It Is Time To Pardon Jack Johnson

By Tom Donelson
Updated: April 7, 2009

IOWA CITY — James Robert Mann was an Illinois legislator from the Progressive wing of the Republican Party at the turn of the 20th century. Involved in the passage of the bill that established the Food and Drug Administration and a supporter of women suffragette, Mann’s fame comes from a bill that bared his name — The Mann Act.

The Mann Act reflected the progressive mindset of enforcing moral codes to enable Americans become more productive and wholesome.

The Mann Act was part of a broader movement that included prohibiting the use of recreational drugs as well as alcohol and the original Mann Act was specifically designed to stem the prostitution trade and “the white slave trade” that was considered operating throughout America.

The history of the Act would take a different twist, as the bill would be later interpreted to include all consensual sex outside of marriage. By 1920, at least 20 states made fornication a crime and in at least 16 states, get caught once and off the jail.

The problem as the law intent broaden, it became harder to gain conviction as juries were less likely to convict their neighbor of engaging in a little extramarital sex.

It is here that Jack Johnson enters the pictures.

Johnson was the first black heavyweight in history. African-Americans found becoming a boxing champion a bridge too far but before Jack Johnson became the Heavyweight champion; Joseph Gans already captured the lightweight title.

Many of the previous white champions had fought blacks before or after they were champions. Both Gentle Jim Corbett and Jim Jefferies fought Peter Jackson, an excellent black fighter of the 1890’s.

Corbett and Jackson would fight to a 61-round draw one year before Corbett would capture the title from John L. Sullivan. A young Jim Jefferies knocked out an aging Jackson, who was coming back from a six-year layoff.

In 1898, Bob Fitzsimmons, who captured the title from Corbett before losing it to Jefferies, would actually fight Johnson after losing his light heavyweight title.

So the elites white heavyweights had no problems with fighting black fighters — just not for the title. Jackson began campaigning for the title while Jefferies was still champion.

His first stumbling block to the title came in 1905 when he lost a controversial decision to Marvin Hart. While Hart was the busy fighter, Jackson was the more accurate.

Hart’s aggressiveness decided the fight but many at ringside felt that Jackson should have won. Hart would go on to become champion when Jefferies retired before losing his title to Tommy Burns.

Burns was one of those fighters who was under appreciated by boxing fans today. A small heavyweight who did not stand 5-foot-8, Burns depended upon his long arm and quickness to beat his bigger opponents.

After defeating Hart, he defended his title 14 times before facing Jack Johnson. Johnson trailed Burns and continuously dared the champion to fight him.

Looking back, it would be assume that Jackson’s victory over Burns was pre ordained but not really. Burns was one of top three heavyweights at the time and certainly was the best white heavyweight when Jackson fought him.

With his speed and long arms, Burns’ physique was similar to the Black heavyweight Sam Langford –a fighter who gave Johnson trouble.

During the fight, Johnson showed his boxing superiority in winning the title. It was here that Johnson troubles began. Johnson was not a shy man who shunned controversy and even among African-Americans.

Johnson elicited mixed reactions. With his propensity to date openly white women and his apparent delight in beating white fighters, he induced universal disgust among white boxing fans.

The famous writer Jack London implored Jim Jefferies to come out of retirement to “wipe the smile” off Johnson’s face. The search for the Great White Hope began as Johnson dominated the white heavyweights that he faced.

As for Jefferies, he came out of his six-year retirement and the first “fight of the century” was on. In Reno, Nevada, Jack Johnson demolished Jefferies.

Throughout the fight, Johnson taunted the old former champion and by the 15th round, the fight ended with Johnson still the champion. Race riots ensued in part of the United States and Johnson became even more of a pariah.

While Johnson was successfully defending his title in the ring, he was indicted for violating the Mann Act. Johnson was convicted of transporting his finance Lucille Cameron across state line for “immoral purposes.”

The irony was that Ms. Cameron soon became Mrs. Jack Johnson so Jack Johnson was convicted of transporting his future wife for consensual sex!

One has to understand that at this time, many states outlawed interracial marriage and blacks were being lynched often for “sexual crimes.”

Historian Samuel Morrison wrote, “The Negro’s daughters were free to all the lusty white lads of the neighborhood and nothing was done about it; but if a African-American leered at a white girl of notoriously low morals, he was liable to be lynched by a mob in defense of the alleged purity of Southern womanhood.”

Jack Johnson’s personal conduct outside the ring scandalized White America as modesty and humility were not part of his makeup. Johnson essentially gave White America the middle finger as he violated every taboo of his time.

Johnson found white women more to his liking as he said, “Every colored lady I ever went with two-timed me, white girls didn’t.” And when he was not bedding white women, he was beating white heavyweights.

He did not just beat his opponent; he taunted and tortured them before beating them. Ring Lardner described Jack Johnson as that “grinning Negro whose delight was in whipping Caucasian fighters with taunts pouring from his mouth.”

During his training in Reno, he openly appeared with his white wife. The message was clear, “You can’t intimidate me.” For many blacks, Johnson restored pride to them.

The following poem detailed the feelings that many blacks had after Johnson slaughtered Jeffries:

O my Lord What a morning, O my Lord, What a feeling, When Jack Johnson Turned Jim Jeffries’ Snow-white face to the ceiling.

Many whites resented Johnson for his life style and resented the positive effect that he had on blacks after the Jeffries debacle. In the eyes of many whites, Johnson was the “uppity” black that needed to put back in his place.

As Ring Magazine founder Nat Fleischer wrote, “It seemed that a White Race cult had suddenly come into existence that took the stand that only a Caucasian heavyweight could hold the championship — a ridiculous situation.”

This was the world of Johnson and his open dating of white women did not just cause consternation within White American, it was an affront of the racial attitude of the day.

For an African-American to openly date, marry or have sex with a white woman, he was challenging the very foundation of the White supremacist movement.

And this is why he was convicted of the Mann Act, the Mann Act became the political weapon to attack Johnson outside the ring. After his conviction, he fled the country and continued his career outside the United States.

Eventually a Great White Hope would be found in the form of Jess Willard. He was a big Kansan farm boy, who really did not like boxing but considered a nice way to make a living.

Willard’s advantage was his bull like strength and his ability to take punishment. The Willard-Johnson fight took place in Havana, Cuba. For the first 20 rounds, Johnson superior skills gave him the early advantages.

Years of running, lack of training, age and a scorching Cuban sun took their toll as the stronger Willard took control. Willard ended the fight with an upper cut in the 26th round and the title was back in the hands of the White Race.

As for Johnson, he would eventually return to the United States, and serve one year for his “crime.” After that, he continued to fight until he reached 50 but he also became a lecturer, an owner of a nightclub, public speaker and even patented a new wrench.

Least, I forget, he loved racing cars.

Should Jack Johnson be pardoned? The answer is yes and for the following reason. Johnson was convicted of having consensual sex with an unmarried woman — who just happened to be his fiancé. That alone should be the basis of a pardon.

A victim of the progressive prohibition era and racism, Johnson never should have gone to jail to begin with. The recent push from Congress to ask for a pardon for Jack Johnson will be correcting a wrong and it is never too late to right a wrong.