Mr. President, Pardon Jack Johnson
We can right a century-old wrong done to the first
black heavyweight champ.
Angeles Times, July 13, 2004
By Ken Burns
Even those Americans who remember the name of Jack
Johnson, the first African American to hold the world heavyweight title, often
forget that he spent seven years in Europe as a fugitive and that when he
returned to the United States in 1920, he was required to serve a year in
His crime, hard as it may be to imagine today, was that
he crossed state lines with a woman—a white woman—and prosecutors
weren’t about to let him get away with it. Especially after all the trouble
he’d already caused and all the rules he’d already broken.
To understand why the U.S. government pursued Johnson for
so many years, one must go back to 1908, when Johnson, a 6-foot-1 former
dockworker, defeated Tommy Burns and won the world heavyweight title.
His victory shook white Americans hard and prompted a
search for a “great white hope” who could win back the title. But repeated
attempts were unsuccessful. Two years later, when Johnson defeated the
legendary Jim Jeffries, who had come out of retirement and whom most whites
considered unbeatable, it sparked deadly race riots across the country.
Johnson was everything that a black man of his era was
not supposed to be: outspoken, articulate, intelligent, powerful, wealthy,
good-looking and charming. This made him a hero to most of black America, but
it also made him a dangerous enemy to much of white America. His mere presence
threatened the notion that African Americans belonged to an inferior,
Unable to beat him in the ring, his enemies sought other
ways to bring Johnson low. In 1912, federal authorities in Chicago went after
him in court instead, bringing charges against him for violating the Mann Act,
a federal law designed to help fight prostitution by making it a crime to
transport a woman across state lines for “immoral purposes.” But virtually
everyone knew—and the prosecuting attorney even admitted—that the real
object was to punish Johnson for daring to engage in romantic relationships
with white women.
In court, the federal prosecutors argued that Jackson
committed a “crime against nature” for engaging in sexual intercourse with
a white woman. The fact that he married the woman only a few months after he
was arrested made no difference. He was convicted and sentenced to a year in
After the verdict, the district attorney said that “it
was [Johnson’s] misfortune to be the foremost example of the evil in
permitting the intermarriage of whites and blacks.”
While his case was on appeal, Johnson fled the country.
He lived in Europe as a fugitive from justice for seven years, losing his
title in Havana in 1915 to a much younger white opponent after a grueling
26-round fight in 100-degree-plus heat.
He returned to the U.S. in 1920, surrendered to
authorities and served a year at Leavenworth.
He never again was given a chance to reclaim the title he
had fought so hard to win. Today, his story is known mostly to avid sports
In many ways, Johnson’s adversaries succeeded in their
mission to cut him down to size. They sought a conviction against Johnson to
send a message to African Americans: Don’t hold your head too high. Don’t
believe you’re any better than you really are. Don’t walk too proudly. And
never engage in intimate relations with whites.
Today, I am filing a petition with the Department of
Justice, prepared by the law firm Proskauer Rose, which documents in detail
that the decision to indict Johnson—and, in the end, the conviction
itself—was racially motivated. The Committee to Pardon Jack Johnson includes
prominent Americans from politics, including Sens. John McCain and Edward
Kennedy, as well as boxers Vernon Forrest, Sugar Ray Leonard and Bernard
A presidential pardon will not change history. Certainly
it will not make life easier for Jack Johnson, who died in 1946. But as McCain
has explained, “pardoning Jack Johnson will serve as a historic testament of
America’s resolve to live up to its noble ideals of justice and equality.”
Ken Burns is a director, producer and writer whose films
include “Brooklyn Bridge,” “The Civil War,” “Baseball,” and
“Jazz.” His forthcoming film, “Unforgiveable Blackness: The Rise and
Fall of Jack Johnson,” will be broadcast on PBS in January.
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