gossip, he was a public menace for many, a public hero for some, admired and demonized, feared, misunderstood, and ridiculed,” Early wrote.

Johnson lost his title in a 1915 fight in Cuba, after he fled the country following his conviction. Jess Willard, a white man from Kansas, won the fight after knocking Johnson out in the 26th round. Though Johnson said the fight was fixed, Early said the fighter wasn’t in good shape and was up against a man who was four years younger; he concluded it was probably a clean loss.

Johnson died in 1946 in a car accident in Raleigh, N.C.

Related Topic: The Mann Act

According to findingDulcinea, President William Howard Taft signed the Mann Act, also called the White Slave Traffic Act, in 1910. The law was often used in the past to prosecute prominent persons whose behavior openly defied conventional standards of morality. Other famous people who were charged under the Mann Act include Charlie Chaplin, Frank Lloyd Wright and Chuck Berry, though Berry was the only other person convicted.

The Mann Act is still invoked today. When it became public that former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer was involved with a prostitute, it was thought that federal officials could charge him with a violation of it.

Reference: Boxing Web Guide

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