William K. Wolfrum's picture

    A Jack Johnson pardon awaits only a signature from Barack Obama

    It seems the moment that Barack Obama took over the Presidency of the United States, his overall message changed. “Change We Can Believe in” morphed into “Bipartisanship: Now and Forever.” Like Bill Clinton before him, the need for Republican acceptance has become a an almost fetish for Obama, with the results thus far quite predictable – the U.S. government is now radically partisan.

    Of course, there’s one thing Obama could do – today – that would briefly appease some of his most vociferous critics. That would be to pardon Jack Johnson.

    Jack Johnson was the first African-American Heavyweight champion. And despite having not thrown a punch in anger in more than 70 years, and having been dead for more than 60 years, many still consider him the greatest boxer in history.

    As one can imagine, being the first Black Heavyweight champion – he won the title in 1908 – led to Johnson being the most reviled figure of his time. A surge of racism ran through the blood of even the most prominent writers and politicians of the day, and a concerted effort was made to take him down. To White America, the flashy and cocky Johnson needed to be shown his place.

    Unable to find a white man to beat Johnson in the ring, they used the legal system to take him down. In 1912, Johnson was first arrested for a violation of the odious Mann Act. Unable to secure a conviction, he was then again arrested in 1913 for the same offense. The offenses? “Transporting women across state lines for immoral purposes.” Johnson knew both women well. The “crimes” he committed actually took place before the Mann Act had been ratified. But the U.S. judicial system did what no white boxer could do. They beat Jack Johnson, sentencing him to a year and a day in Federal prison.

    Simply put, Jack Johnson had been convicted for being an unapologetic Black man.

    Johnson fled the country, eventually losing his title to Jess Willard in 1915. Johnson finally returned to the U.S. in 1920, and served his sentence in Leavenworth. It is long past time for that sentence to be stricken from his record.

    Jack Johnson does not deserve to be pardoned for being a good man. He was, in fact, a bad man in many aspects, with the onus of that description being his violence and abuse of women. But this is not about Johnson’s other sins.

    Jack Johnson does not deserve to be pardoned because it’s African-American History Month. That is but an intangible moment of time.

    Jack Johnson does not deserve to be pardoned because Barack Obama is the first African-American to serve as President. That is ridiculousness.

    Jack Johnson deserves to be pardoned because he was arrested and tormented by the U.S. government solely because he was a Black man. His story is by no means unique. But his prominence and historical importance makes his story stand out and helps us all recognize the blatant crimes committed against African-Americans by America’s judicial system. His arrest – like many so many others – was purely racially motivated.

    Both the House and Senate have demanded that Johnson be pardoned. The bill is on President Obama’s desk. But he won’t sign it. Because the Justice Department said it prefers to focus its pardon resources on people “who can truly benefit” from them.

    “In terms of Jack Johnson, I think the Department of Justice came back recommending — not recommending a pardon on that,” said White House spokesman Robert Gibbs.

    The resolution Congress passed to pardon Johnson said in part that it was “for the racially motivated conviction in 1913 that diminished the athletic, cultural, and historic significance of Jack Johnson and unduly tarnished his reputation … [It would] expunge a racially motivated abuse of the prosecutorial authority of the federal government from the annals of criminal justice in the United States.”

    It is long past time to pardon Jack Johnson. The posthumous pardon has bi-partisan support, as Sen. John McCain and Rep. Peter King – Republicans both – are among those that have championed his cause.

    But Jack Johnson should not be pardoned because it achieves some type of non-partisan unity. He should be pardoned because he was imprisoned for being a Black man. He should be pardoned because it would truly benefit us all.


    Crossposted at William K. Wolfrum Chronicles


    Jack Johnson was also a flesh merchant(read: pimp) and, as you so aptly pointed out, an abuser of women. The Mann Act was created for the express purpose of stopping pimps like Johnson. Even WEB DuBois and Booker T. Washington, two of the greatest black thinkers of the era, reviled Johnson. There were good reasons to do so.

    I disagree with you, but must admit you are a good writer and have expressed your views admirably.

    ps- And just for the record, Johnson was indeed beaten by white men in the ring(See: Marvin Hart, Joe Choynski).  

    First to Roman. Jackie Johnson was familiar with the women he was crossing state lines with regardless of any pimping that may have gone on. That is why he was found innocent and two rival parties are of the mind that he needs a pardon. The Justice Department quickly said no, saying that it does not traditionally pardon the deceased and that the president´s focus should be to pardon persons "who can truly benefit" from it. Obama can ignore the Justice Department and pardon Johnson but the odds he won´t. Presidential pardons for the dead are virtually unknown. Bill Clinton and George Bush are the only presidents who ever granted one. American Chronicle 2/13/10 Before you point fingers at Obama consider the source. This was John McCains idea and a month later Gov Rick Perry of Texas just gave the first posthumous pardon in history to Timothy Cole. Interesting. I commend his wish to use pardons for those who will benefit the most. While the romantic in me would love to see Jackie Johnson pardoned the humanitarian in me wants to help the living get back to their precious time a free person.

    You're missing the point. If you watched the documentary Unforgiveable Blackness. There were many more WHITE men... (socialites/boxers/gamblers etc.) that were all a part of the same underground social atmosphere and not one of them were charged with the Mann Act. It's not about his being a pimp if that's what you want to call him or an abuser but the unjust treatment he received because of his skin color. Judge ALL men by the character and actions but not because of his skin tone!

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