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.

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