Last edited: November 06, 2004

Esteemed Committee Spearheads Boxer Jack Johnson Presidential Pardon Effort; Praises Senate Resolution, October 7, 2004

Filmmaker Ken Burns, Senators John McCain, Edward Kennedy, Orrin Hatch, Reps. Charles Rangel and Jesse Jackson, Jr., Sugar Ray Leonard, Bernard Hopkins, John Ruiz, Bert Sugar, David Dinkins, Pete Hamill, Chuck D and Wynton Marsalis Among Committee Members Urging Overturn of Discriminatory 1913 Conviction

Washington, D.C.—A committee of political and civil rights leaders, boxing experts and artists, including documentary filmmaker Ken Burns ( The Civil War, Baseball, Jazz ) are collectively cheering this week’s Senate Resolution regarding the efforts to clear the name of Jack Johnson, the first African-American heavyweight boxing champion. The knockout punch of a full posthumous presidential pardon may be near.

The Johnson pardon movement was initiated this summer by Burns, who pursued the cause on Capitol Hill after extensively researching the life of Jack Johnson for his film, “ Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson ,” which airs on PBS in January. The committee’s counsel, John Siegal of the law firm Proskauer Rose LLP, prepared the petition, which was originally filed with the U.S Department of Justice on July 13, 2004 .

“On behalf of the pardon committee and everyone associated with this movement for justice, we praise Senator McCain and applaud the unanimous support of the Senate,” said Burns after the resolution passed. “Now, future generations will have a chance to learn about and appreciate Johnson’s important contributions to human and racial rights and recognize his place in history with no unjust labels attached.”

To raise awareness and help enact change, Burns teamed with an esteemed committee of political and civil rights leaders, boxing experts and artists including Senators John McCain, Edward Kennedy and Orrin Hatch, Representatives Charlie Rangel (New York), Eddie Bernice Johnson (Texas) and Jesse Jackson, Jr. (Illinois), former NYC Mayor David Dinkins, boxers Sugar Ray Leonard, Bernard Hopkins, John Ruiz, and Vernon Forrest, composer and musician Wynton Marsalis, historian and writer Henry Louis Gates, Jr., boxing writer Bert Sugar, rap artist and radio personality Chuck D, actor Samuel L. Jackson, authors and columnists Pete Hamill and Jack Newfield, Jack Johnson biographers Geoff Ward and Randy Roberts, New York Law School Professor Denise Morgan and boxing and sports experts Kelly Swanson, Norman Horton, Len Elmore, and Louis DiBella.

Johnson’s conviction in 1913 of violating a vice law was widely regarded, even by the prosecuting attorney, as a punishment for Johnson’s romantic relationships with white women. The investigation and prosecution followed Johnson’s defeat of Jim Jeffries, a former champion dubbed “the great white hope,” in a July 4, 1910 championship fight that was America ‘s first high-profile interracial athletic encounter.

The petition documents in detail how the decision to indict Jack Johnson and the conviction itself were racially motivated. Among the findings are:

  • The Mann Act, passed in 1910, outlawed the transportation of women in interstate or foreign commerce “for the purpose of prostitution, debauchery, or for any other immoral purpose.” Johnson’s trial, however, marked the first time that the Mann Act was invoked to invade the personal privacy of two consenting adults and criminalize their consensual sexual behavior.

  • In 1912, after the U.S. government began an investigation of Johnson, a Justice Department official sent a memo to the Attorney General stating, “From the facts set forth in [a] telegram [received from a Special Agent in Chicago], and those given in the current newspapers, I do not believe that this is a proper case for the Federal Authorities to undertake.”

  • After one failed attempt by the Bureau of Investigation to bring charges against Johnson under the Mann Act, the Department of Justice combed through Johnson’s past relationships until they found a white woman who was willing to testify against him. Government investigators received an anonymous letter that identified Belle Schreiber, one of Johnson former white lovers, as a likely witness to testify against him. The letter reads, “I sincerely trust that I have made this effort as plain to you as I possibly could under the circumstances, and that you shall be able to gather sufficient evidence from the above named persons to enable you to send this nigger to jail for the balance of his life.” In its opening statement at trial, the Government promised to establish not only the payments to transport Schreiber for the purpose of engaging in sexual intercourse, but also that Johnson engaged in debauchery, including “crime against nature.”

  • After a guilty verdict was passed, District Attorney Harry Parkin said, “This Negro, in the eyes of many, has been persecuted. Perhaps as an individual he was. But it was his misfortune to be the foremost example of the evil in permitting the intermarriage of whites and blacks.”

  • Parkin and the sentencing judge admitted that Johnson was convicted to “send a message” to African American men by convicting “one of the best known men of his race.”

On the basis of these and other facts documented in the petition, the Committee asks the President to pardon Johnson because “his conviction was the result solely of contrived charges reflecting attitudes and mores that America has long since outgrown.”

Johnson became a lightning rod for racial strife in America when he became the first African-American to win the heavyweight boxing title in 1908. His victories in the ring provoked nationwide race riots and spurred the search for the “great white hope” who could beat him. Johnson further enraged whites by traveling with, dating and marrying white women, many of whom were prostitutes.

Burns explained that as he and his team dug deeper into Johnson’s life and the events surrounding his 1913 conviction for violating the Mann Act, the more it appeared that this case was, as Burns noted, “racist from the beginning to the end and one of the greatest abuses of justice involving an American athlete that this country has ever seen.”

Johnson fled the country following his conviction and lived in Europe as a fugitive from justice for seven years. He returned to the U.S. in 1920, surrendered to authorities and served a year in prison.

If granted, it would be only the second posthumous presidential pardon in U.S. history, the first being President Clinton’s 1999 pardon of the former slave and first black army officer Henry O. Flipper.

A copy of the Petition and a fact sheet on the life and career of Jack Johnson are available. Interviews with Burns and committee members can be facilitated via the contacts listed above. Photographs and video are also available.


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