It hurts me that people have never heard of Jack Johnson (1878 – 1946), the black boxer who was convicted by an all-white jury of accompanying a white woman across state lines more than 100 years ago. Some were confusing him for Jack Johnson the Hawaiian singer/songwriter who produces a sort of “surf rock” so mellow as to be nearly catatonic. He should get a pardon too.
In spring 2018, POTUS tweeted that Sylvester Stallone, famous for the Rocky boxing film franchise, had called and told him how Johnson, the boxing’s first African-American heavyweight champion, was found guilty of violating the Mann Act in 1919, a law that made it illegal for men to transporting women across state lines for “immoral purposes”, a racially motivated charge that embroiled Johnson in controversy because of his relationships, including marriages, with white women. For decades, Johnson was the most famous and the most notorious African-American on Earth.
The POTUS tweet read: “His trials and tribulations were great, his life complex and controversial. Others have looked at this over the years, most thought it would be done, but yes, I am considering a Full Pardon!”, so you know he didn’t actually write the tweet because it uses not just full sentences, but alteration and syntax.
Johnson’s life is the subject of the The Great White Hope (1970) starring James Earl Jones and Jane Alexander, who both received Academy Award nominations.
At the start of the 20th century, the popularity of boxing was at an all-time high, but black and white men rarely boxed together. In 1908, fighting in a rare public match, Johnson won against white Canadian Tommy Burns and became the Heavyweight Champion of the World.
In 1910, Johnson, the son of former slaves, had brought about public derision and hatred as he defeated white boxer after white boxer, including “the great white hope”, the undefeated James J. Jeffries. The fight took place on July 4, in front of 20,000 people, at a ring built just for the occasion in downtown Reno. It was billed as “The Fight of the Century” and earned Johnson $65,000 ($2 million in 2018 dollars).
Johnson outraged the public with his relationships with white women and his lavish spending. For many in the black community and most white citizens, Johnson was guilty of not “knowing his place” in Jim Crow-era America. Johnson’s skill as a boxer and the matches that he won and amount of money that he was paid made it impossible for him to be ignored by American society.
After his conviction, Johnson fled to Canada and then France before returning to the USA seven years later. He served a year in federal prison and was released in 1921.
On June 10, 1946, Johnson died in a car crash on U.S. Highway 1 near Raleigh, SC, after leaving angrily from a diner that refused to serve him. He was 68-years-old at the time of his death. His grave was initially unmarked, but now a stone bears only the name “Johnson”.
Johnson presaged the most famous boxer of all time, Muhammad Ali. Ali often spoke of how he was influenced by Johnson because Ali felt America ostracized him in the same way because of his opposition to the Vietnam War and his conversion to Islam.
The late Senator John McCain pushed for the legendary pugilist’s pardoning in 2008. McCain:
“Johnson was a boxing legend and pioneer whose career and reputation were ruined by a racially charged conviction more than a century ago. Johnson’s imprisonment forced him into the shadows of bigotry and prejudice and continues to stand as a stain on our national honor.”
Officially the policy of the Department of Justice states that: “processing posthumous pardon petitions is grounded in the belief that the time of the officials involved in the clemency process is better spent on the pardon and commutation requests of living persons”.
Check out Ken Burns‘s documentary about Johnson’s life, Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise And Fall Of Jack Johnson (2005).
On the last track of Miles Davis‘s album A Tribute To Jack Johnson, actor Brock Peters as Johnson says:
I’m Jack Johnson. Heavyweight champion of the world.
I’m black. They never let me forget it.
I’m black all right! I’ll never let them forget it!