McCain Is Leading Fight To Pardon Jack Johnson

I hesitate to brag about how far we’ve come as a society when there’s still things like this going on, but the racial forces that allied against former heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson in the early portion of the 20th century really are a collection of rickety, antique notions. Isn’t it high time that Johnson — convicted in 1913 of violating the Mann Act — was officially pardoned?

Jack Johnson

If you’re not familiar with Johnson’s life and legacy, watching the great Ken Burns PBS special will help. Suffice it to say that he was one of our greatest boxing champions, but unfortunately at a time when it wasn’t popular for a black man to be pummeling white guys. He inspired the term “Great White Hope,” referring to the search for a Caucasian fighter who could beat him. But when it became clear that none could be found, authorities stepped in to stop him in court — on dubious legal charges even for the time.

In 1913, after having been heavyweight champion for five years, Johnson was convicted of violating the Mann Act, which was a law against “transporting women across state lines for immoral purposes.” Translation: Johnson, who was as flamboyant away from the ring as he was in it, enjoyed the company of white women, and didn’t care who knew it.

The first time he was arrested for violating the Mann Act, he was with a woman who would later become his wife, and the charges were dropped. The second time, with another woman, he was convicted and sentenced to a year in jail. Johnson fled the country to avoid jail time, but returned years later to serve less than a month to clear his record.

Championed by both John McCain and Rep. Peter King of New York, both houses of Congress passed resolutions urging an official pardon for Johnson. Both co-authored a followup letter today to President Obama, asking when he’s going to get around to signing the pardon into law. From ESPN:

“Regrettably, we have not received a response from you or any member of your administration,” they wrote in Friday’s letter, adding they hoped that Obama would be eager to “right this wrong and erase an act of racism that sent an American citizen to prison.”

The White House had no immediate comment.

Johnson became the first black heavyweight champion on Dec. 26, 1908 — 100 years before Obama was elected the first black president. Johnson won the title after police in Australia stopped his 14-round match against the severely battered Canadian world champion, Tommy Burns.

That led to a search for a “Great White Hope” who could beat Johnson. Two years later, Jim Jeffries, the American world titleholder Johnson had tried for years to fight, came out of retirement but lost in a match called “The Battle of the Century,” resulting in deadly riots.

Here’s the thing about posthumous pardons: They’re always too late. Many times they’re empty gestures, like the U.S. government’s apology to Native Americans. “Sorry, you know, for all the slaughter and stuff. And for the Washington Redskins.”

Pardoning Johnson, though, is a fine idea and should be done at some point. But for McCain to be rushing the issue, with all the other problems on Obama’s plate, kind of smacks of political grandstanding. May I craft a reply to McCain for you, Mr. President?

“Yeah, I get it, John. It’s not like I’m against this.”