McCain Seeks Pardon for First Black Champ

Frederic J. Frommer, AP, April 1, 2009

Sen. John McCain said Wednesday he’s sure that President Barack Obama “will be more than eager” to pardon the late black heavyweight champion Jack Johnson, who was sent to prison nearly a century ago because of his romantic ties with a white woman.

Appearing with three of Johnson’s family members and Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., McCain unveiled a resolution urging a presidential pardon for Johnson, who was convicted in 1913 of violating the Mann Act, which made it illegal to transport women across state lines for immoral purposes. The law has since been heavily amended, but has not been repealed.

McCain, R-Ariz., said he planned to speak to Obama about it, but added, “I think the last person I have to convince probably is President Obama.”

“We need to erase this act of racism which sent an American citizen to prison on a trumped-up charge,” McCain said, adding, “I have great confidence this president will be more than eager to sign this legislation and pardon Jack Johnson.”

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The resolution announced Wednesday seeks a pardon that acknowledges Johnson’s career and reputation were wronged “by a racially motivated conviction prompted by his success in the boxing ring and his relationship with white women.” Similar resolutions offered in 2004 and last year failed to pass both chambers of Congress.

Burns [filmmaker Ken Burns, who directed “Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson” (2005)] helped form the Committee to Pardon Jack Johnson, which filed a petition with the Justice Department in 2004 that was never acted on. He called Johnson “the greatest boxer of all time,” and said when Johnson proved unbeatable in the ring, “the white power establishment decided to beat him in the courts.”

He called a pardon for Johnson “just a question of justice, which is not only blind, but color-blind,” adding, “I think it absolutely does not have anything to do with the symbolism of an African-American president pardoning an African-American unjustly accused.”

Johnson won the 1908 world heavyweight title after police in Australia stopped his 14-round match against the severely battered Canadian world champion, Tommy Burns. That led to a search for a “Great White Hope” who could beat Johnson. Two years later, Jim Jeffries, the American world titleholder Johnson had tried for years to fight, came out of retirement but lost in a match called “The Battle of the Century,” resulting in deadly riots.

Authorities first targeted Johnson’s relationship with Lucille Cameron, who later became his wife, but she refused to cooperate. They then found another white witness, Belle Schreiber, to testify against him. Johnson fled the country after his conviction, but agreed years later to return and serve a 10-month jail sentence. He tried to renew his boxing career after leaving prison, but failed to regain his title. He died in a car crash in 1946 at age 68.

Presidential pardons for the dead are rare.

In 1999, President Bill Clinton pardoned Lt. Henry O. Flipper, the Army’s first black commissioned officer, who was drummed out of the military in 1882 after white officers accused him of embezzling $3,800 in commissary funds. Last year, President George W. Bush pardoned Charles Winters, who was convicted of violating the Neutrality Act when he conspired in 1948 to export aircraft to a foreign country in aid of Israel.

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