Jack Johnson Deserves a Pardon

Story Stream
recent articles

On July 6, 1910, the Los Angeles Times published an editorial, which included the following lines: "Do not swell your chest too much. Do not boast too loudly. Do not be puffed up. Remember you have done nothing at all. You are just the same member of society today you were last week."

The words were directed at not just an individual but an entire race - American blacks. It was printed just days after the triumph of boxing legend Jack Johnson over the formerly retired James Jefferies in the "Fight of the Century." Before the bout, Jeffries - who was recruited out of retirement as he was considered the original "Great White Hope" - declared, "I feel obligated to the sporting public at least to make an effort to reclaim the heavyweight championship for the white race. I should step into the ring again and demonstrate that a white man is king of them all."

Following Johnson's 15-round TKO of Jeffries, rioting - or celebrations, depending on one's point of view -  broke out across the nation as blacks joyfully lauded their hero and whites reacted violently. Johnson's victory was a pivotal event in the painfully slow but inexorable movement toward integration in the sports world.

Johnson, who Jeffries later admitted was unbeatable, was often a lightning rod for racial tension, rooted in the irrational fear of the physically powerful black man. Aside from his intimidating and ferocious talent, the Texas native had an outsized personality and fashioned himself as somewhat of a renaissance man as he enjoyed racing cars (at the inception of the sport), loved the opera, became an inventor and had a huge appetite for women - more specifically white women, as all three of Johnson's wives were white.

It was his predilection for white women that proved to be the trigger for the invectives that were hurled at Johnson for much of his life. It was considered the ultimate and criminal audacity, for a black man to flout convention and openly state his preference for white women.

And women would mark Johnson's downfall. In 1913, Johnson was convicted of violating the Mann Act when he was found guilty of transporting a woman across state lines for immoral purposes (Johnson was the first person prosecuted under the act when, two years earlier, there was an attempt to convict Johnson of the same offense but prostitute Lucille Cameron refused to cooperate. She went on to become Johnson's second wife). He was sent to prison by the jury for his involvement with the woman, prostitute Belle Schreiber, even though his relationship with Schreiber took place before the passage of the Mann Act.

Johnson escaped the country with Cameron before sentencing and lived in exile in Europe, South America and Mexico for seven years before finally returning to the United States in 1920 to serve his time. While imprisoned in Leavenworth, Kan., Johnson modified the wrench and ended up with a patent for his inventive acumen.

Life following prison proved to be difficult for Johnson. His return to the ring was not glorious and his infidelity led to his second divorce. He married for a third and final time in 1925 and remained married until his death in 1946. Johnson was killed in a car crash in North Carolina after he sped away in anger from a diner that refused to serve the boxing great.

In so many ways Johnson's life intersected with the struggle for racial equality in America, perhaps more so than any other athlete, including Jackie Robinson or Muhammad Ali. Consider - in addition to his controversial relationships with women, Johnson was the first glorified black athlete and indeed the first 20th century sports celebrity; he befriended and was trained by the great Jewish boxer Joe Choynski; he was used by the legal system to be made an example of, and tarred with the image of the "scary" or "dangerous" Negro; and perhaps in the oddest of ironies, Johnson was convicted of violation of the Mann Act in the courtroom of Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who was the the most powerful commissioner of baseball and also a steadfast proponent of segregation in the sport.

There has been a call for a presidential pardon of Johnson for some time. And this initiative picked up steam over the last several years with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), among others, pushing for President Obama to finally pardon Johnson.

The two legislators are about to reintroduce a resolution calling for the clearing of Johnson's name. Said King, "With last year's elections, there seems to be a clear intent by the president to try to be more bipartisan," King said. "Everything is there to correct an historic wrong and also, in a small way but significant way, help to bring the country together now."

Most would agree that it is the right thing to do and it would go a long way in restoring the should-have-been glorious legacy of one of the great athletes that this nation has produced. After all he's a storied part of the birth of sports in the United States and has been correctly referenced and mythologized by countless artists ranging from Jack London to Miles Davis. And this isn't a similar case to Pete Rose - Johnson never sullied his sport.

But there are some legitimate issues. First, many believe that a pardon should be reserved for those who are alive, who can most benefit from the presidential act.

Additionally, there is also the issue of the negative side of Johnson's larger-than-life persona. He was accused many times of exhibiting abusive behavior toward women and his first wife, former socialite Etta Duryea, committed suicide allegedly because of Johnson's temper and infidelities.

But this is almost beside the point. The fact remains that Johnson was unjustly imprisoned as a result of a law that seemed to have been designed to stop this dynamic force of a human being.

Unlike the recent and ridiculous trend to sanitize Huckleberry Finn (perhaps still the greatest analysis of America's complex racial condition) by removing references of the n-word, a pardon of Johnson would not attempt to alter history. Instead, it would likely further illuminate the life - both the good and the bad - of a phenomenal American athlete.

Award-winning columnist Tim Joyce provides occasional commentary for RealClearSports. Email: joyce.timothy@gmail.com

Show commentsHide Comments

Related Articles