Last edited: November 06, 2004

McCain Resolution Calling on President to Posthumously Pardon First African American Heavyweight Boxing Champion Passes Senate, October 7, 2004

Washington, DC—U.S. Senator John McCain, Chairman of the Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, this week issued the following statement on introduction and Senate passage of a resolution that calls on the President of the United States to exercise his Constitutional authority to pardon posthumously John Arthur “Jack” Johnson for Mr. Johnson’s racially-motivated conviction in 1913.

Sen. McCain’s floor statement follows:

“Mr. President, I am pleased that the Senate will approve a Senate resolution, which I introduced with my colleagues Senators Hatch and Kennedy, calling on the President to exercise his Constitutional authority to pardon posthumously the world ‘s first African American Heavyweight champion, John Arthur “Jack” Johnson, for his racially-motivated 1913 conviction.

“For those of my colleagues who are not familiar with the plight of Jack Johnson, he is considered by many to be the most dominant athlete in boxing history. Born in the Jim Crow-era South in 1878 to parents who were former slaves, he realized his talent for the sweet science early in life. In order to make a living, Johnson traveled across the country fighting anyone willing to face him. But he was denied repeatedly on purely racial grounds a chance to fight for the world Heavyweight title. For too long, African American fighters were not seen as legitimate contenders for the championship. Fortunately, after years of perseverance, Johnson was finally granted an opportunity in 1908 to fight the then-reigning title holder, Tommy Burns. Johnson handily defeated Burns to become the first African American Heavyweight champion.

“Jack Johnson’ s success in the ring, and sometimes indulgent lifestyle outside of it, fostered resentment among many and raised concerns that Johnson’s continued dominance in the ring would somehow disrupt what was then perceived by many as a ‘racial order.’ So, a search for a white boxer who could defeat Johnson began—a recruitment effort that was dubbed the search for the ‘great white hope.’ That hope arrived in the person of former champion Jim Jeffries who returned from retirement to fight Johnson in 1910. But when Johnson defeated Jeffries, race riots broke out as many sought to avenge the loss.

“Following the defeat of the ‘great white hope, ‘ the federal government launched an investigation into the legality of Johnson’s relationships with white women. The Mann Act, which was enacted in 1910, outlawed the transport of white women across state lines for the purpose of prostitution or debauchery, or for ‘any other immoral purpose.’ Using the ‘any other immoral purpose’ clause as a pretext, federal law enforcement officials set out to ‘get’ Johnson.

“On October 18, 1912 , he was arrested for transporting his white girlfriend across state lines in violation of the Mann Act. But the charges were dropped when the woman, whose mother had originally tipped off federal officials, refused to cooperate with authorities. She later married Johnson.

“Yet, federal authorities persisted in their persecution of Johnson, persuading a former white girlfriend of Johnson’s to testify that he had transported her across state lines. Her testimony resulted in Johnson’s conviction in 1913, when he was sentenced to one year and a day in federal prison. During Johnson’s appeal, one prosecutor admitted that ‘Mr. Johnson was perhaps persecuted as an individual, but that it was his misfortune to be the foremost example of the evil in permitting the intermarriage of whites and blacks.’

“Johnson fled the country to Canada , and then traveled to various European and South American countries, before losing his Heavyweight Championship title in Cuba in 1915. He returned to the United States in 1920, surrendered to authorities, and served nearly a year in federal prison. Despite this obvious injustice, Johnson refused to turn his back on the country that betrayed him. During World War II, he traveled the country to promote war bonds. Johnson died in an automobile accident in 1946.

“Mr. President, a gross injustice was done to Jack Johnson when a federal law was misused to send him to prison. The Senate’s passage of this resolution and the President’s pardon of Jack Johnson would not right this injustice, but it would recognize it, and shed light on the achievements of an athlete who was forced into the shadows of bigotry and prejudice. Taking such actions would allow future generations to grasp fully what Jack Johnson accomplished against great odds and appreciate his contributions to society unencumbered by the taint of his criminal conviction.

“Jack Johnson was a flawed individual who was certainly controversial. But he was also an historic American figure, whose life and accomplishments played an instrumental role in our nation ‘s progress toward true equality under the law. And he deserved much better than a racially-motivated conviction, which denied him of his liberty, and served to diminish his athletic, cultural, and historic significance.

“Mr. President, the pardon of Jack Johnson would not be an act that would benefit Mr. Johnson or his heirs. Rather, his pardon would be a nominal but useful corrective of a shameful injustice that would serve as a testament of America ‘s resolve to live up to its noble ideals of justice and equality. Instead of erasing from our memories the injustice that deprived a great athlete of his livelihood and freedom, we have an opportunity to speak as one in condemning the public intolerance and misuse of federal authority that was perpetrated against this man.

“While we know that we cannot possibly right the wrong that was done to Jack Johnson, we can take this small step toward acknowledging his mistreatment and removing the cloud that casts a shadow on his legacy.”


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