Last edited: January 22, 2005

‘Unforgivable’ Not to Forgive Johnson

L.A. Daily News, January 16, 2005

By Tom Hoffarth, Columnist

Pardon us if this is old news, but if Jack Johnson doesn’t receive a posthumous presidential pardon sooner rather than later, it’d be another low blow to his larger-than-life legacy.

The intriguing, controversial saga of the first black heavyweight boxing champ won’t be going away anytime soon, even if his exploits are nearly a century old. Heavyweight documentarian Ken Burns has produced a masterful two-part, four-hour special on Johnson’s life called “Unforgivable Blackness,” which PBS stations will air Monday and Tuesday nights. Later this year, ESPN has plans of using Johnson as the foundation for another made-for-TV movie.

\The reasons are more than just presenting a compelling story in the name of TV ratings. Legal and social injustice brought upon by Jim Crow-era laws after the abolishment of slavery collide with this fabulously famous and notorious athlete who challenged everyone’s beliefs at the time about racial equality and the right to live a free, American lifestyle.

In the end, Johnson was TKO’d. He chose to live in exile after he was found guilty of breaking a law that his own government twisted to use against him. It was all in retaliation for the way he prevailed in Reno, Nev., over Burbank native Jim Jeffries, the retired heavyweight champ and so-called “Great White Hope,” on the Fourth of July in 1910 in what was called “The Fight of the Century.”

Although known worldwide for his pugilism, Johnson found some of his early success in Los Angeles. On May 16, 1902, just five months after the first Rose Bowl was played, he put himself on the map by knocking out Jack Jeffries—Jim Jeffries’ little brother. Less than a year later, Johnson won a 20-round decision over Denver Ed Martin here to claim what was recognized as the black heavyweight championship.

But while living at the time in Bakersfield, Johnson endured bigotry and resentment for living flamboyantly with a white woman. It only foreshadowed what would come later. The 1910 Mann Act, imposed to stop “white slavery,” or the smuggling of women into the U.S. for prostitution, eventually was used against Johnson in 1912 after the mother of a white woman he was dating became upset and demanded justice. Johnson, who married the woman, Lucile Cameron, in December 1912, was convicted of the charge in Chicago by a white jury in June 1913. His sentence: a year and a day in prison, plus a $1,000 fine. Prosecutors said in the trial that he committed a “crime against nature.”

While waiting for an appeal, he and Lucile escaped to Canada. He toured the world defending his title before he lost it in 1915 in a 26-round bout against Jess Willard in Havana. Rumor was that Johnson was told that by losing, he could return to the U.S. It wasn’t so.

It wasn’t until 1920 that he decided to return and surrender, serving his time in a Kansas prison. When Johnson got out at age 43 and wanted to challenge Jack Dempsey for the title, he was denied.

Right up to his death, caused by a traffic accident in 1946, Johnson never saw judicial redemption. Defiant but courageous, outspoken yet charming and always a lightning rod for racial strife—much like Muhammad Ali in the 1960s and ‘70s—Johnson told a young reporter shortly before the end of his life: “Just remember, whatever you write about me, that I was a man.”

As he worked on the “Unforgivable Blackness” project last summer, Burns hired a law firm and filed a petition with the Department of Justice demanding that the wrong be righted. Burns received support from Sen. John McCain and Sen. Ted Kennedy, boxing giants Sugar Ray Leonard and Bernard Hopkins, rapper Chuck D, actor Samuel L. Jackson and boxing historian Bert Sugar. The Senate endorsed the resolution in October. Posthumous pardons for noncapital cases are somewhat rare. And so far, President Bush, who publicly honored the Galveston, Texas, native when he was Texas’ governor, hasn’t pushed through the paperwork. So not only was Burns denied a nice way of ending his documentary, but Johnson’s rap sheet remains corruptly stained.

It would even have been something if this all could have been wrapped up this weekend, when this country celebrates Martin Luther King Day.

So, again, pardon us for butting in. But if Johnson’s ghost has to wait await another couple of decades for the commander in chief to tie up some unfinished business with a simple pardon, then someone just doesn’t know Jack.

Tom Hoffarth can be reached at and (818) 713-3661.

[Home] [Editorials] [USA]