Calls Continue for Pardon of Black Boxing Legend

By Nisa Islam Muhammad (Final Call)
Updated: May 6, 2005

Jack Johnson

WASHINGTON ( – A group of politicians, boxing experts, civil rights leaders and documentary filmmaker Ken Burns (Unforgiveable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson) gathered on Capitol Hill in April to continue their push for the Bush administration to pardon boxing legend Jack Johnson.

“No one should be punished for choosing to go their own way,” said Senator John McCain, who is pushing the movement in Congress to pass legislation seeking a pardon, according to the Associated Press.

The Jack Johnson pardon movement is requesting a pardon for his conviction in 1913 of violating a vice law that prohibited transporting women across state lines “for the purpose of prostitution, debauchery or any other immoral purpose.”

At the time, not only was White America upset because Mr. Johnson was the boxing heavyweight champion, but they were blind with rage because he also flaunted his relationships with White women, leading to his arrest under the Mann Act.

“Jack Johnson paved the way, not only for African American athletes, but for all people of color,” said Eddie Mustafa Muhammad, president of the Joint Association of Boxers, in a released statement. “He was heavyweight champ long before anyone ever heard of Brown v. Board of Education, Rosa Parks, Jackie Robinson, Martin Luther King or even the Civil Rights Movement. His conviction was motivated by racism and his pardon is long overdue.

The Teamsters joined the Joint Association of Boxers in their call to Pres. Bush to grant a full pardon.

“Through his courage, Jack Johnson shaped the sport of boxing as well as our nation,” said Jim Hoffa, general president of the Teamsters. “Although the injustices of the past can never be undone, they can be acknowledged. Congress has a unique opportunity to show the world how far we have progressed as a nation by passing this resolution in support of the pardon.”

Mr. Muhammad explained further, “Johnson has never received proper credit for his achievement as a boxing icon and the first African American athlete to break through the color barrier. He claimed the title in 1908. That’s almost 40 years before Jackie Robinson broke into major league baseball, yet he has never been recognized.”

The year is 1908 and Jack Johnson has just defeated Tommy Burns in Sydney, Australia to become the first Black heavyweight champion. The world is shocked and outraged, claiming Mr. Burns was never really the champion because the former champion Jim Jeffries retired undefeated.

“Jack Johnson’s success in the ring, and sometimes indulgent lifestyle outside of it, fostered resentment among many and raised concerns that Johnson’s continued dominance in the ring would somehow disrupt what was then perceived by many as a ‘racial order’,” explained Senator John McCain in his resolution seeking Senate support for the pardon last year.

After Mr. Johnson’s victory, Mr. Jeffries was immediately contacted and asked to come out of retirement. By then, he was 34 years old, 300 pounds and living the life on his alfalfa farm. The search began for the “Great White Hope”—anyone who could beat Jack Johnson.

“We need somebody,” explained boxing historian Bert Sugar on the documentary Unforgivable Blackness.That was the feeling at the time. “Anyone of the right complexion, 175 pounds or heavier… but they were terrible.”

The pressure for Mr. Jeffries to fight again was tremendous. His name was constantly in the newspaper and he received letters from the public pleading with him to return. In April 1909, he buckled and announced his return to boxing as the “Great White Hope.”

In 1910, the “great white hype” of Mr. Jeffries fell short as Mr. Johnson knocked him down three times, leaving him bloodied, broken and bruised, and winning the fight. According to newspaper accounts at the time, the mostly White male crowd left the arena with “funeral gloom, grim and silent.”

That same year, the Mann Act was passed, but Mr. Johnson’s trial was the first time it had been used to invade the privacy of two consenting adults and to criminalize their behavior.

It was a questionable prosecution from the start. According to the website, in 1912, after the U.S. government began an investigation of Mr. Johnson, a Justice Department official sent a memo to the Attorney General stating, “From the facts set forth in [a] telegram [received from a Special Agent in Chicago], and those given in the current newspapers, I do not believe that this is a proper case for the Federal Authorities to undertake.”

But that didn’t stop the government, according to the website. After one failed attempt by the FBI to bring charges against Mr. Johnson under the Mann Act, the Department of Justice combed through his past relationships until they found a White woman who was willing to testify against him.

After a guilty verdict was passed, District Attorney Harry Parkin said, “This Negro, in the eyes of many, has been persecuted. Perhaps, as an individual, he was. But it was his misfortune to be the foremost example of the evil in permitting the intermarriage of Whites and Blacks.”

Mr. Parkin and the sentencing judge admitted that Mr. Johnson was convicted to “send a message” to Black men by convicting “one of the best known men of his race.”

Mr. Johnson fled the country and lived in Europe as a fugitive for seven years. He lost his championship in a fight in Cuba in 1915. Five years later, he returned to the U.S. and served a year in jail.

“Mr. President, a gross injustice was done to Jack Johnson when a federal law was misused to send him to prison. The Senate’s passage of this resolution and the President’s pardon of Jack Johnson would not right this injustice, but it would recognize it, and shed light on the achievements of an athlete who was forced into the shadows of bigotry and prejudice,” said Sen. McCain.

“Mr. President, the pardon of Jack Johnson would not be an act that would benefit Mr. Johnson or his heirs. Rather, his pardon would be a nominal, but useful, corrective of a shameful injustice that would serve as a testament of America’s resolve to live up to its noble ideals of justice and equality.

“While we know that we cannot possibly right the wrong that was done to Jack Johnson, we can take this small step toward acknowledging his mistreatment and removing the cloud that casts a shadow on his legacy.”

If the pardon is granted, it would be the second posthumous presidential pardon in history. The first was done by President Bill Clinton in 1999 for former slave and the first army officer Henry O. Flipper.