Guilty – of being a black world champion

Jack Johnson's name has been tarnished for a century by allegations trumped up by his white enemies. Now Obama is being asked to pardon him

They called him the Galveston Giant even before he became the first black world heavyweight boxing champion in 1908. Yet Jack Johnson has never had the place he surely deserved in the history books because of what happened five years later. White America put him on trial, for the crime of romancing white women.

The boxer was convicted under the Mann Act of transporting women across state lines for sex, and eventually put behind bars. His life was ruined, and so was his legacy. But that, at last, may be about to change. Bound for the desk of Barack Obama is a resolution finally adopted by both sides of the United States Congress asking that he give a posthumous pardon to Jack Johnson, the proud boxer whose only sin was disregard for prejudice and ignorance.

The President has so far not commented on the resolution that had among its prime supporters Senator John McCain, his opponent in last year's election, and New York Representative Peter King. Both men happen to be Republicans as well as ardent boxing fans. (Mr King still works out in the ring occasionally.)

Oddly, he may not welcome it. Yesterday, the President was hosting Henry Louis Gates, the black professor from Harvard, and the white policeman who arrested him for allegedly breaking into a house that turned out to be his own. Mr Obama has often said he wants to transcend race himself. Yet he can't get away from discussion of it.

It is unthinkable that he would not sign such a pardon for Johnson, whose baleful story – and its place in the tortured odyssey this country has taken from slavery to true racial integration (if it has even got there yet) – is too compelling to ignore. He secured the world title precisely 100 years before Mr Obama won election as America's first black president.

It has been four years since the film-maker Ken Burns advertised the case in his documentary Unforgiveable Blackness. Yet without McCain and King, Congress would probably not have taken up the cause.

There was trouble even at the end. The resolution was passed first by the Senate but got stuck in the House of Representatives when, after the death of Michael Jackson, Mr King went on television to say he had been a child molester, angering the black caucus. But on Wednesday, the caucus relented and the resolution went through unanimously.

"Johnson is a trailblazer and a legend, whose boxing career was cut short due to unjust laws and racial persecution," Mr King said. "I urge the President to do the right thing and take the final step and grant his pardon."

That Johnson did not bend to the bigotry of his time no one disputes. On the contrary, he is remembered, aside from his athletic prowess, for his defiance, using his growing fortune to drive the cars and live in the homes that white folk considered to be theirs and beyond the descendants of slaves. He dated white women and made no attempt to hide it. When he died in a car crash in 1946 aged 68, he had had three wives, all white.

But Johnson's greatest sin was his talent in the ring. His success was an affront to white America. Instantly after he became world champion, a search was launched for a white man who could take the title back. The "Great White Hope", as the sports writers called him, was James Jeffries, a former champion himself who found himself dragged out of retirement to meet Johnson. The two men met in a makeshift ring in Reno, Nevada, with the nearly all-white crowd booing Johnson and singing along when the ring-side band played "All Coons Look Alike to Me". Johnson was declared the winner after 15 rounds. Rioting broke out all across America.

It was in 1913, that the authorities, angered by his defiance and success, went after Johnson, charging him with violating the Mann Act, which still exists but has been heavily amended, that forbids the transport of women over state borders in the pursuit of sex.

The Act was ostensibly meant to curb prostitution, a purpose it came closer to nearly 100 years later when its provisions were used in the investigation of a prostitution ring that included then-New York governor Eliot Spitzer among its clients. But in Johnson's case, the authorities made no secret of the fact that he was being punished for sleeping with the wrong race.

At first, the boxer fled, living for seven years in an assortment of cities in Europe and South America. Eventually, he came home, and served 10 months in jail. He tried to renew his career in boxing after prison but was never able to regain his title.

The resolution approved by Congress says that Johnson should receive a posthumous pardon "for the racially motivated conviction in 1913 that diminished the athletic, cultural, and historic significance of Jack Johnson and unduly tarnished his reputation". It says a pardon would "expunge a racially motivated abuse of the prosecutorial authority of the federal government"

Some may once have argued that with his bluster and disregard for racial sensitivities, Johnson was guilty at least of setting back the cause of integration in America.

When Joe Louis began his ascent towards winning the world championship two decades later, his trainer had a word of warning. "You know, boy, the heavyweight division for a Negro is hardly likely," Jack Blackburn told him. "The white man ain't too keen on it. If you really ain't gonna be another Jack Johnson, you got some hope. White man hasn't forgotten that fool nigger with his white women, acting like he owned the world."

Fool or no fool, Johnson was wronged by his own country for daring to ignore and to shatter social barriers created by ignorance. Mr Obama will surely sign his pardon because he knows a bit about this himself.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Environmental Adviser - Maternity Cover

£37040 - £43600 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The UK's export credit agency a...

Recruitment Genius: CBM & Lubrication Technician

£25000 - £27500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides a compreh...

Recruitment Genius: Care Worker - Residential Emergency Service

£16800 - £19500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Would you like to join an organ...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Landscaper

£25000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: In the last five years this com...

Day In a Page

Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

Britain's 24-hour culture

With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

The addictive nature of Diplomacy

Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
8 best children's clocks

Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones