A Pardon For Jack Johnson?

Crime in USA, hand holding gun, USA map and flag with bullet holes. CBS/AP/IStockphoto

President Bush is being asked to issue a posthumous presidential pardon for Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion, who was convicted in 1913 in a case based on his consensual relationship with a white woman.

"No one should be punished for choosing to go their own way," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who has led the effort in Congress to pass legislation for a pardon.

"Johnson's conviction was motivated by nothing more than the color of his skin," said McCain, in a letter to President Bush urging that a pardon be granted. "As such, it injured not only Mr. Johnson but also our nation as a whole."

Johnson became the champion in 1908 and was convicted under a law that banned the interstate transport of women for immoral purposes.

The boxer was a flamboyant celebrity whose rise led challenger Jim Jeffries to come out of retirement as the "Great White Hope" in an unsuccessful bid to beat Johnson. Johnson's career was derailed by the conviction. He fled the country as a fugitive and lived in Paris for seven years before agreeing to return and serve a 10-month jail sentence at Fort Leavenworth.

Last year, the Senate passed a version of the McCain bill, but the House did not vote on it. Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., is now pushing the House version of the bill.

"He was a victim of the times, he was a victim of the racial ethos," King said.

The effort to get a pardon for Johnson is bipartisan. McCain's letter to President Bush requesting a presidential pardon is co-signed by Republican Senators Orrin Hatch and Ted Stevens, and Democratic Senators John Kerry, Ted Kennedy and Harry Reid.

As governor of Texas, President Bush proclaimed Johnson's birthday as Jack Johnson Day for five straight years.

The case for pardoning Johnson has gained momentum since a documentary by filmmaker Ken Burns was broadcast on PBS earlier this year.

"Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson," examined the prosecution of the case and the sentencing judge's admission that the conviction was meant to "send a message" to black men about relationships with white women.

The trial itself was marked by unusual turns as Johnson flouted social mores in the era of Jim Crow laws.

The government charged him in 1912 with abducting Lucille Cameron, but then lost Cameron as a witness when she married Johnson, the second white woman to do so. By law, a wife cannot be forced to testify against her husband. Instead, prosecutors found a former mistress to testify against him.

The son of former slaves, Johnson was born on March 31, 1878, in Galveston, Texas; he died in 1946 and is buried in Chicago.

"While we cannot change history, and Johnson's passing makes it impossible to ease his suffering," said Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr., D-Ill. "A pardon will reaffirm America's dedication to fairness and justice for all."

  • Brian Dakss

Comments

Watch CBSN Live

Watch CBS News anytime, anywhere with the new 24/7 digital news network. Stream CBSN live or on demand for FREE on your TV, computer, tablet, or smartphone.