A Posthumous Presidential Pardon for Jack Johnson?

It wasn’t easy being the first black heavyweight boxing champion of the world. It wasn’t easy being a black man with ambition and a sense of himself in the advent of the 20th century.

Eventually, authorities used the Mann Act against Jack Johnson for “transporting women across state lines for immoral purposes.” That most of the women who consorted with Johnson were consenting rather than unwilling or kidnapped women did not made little difference. Johnson had an infuriating propensity–to whites–to have numerous ongoing affairs with white women in what is called “the sporting life” of boxers, gamblers, jockeys, prostitutes and saloon-keepers. (In Ken Burns’ film about Johnson, it is shown that no other black or white woman would have had a relationship with him outside of this social subset.) Johnson was rarely without a companion, even while traveling, and willingly provided money for train fare and other expenses for women to meet up with him. (Even being married did not deter Johnson, or his other women.)

Jack Johnson (1878-1946), in his heyday (Courtesy: Find-a-Grave)

Jack Johnson (1878-1946), in his heyday (Courtesy: Find-a-Grave)

Johnson evaded his 1913 conviction, now universally seen as being racially motivated, by fleeing to Europe and then to Mexico. Homesick and broke, and without his heavyweight title, he surrendered to the authorities in 1920. He served his one-year sentence at the Federal penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kansas and was released the following year.

Today, Senator John McCain, Rep. Peter King, along with a great-niece, Linda Haywood, and documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, who produced for PBS Unforgivable Blackness, The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson in 2005, asked President Obama to issue a pardon for the boxer during a press conference on Capitol Hill. They are members of a group called The Committee to Pardon Jack Johnson who have been working for several years to exonerate the boxer. The Telegraph.co.uk said:

Mr McCain believes a pardon, particularly one from Mr Obama, would carry special significance and symbolism. “It would be indicative of the distance we’ve come, and also indicative of the distance we still have to go,” he said.

Hint, hint, hint. Obama wouldn’t be here if his African father had not married his white mother in Hawaii before statutes against interracing and marriage had not been struck down by the Supreme Court in 1967.

But for all intents and purposes, it does not appear that Obama’s father beat his wife. Johnson did. There is evidence that Jack Johnson beat his first and his second wives, as well as other women with whom he was involved. One black girlfriend absconded with his money and his clothes with another man ostensibly after a beating, after which Johnson swore off all sistas. Yet, the authorities used one of his vengeful white ex-girlfriends in order to convict him. Let’s be frank: the pardon is for what was a miscarriage of justice in service to white male sexual jealousy, and not for what Johnson did in his relationships. He was a man of his times. White and black men were allowed then to beat up their wives with impunity.

There have been repeated attempts to petition sitting presidents to issue a pardon to the late boxer. The latest was in 2008. This bill has passed the House, and a companion bill is going through the Senate sponsored by John McCain, who calls himself a boxing fan. Amazing.

Jack Johnson continued to box until well past his prime. He often appeared at gyms, auditoriums and even carnivals and circuses exhibiting himself to fans, curiosity seekers, and haters who might have booed and threatened him in the old days. He wasn’t above giving tips and encouragement to up and coming young boxers. Yet, for all of his normally easygoing attitude, something made Jack Johnson snap when he was refused service at a diner outside Raleigh, North Carolina in 1946. He angrily drove off with more than his usual, fast speed, lost control of his vehicle and crashed, dying instantly.

Jack Johnson was 68 years old, and was survived by his third and last white wife, Irene Pineau. He is buried in Graceland Cemetery in Chicago.

~ by blksista on April 1, 2009.

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