Boxing: the longest fight

Jack Johnson was the first black world heavyweight champion - and the victim of a cruel injustice. More than 90 years on, his admirers are pushing for a posthumous pardon. John Hiscock reports
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The Independent Online

He was a black champion in a sport ruled by whites. He was also a flamboyant personality who flaunted his relationships with white women in an era of segregation.

Inevitably, Jack Johnson paid the price for his refusal to play by the rules of the white establishment. He served a year in jail on what legal experts say were trumped-up charges.

Now a group of political and civil rights leaders has filed a petition with the US Department of Justice seeking a posthumous presidential pardon for Johnson, the first black heavyweight boxing champion of the world.

Johnson's conviction in 1913 for violating a vice law was widely regarded as a punishment for his romantic relationships with white women. The prosecution followed Johnson's defeat of Jim Jeffries, who was dubbed "The Great White Hope", in a championship fight that was America's first high-profile inter-racial athletic encounter.

His victory sparked a wave of race riots across America in which numerous blacks died.

Newspapers warned Johnson and the black community not to be too proud and Congress passed an act banning the interstate transportation of fight films for fear that the images of Johnson beating white opponents would provoke further unrest.

The committee seeking a pardon for Johnson includes: Senators John McCain, Edward Kennedy and Orrin Hatch; Jack Johnson biographers Geoffrey C Ward and Randy Roberts; columnists Pete Hamill and Jack Newfield; boxers Sugar Ray Leonard, Bernard Hopkins, John Ruiz and Vernon Forrest; and documentary film-maker Ken Burns. If granted, it would be only the second posthumous presidential pardon in US history.

The committee is asking President Bush to pardon Johnson because "his conviction was the result solely of contrived charges reflecting attitudes and mores that America has long since outgrown".

"Better 92 years late than never," said Senator Kennedy. "It defies belief that the Justice Department of the United States in any era would go to such vindictive lengths to punish the heavyweight champion of the world because of the colour of his skin. May this belated pardon of Jack Johnson remind us that civil rights is still the unfinished business of America in our day and generation."

Senator McCain said: "Boxing is a brutal but proud sport where Americans from different backgrounds have, in many cases, fought their way out of poverty, and no one in this sport fought harder than Jack Johnson. However, this great fighter was denied what he rightly deserved because of an unjust legal decision that we can overturn today. Pardoning Jack Johnson will serve as a historic testament of America's resolve to live up to its noble ideas of justice and equality."

Jack Johnson was born in 1878 in Galveston, Texas and began boxing as a teenager in the Jim Crow-era south. In 1908 he became the first black heavyweight champion of the world by beating Tommy Burns in Australia.

Johnson became a lightning rod for racial strife in America and his victory spurred a search among whites for a "great white hope" who could beat him and win back the title. Jim Jeffries, who had retired unbeaten, agreed to return to the ring to face Johnson.

The Johnson-Jeffries bout, dubbed the "Battle Of The Century", took place on 4 July 1910 in Reno, Nevada. Johnson knocked Jeffries out in the 15th round, sparking nationwide uproar.

Perhaps more troubling for white America than Johnson's dominance over his white opponents were his romantic entanglements with white women. One of his frequent travelling companions was a white prostitute named Hattie McClay and they were later joined by Belle Schreiber, another white prostitute whom Johnson met in Chicago. He eventually married a white woman, Etta Duryea, who committed suicide in 1912. Three months later Johnson married Lucille Cameron, another white woman and former prostitute.

In 1910 Congress had passed the Mann Act, which outlawed the transportation of women "for the purpose of prostitution, debauchery or for any other immoral purpose" and the US government used it to make Johnson pay for his success and his lifestyle.

In 1913 he was convicted of violating the Mann Act after Ms Schreiber , his former lover, testified against him. Johnson fled the country and spent several years in Europe. In 1914 he lost his title to Jess Willard in Cuba. He returned to the US in 1920, surrendered to authorities and served a year in prison. He was never again given a shot at the heavyweight title and in 1946, after being angered by a racist incident in a restaurant, he drove his car too fast around a bend in North Carolina and was killed.

The petition documents how Johnson's prosecution and conviction were racially motivated and points out that Johnson's trial was the first time the Mann Act had been invoked to invade the personal privacy of two consenting adults.

After one failed attempt by the Bureau of Investigations to bring charges against Johnson under the Mann Act, the Department of Justice combed through Johnson's past relationships until they found a white woman who was willing to testify against him, according to the petition.

It reports that government investigators received an anonymous letter that identified Ms Schreiber as a likely witness to testify against him. The letter reads: "I sincerely trust that I have made this effort as plain to you as I possibly could under the circumstances that that you shall be able to gather sufficient evidence from the above named persons to enable you to send this nigger to jail for the balance of his life."

The petition also quotes District Attorney Harry Parkin, for the prosecution in the case, who reportedly said: "This Negro, in the eyes of many, has been persecuted ... it was his misfortune to be the foremost example of the evil in permitting the intermarriage of whites and blacks."

Both Mr Parkin and the sentencing judge admitted that Johnson was convicted to "send a message" to blacks by convicting "one of the best known men of his race", states the petition.

Ken Burns, who has produced a documentary, Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise And Fall Of Jack Johnson, assembled the committee after he and his research team began digging into Johnson's life.

"The more we dug the more it appeared that the case was racist from beginning to the end and one of the greatest abuses of justice involving an American athlete that this country has ever seen," Burns said.

"In many ways Johnson is an embodiment of the African-American struggle to be truly free economically, socially and politically. He absolutely refused to play by the rules set by the white establishment or even those of the black community. In that sense he fought for freedom not just as a black man but as an individual.

"Throughout his life and career white America tried to stop him from being who he wanted to be and each time he defied them. They tried to stop him being heavyweight champion; they tried to stop him from living his life the way he wanted and loving the women he wanted to regardless of colour. The only way they could exert control over him was by perverting the legal system and that is an injustice that must be corrected."