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The Steele Drum


July 4, 2010 2:19 PM

Free Jack Johnson

johnson_jeffries_boxing_fullsize.jpgOne hundred years ago Sunday, Jack Johnson stepped into a hastily-constructed outdoor ring in broiling-hot Reno, defended his world heavyweight championship against the man the public anointed as The Great White Hope, and beat said Hope almost senseless. To the surprise of no one, either living at that time or looking back at it today, these two results emerged: 1) Mobs of white citizens stampeded across several cities brutalizing or killing any black person appearing too pleased at the fight's outcome, and 2) within two years, Johnson was running from the law.

Fast forward (really fast forward) to today. The anniversary of one of the most momentous occasions in the history of sports and in this country, for better and for worse, brings a reminder that Johnson still has not had his good name restored after that bout with the federal government. A move is on to have Johnson pardoned for what only in the context of its times can be called a "crime.''


No need here to belabor the specifics too much, especially since there are a book (by Geoffrey C. Ward) and documentary (by Ken Burns) that explain it all so much better; both are called Unforgivable Blackness. But ... Johnson was arrested, tried, convicted and eventually jailed for violating the Mann Act -- a law intended to curb prostitution but then used against Johnson after he'd declared a white woman as his wife (for at least the second time). In the simplest of terms, the government of, by and for the people that we celebrate every year on this date, turned the full force of its power onto an flashy, arrogant, powerful nationwide and worldwide presence, to put him in his place, that place where they all figured black people belonged.

In even simpler terms: what the Great White Hope couldn't do in the ring, the Red, White and Blue got done in a courtroom.

A handful of Congressmen are continuing their bipartisan push to wipe this off Johnson's record, and consequently that of this country, which ought to know better by now even if it didn't then. The one man who can officially do the deed? The president. Who, by the way, is the son of a African man and a white Midwestern woman.

Too bad the Hot Tub Time Machine can't work in reverse, so that the gentlemen pressing the issue back in the 1910s could ponder that one.

It's not obvious why President Obama hasn't moved on this yet; this is a layup. He probably could squeeze this in between his regularly-scheduled curse-outs of BP executives. Again: support on both sides of the aisle on this one. The senators backing it are Democratic majority leader Harry Reid and the most recent Republican presidential candidate, John McCain. They probably don't even agree on exactly how to spell "senator,'' but they're on the same page on this one. Apparently, they're both fans of boxing and justice.

nixon-fist.jpgThere doesn't appear to be a groundswell of opposition, either, no Senate filibuster to block the vote, no tirades on talk radio, no rallies in the streets with blown-up photos of Johnson made up to look like the Joker. If any arose, here's a talking point to trot out: Nixon has been pardoned, Jack Johnson has not. The president who resigned in disgrace just ahead of an impeachment vote: pristine in the eyes of the American justice system. The guy who showed too many teeth and acted way too uppity: still a convicted felon, more than 60 years after his death.

This is one that could be disposed of quickly, even more quickly than Johnson disposed both of the aging, slowing Jim Jeffries and the cause he represented. And that's saying something: Jeffries didn't eat canvas until the 15th round that day, but by all accounts, he was finished by about the fifth, when Johnson started using him like a heavy bag and Jeffries stopped doing anything about it.

Since the centennial of that fight coincides with this patriotic holiday, made for celebrating the ideals on which this country was founded, there really is no better window of opportunity. As the aforementioned election -- 100 years after Johnson first won the heavyweight title, by the way -- of the current president has proven, times, people and national mindsets do change. The story Johnson began writing a century ago has changed, too, but it hasn't gotten the happy ending it deserves.

America has a chance to get the story right. It can do it by pardoning Jack Johnson.

And here's something to sweeten the pot. At least 10, and possibly as many as two dozen, black people were murdered in the wake of that fight, by those who sought to avenge what had happened to one of "theirs'' in the ring in Reno.

If this country pardons Jack Johnson for what it says he did, his people might just forgive this country for what it did to them.

Photos: photobucket.com, UPI

You can find me on FanHouse here. You can also find my book on Tommie Smith here, and on Dr. Miles McAfee here.

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