Editor’s Pick
APRIL 1, 2009 1:54PM

A Great American Hope: Time to Pardon Jack Johnson

Rate: 18 Flag

 O my Lord
What a morning,
O my Lord,
What a feeling,
When Jack Johnson
Turned Jim Jeffries'
Snow-white face
to the ceiling.
Adaptation of the spiritual "My Lord, What a Morning" by William Waring Cuney, 1910.

While I’m skeptical about their motives, I applaud the efforts of Senator John McCain (R-AZ) and Representative Peter King (R-NY) to obtain a presidential pardon for the great heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson.

Jack Johnson fighting James Jeffries, July 4, 1910
Jack Johnson fighting James Jeffries, July 4, 1910

Arthur John “Jack” Johnson, who died in 1946 at the age of 68, was the first black Heavyweight Champion of the World.

The crime that the pardon would cover is Johnson’s supposed violation of the Mann Act -- "transporting women across state lines for immoral purposes.”  Johnson eventually served 10 months in federal prison on the charges, which also destroyed his boxing career.

No one now doubts that Johnson’s Mann Act conviction was thoroughly racist: the women Johnson was convicted of “transporting” were white.

When Johnson started his boxing career at the turn of the last century, boxing was as segregated as the rest of America – there were separate (and far from equal) boxing matches for black and white fighters.

Johnson became World Colored Heavyweight Champion in 1903 and was widely believed to be the best boxer in the world, but he could not get a match with white Heavyweight Champion James J. Jeffries, who refused to face him. 

According to Wikipedia, Johnson won the world heavyweight title five years later, on December 26, 1908, “when he fought the Canadian world champion Tommy Burns in Sydney, Australia, after following him all over the world, taunting him in the press for a match. The fight lasted fourteen rounds before being stopped by the police in front of over 20,000 spectators. The title was awarded to Johnson on a referee's decision as a T.K.O, but he had severely beaten the champion. During the fight, Johnson had mocked both Burns and his ringside crew. Every time Burns was about to go down, Johnson would hold him up again, punishing him more.” The film of the match was stopped just before the fight ended, so that it would not show Johnson defeating a white man.

As the most famous black man in America and far ahead of his time in his outspoken defiance of white racism, Johnson was caricatured by the press as subhuman and an ape, and constantly harassed by local police and federal authorities.  The press called for a “Great White Hope” to defeat Johnson and return the heavyweight title to the white race.  Each of these “White Hopes” failed to unseat Johnson.

Heeding the call to defend his race, Jeffries eventually agreed to come out of retirement in 1910 and fight Johnson, explaining “"I am going into this fight for the sole purpose of proving that a white man is better than a Negro.”  The fight took place on July 4th in Reno, Nevada, before an all-white crowd of more than 20,000, which chanted “kill the nigger” throughout the match.  After being knocked down twice, Jeffries called it quits in the 15th round.  Johnson’s victory over Jeffries led to white race riots across America, leaving at least 23 black men, and two white men, dead.

Johnson was not a “role model” in the Jackie Robinson mode.  Loud, proud, defiant, and eventually very rich, Johnson reveled as much in ostentatiously breaking racial taboos as in his victories in the ring.

White America could not allow him to survive, and so Johnson was destroyed, with the Mann Act as the weapon.  Following his conviction in 1913, Johnson fled the United States and fought in Cuba and Mexico. After his return to America and serving his prison sentence in 1920, Johnson was never able to regain his prowess in the ring.  He lost seven of his last nine fights, retiring in 1938.

He died in a car accident in 1946, after angrily leaving a restaurant in North Carolina that refused to serve him because of his race.

McCain and King are to be praised for joining with filmmaker Ken Burns (who has made a documentary about Johnson called “Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson” and first sought a pardon for Johnson in 2004) in calling on President Obama to issue a pardon for Johnson.

Still, the politics of their appeal for Johnson should be noted.

In September 2008, both McCain and King sponsored resolutions in their respective congressional bodies urging then-President George W. Bush to pardon Johnson.  Bush did not do so, despite McCain and King’s backing and wide bipartisan support.  According to Ken Burns, President Bush gave him a telephone number to call about the pardon, which turned out to be the telephone number of Karl Rove.

Burns says that Rove told him that a Bush pardon for Johnson “ain’t gonna fly.”

Rove now denies that he ever spoke with Burns about the Johnson pardon.

It is time to put the Bush-Rove years behind us.

It is time to put racism behind us.

It is time for a Great American Hope.

It is time to pardon Jack Johnson.

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I have no doubt that Jack Johnson will be pardoned. It WILL happen!

As for Rove and Bush, I have no kind words for them or that entire eight years of their "administration."

What a difference 2008 and 2009 make!
"Great White Hope", the film version of the stage play of the same name, is one of James Earl Jones' best performances.
Way to use a significant figure in black American history! Hey, maybe you could find a way to use Reggie Jackson to make Mitt Romney look bad. Or Lena Horne to tarnish Sarah Palin's image.

You don't need any proof of malice, just some so and so called so and so and he said... Heck, even if some wannabe post-racial cons are trying to HONOR a luminary of African descent, we must be "skeptical about their motives."

Ladies and Gentlemen, all three judges have declared a victory by way of Historical Black Man for the Winner, Michael "The Frustrator of Neo-Faaaassscccists) Fox!
One can only hope that Rove's pardon comes 60 years after his death.
Excellent piece. Rated
I am glad to see this.
However, I would like to see them deal with "Unforgiveable Indianess" and pardon Leonard Peltier who is still alive to enjoy it and languishing in prison due to FBI excesses.
GeeBee: I agree that "The Great White Hope" (1970, dir. Martin Ritt) is a terrific and underappreciated film -- and James Earl Jones should have received the Oscar for Best Actor over George C. Scott's Patton.

Shmadoff: I think my post speaks for itself and don't see any point in tussling with you about it.
Rated, as a long-time student of Johnson's, but you don't say why you're skeptical of McCain's and King's motives. Must everything be partisan? McCain is a former boxer.
A friend of mine, boxing historian Clay Moyle, just wrote a book called "Sam Langford - Boxing's Greatest Uncrowned Champion." Langford fought Johnson a few times.

Frankly, I'd never heard of Johnson, not being a big boxing buff, until I read Clay's book. Very interesting times he fought in.

He should be pardoned.
maybe you can pardon jack johnson, but he ain't gonna pardon you. frankly, i doubt if he much cares for american opinion nowadays, he certainly didn't while alive.
McCain is a boxing fan who has tried over the years to bring some order to the boxing world and some protection to boxers. As a boxing fan, and someone in a position to do something about it, I can't imagine why he wouldn't seek a pardon for Jack Johnson.

Having said that, there is a Mos Def album which uses the Johnson iconography as cultural narrative/thematic concern. The album hits as hard as did Johnson--the anti-Robinson.
Thanks to all who read, commented and/or rated.

Thanks to the editor for the pick.
While being a boxing fan since sitting on my daddy's knee, even daddy says Johnson got screwed. I've watched Ken Burns documentary twice and it was great both times. My favorite of "ALl TIME" THE GREATEST", Mahammed Ali, even say's Johnson was the greatest "Heavyweight" of all time. ( Sugar Ray Robertson, the greatest pound for pound).But one thing, and I'm probably wrong, Wasn't the" MANN ACT" passed just to put Johnson in jail. I'll look it up, but either way Johnson got Fucked.
For those of you who are unfamiliar,Jack Johnson Highlight footage

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