Pardon for a pugilist: Obama should clear Jack Johnson's reputation

Written by Susan Mannella on .

In the decades following the Civil War, blacks in America may not have been slaves but they were anything but free. It's too late now to revisit each case in which the law was used to oppress African Americans, but President Barack Obama, by righting one wrong, can state categorically that the United States has not only moved on but actively rejects the racism of its past.

At a time when racism was openly practiced across the land, boxer Jack Johnson openly dated white women (and married three of them) and arrogantly taunted the white opponents he pummeled in the ring on his way to becoming in 1908 the first black heavyweight champion of the world.

Had Johnson been anyone else, he likely would have met his end hanging from a tree, but because he was the best boxer of his age, subtler means had to be found to put him in his "place." Unable to find a "Great White Hope" to defeat Johnson in the ring, federal prosecutors charged him with violating the Mann Act by taking a white woman across state lines for "immoral purposes." He was convicted in 1913 and eventually served 10 months in prison.

Racism, not the law, was the obvious motivation for Johnson's conviction, and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., won congressional approval for a resolution urging a presidential pardon for the boxer, who died in 1946. Justice Department pardon attorney Ronald Rodgers declined to become involved, saying department resources are better used investigating the cases of living people who would actually benefit from a pardon.

But issuing a full pardon in this case would do more than clear the reputation of a dead boxer. By this act, President Obama would acknowledge that America's promise of freedom and equality was an illusion for many in the past and the law often was subverted in the cause of injustice.

More than that, he would be saying that the United States both recognizes and repudiates that past. That's a heavyweight statement to make.


Join the conversation:

To report inappropriate comments, abuse and/or repeat offenders, please send an email to and include a link to the article and a copy of the comment. Your report will be reviewed in a timely manner. Thank you.