President Trump Pardons Jack Johnson Posthumously
Capping off a busy day at the White House, President Trump has issued a posthumous pardon to Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight boxing champion, for a 1913 conviction of violating the Mann Act. His arrest and imprisonment were for the crime of being a black man transporting a white woman across state lines.
Flanked by Sylvester Stallone and heavyweight boxers, Pres Trump signed "full pardon" for the late Jack Johnson, who served 10 months in prison for violating the Mann Act. a conviction, said @POTUS, "many view as a racially motivated injustice." pic.twitter.com/YvMU4bpUmr
— Mark Knoller (@markknoller) May 24, 2018
The story of Johnson, who died in a car wreck in 1946, is a long and twisting tale of a talented, complex, and flamboyant man set against the open racism of his day.
It did not help matters that Johnson was known for flamboyantly flouting turn-of-the-century America’s restrictive social mores around race and class. He was, as screenwriter John Ridley once wrote, “a guy who basically lived his life with a metaphorical middle finger raised in the air.” Johnson owned a night club, acted on stage, wore gold teeth, and reportedly walked his pet leopard while sipping champagne. “Unforgivable Blackness” recounts an incident when Johnson handed over a $100 bill to pay a $50 speeding ticket. Told by the police officer that he couldn’t make change, Johnson just flashed a smile — he planned on speeding on the way back too.
His behavior earned Johnson some critics in the African American community, including Booker T. Washington, who said “it is unfortunate that a man with money should use it in a way to injure his own people, in the eyes of those who are seeking to uplift his race and improve its conditions,” according to the book “Race on Trial.”
But above all, Johnson was excoriated for dating white women — an inviolable taboo at the time. His romantic entanglements got him boos and death threats. Whites in the South actively called for him to be lynched. Finally, in 1910, Jeffries agreed to a fight. He would come out of retirement, he announced, in order to “reclaim the heavyweight championship for the white race.” The fight, billed as “the battle of the century,” was held in Reno, Nev. in front of some 20,000 fans screaming for Johnson’s defeat.
They were disappointed: after 15 rounds, Jeffries threw in the towel. “I could never have whipped Johnson at my best,” he later said. “I couldn’t have hit him. No, I couldn’t have reached him in 1,000 years.” Far from settling the question of inequality in sports, the result set off riots around the county that left dozens of people dead — most of them black.
That same year, the Mann Act was passed, making it a crime to transport women across state lines “for the purpose of prostitution or debauchery, or for any other immoral purpose.” Aimed at preventing prostitution, it could also be manipulated to criminalize interracial relationships. Almost as soon as the law went into effect, the Department of Justice began investigating Johnson for a possible violation, according to “Unforgivable Blackness.”
Johnson had married Brooklyn socialite Etta Terry Duryea, who was white, in 1911. Their relationship was turbulent and she committed suicide a year later.
Three months after her death, he married his second wife, Lucille Cameron. Cameron’s mother, aghast that her daughter had married a black man, complained to authorities that Johnson had kidnapped her. Johnson was arrested and prosecutors began to build a Mann Act case against him, but Cameron refused to cooperate with the case against her husband, according to “Unforgivable Blackness.” Ultimately, the charges were dropped.
But not for long. Agents ultimately dug up an old relationship with a young woman named Belle Schreiber. She agreed to testify against Johnson, and he was swiftly brought to Chicago federal court. It took less than two hours for an all white jury to convict him in 1913.
Before he could be sent to prison, Johnson skipped bail and fled the country along with his wife, according to ESPN. They spent the next several years traveling around Europe and South America, Johnson participating in small-time matches for measly purses. He held onto his world title the whole while.
Then he encountered 6-foot, 6 1/4-inch, 230-pound Jess Willard in a boxing ring in Havana in 1915. Even aging and out of practice, Johnson was able to hold his own until the 26th round, when Willard delivered a knockout punch. Johnson was no longer champion — perhaps intentionally. Rumors swirled after the fight that Johnson lost intentionally in hopes that it would get the Justice Department to drop its case against him.
But he had no such luck. After seven years on the lam, Johnson surrendered to federal authorities at the Mexican border, according to “Unforgivable Blackness.” After serving his year-long prison term, he emerged to a much quieter existence than he’d had as champion. His public life was limited to small exhibition matches and a campaign to promote war bonds during World War II.
Meanwhile, boxing’s color barrier fell back into place, as impenetrable as ever. It would be another 16 years before Joe Louis defeated James Braddock in Chicago in 1937, making another black man the world’s heavyweight boxing champion.
Johnson died like he lived — in the fast lane. He was killed in a car crash in 1946. And aside from the occasional tribute or scholarly reference, his legacy was largely forgotten, eclipsed by the successes of athletes like Louis and Jackie Robinson.
Today, President Trump posthumously pardoned heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson. pic.twitter.com/JzKP87ZxVM
— The White House (@WhiteHouse) May 24, 2018
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