Last edited: January 31, 2005


Jack Johnson

Jack Johnson was the first black heavy-weight boxing world champion. He defeated all opponents and had no equal. The was very distressing for whites in America who were challenged in their views of racial superiority for the first time.

Johnson didn't merely offend the whites through his physical prowess, but also through his flaunting of wealth, racing cars, and most egregiously, associating with white women, often several at a time. This was also a great offense to many blacks.

Unable to best him in the boxing ring, the white community went after him over his personal life. 

Johnson was charged with violating the Mann Act in November 1912 for traveling across state lines with his white mistress, prior to the enactment of the Act. The Mann Act was designed to stop the interstate prostitution trade. It was not intended, and could not reasonably interpreted to apply to consensual adults. 

As a result of Johnson's conviction, years in exile, and eventual imprisonment, many states enacted fornication laws to criminalize pre-marital sex as well as miscegenation laws to prohibit interracial marriage. Others started enforcing their existing laws. 

By 1967 only 13 states still had miscegenation laws when they were declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in Loving v. Virginia.

In 2003, fornication laws existed in 15 states (Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Utah, Virginia, West Virginia) and the District of Columbia. These laws are rarely enforced, and rarely used like sodomy laws against people presumed to be in violation. The U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Lawrence v. Texas on June 26, 2003 presumably rendered them unconstitutional. 

In 2004, Washington, D.C. repealed its fornication and adultery laws as part of a clean up of outdated criminal laws along with rules for dueling.

On January 14, 2005, Virginia's Supreme Court ruled that fornication law unconstitutional citing Lawrence.

Efforts are now underway, thanks to documentary film maker Ken Burns, to get a posthumous presidential pardon for Jack Johnson. Ken Burns also made an excellent 4 hour documentary on Jack Johnson. 

PBS Documentary by Ken Burns: Unforgivable Blackness, The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson - premiered January 17, 2005




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