Mixed Messages From The Desert

By Dr. Boyce Watkins
Updated: April 3, 2009

NEW YORK — I just saw an article in which Senator John McCain recently wanted to pardon Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champ in American history.

His actions confuse me, as McCain was one of the last holdouts on the Martin Luther King holiday a few years ago. Also, McCain would not like Jack Johnson if he were alive today, for his spirit of defiance of America’s 400-year commitment to racism is similar to the one that scholars such as myself carry today.

In other words, we are his ideological grandchildren, and John McCain doesn’t like people like me.

I find men like McCain to be even more perplexing because they are the first to get in line to support symbolic gestures, such as pardoning a man who was convicted nearly 100 years ago, but are happy to endorse tougher sentencing laws and more prisons which incarcerate hundreds of thousands of Black men today.

It has been statistically proven that, beyond any doubt, Black males are more likely to be incarcerated for the same crimes, less likely to have adequate counsel and more likely to receive longer sentences for these crimes.

Now, we are in an era in which American corporations own stock in prisons and have a profit motive for excess incarceration, which is incredibly dangerous.

What’s worse, millions of families are destroyed by the justice system endorsed by John McCain, with these men finding insurmountable institutional hurdles to their re-entry into society.

I grow weary of those who chastise Black men for speaking out against racism, yet show up to sit in the front row of every Martin Luther King Day function.

There are even those in my own university who once hated Jim Brown and love him 30 years later. All the while, they hate Boyce Watkins without realizing that he and Jim Brown come from the same tradition.

Such reactions show that history only repeats itself and that some Americans are quick to follow the lead created by their forefathers.

Perhaps dead Black men are the ones McCain is willing to pardon first, since they cause him the least trouble. But the truth is that rather than hating us while we’re alive and honoring us in death, you’d be better off showing enough vision and open-mindedness to respect our point of view in the first place.

That is supposed to be what America is all about.

Rest in peace,Jack Johnson. I gave you a pardon long ago.