Par­don Jack John­son

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - EDITORIAL PAGE -

In an era of lynch­ings and Jim Crow, Jack John­son lived out his credo. He broke box­ing’s color bar­rier to be­come the first black heavy­weight cham­pion in 1908. He in­censed white Amer­ica by dat­ing, and mar­ry­ing, white women. He was un­fazed by news­pa­per ar­ti­cles that spewed venom about him.

It pains us that the Tri­bune was one of those news­pa­pers. Be­fore John­son de­feated Jim Jef­fries in 1910 to de­fend his heavy­weight ti­tle, the Tri­bune called the bout “a con­test be­tween the white man’s hope and the black peril.” The New York Times’ view of the fight was just as re­pug­nant: “If the black man wins,” the Times wrote, “thou­sands and thou­sands of his ig­no­rant brothers will mis­rep­re­sent his vic­tory as jus­ti­fy­ing claims to much more than phys­i­cal equal­ity with their neigh­bors.”

In 1913, au­thor­i­ties found a way to ex­act a price on John­son, ac­cus­ing him of trans­port­ing a white woman he had dated over state lines for “im­moral pur­poses.” Pros­e­cu­tors ap­plied the Mann Act, a law meant to stop the traf­fick­ing of women for pros­ti­tu­tion. He was con­victed by an all-white jury in Chicago, and would later serve nearly a year in prison.

A one­time Chicagoan, John­son is buried at Grace­land Ceme­tery on the North Side. The stain of an un­just, racially charged con­vic­tion, how­ever, mars his rep­u­ta­tion and the name of his sur­viv­ing rel­a­tives.

Sur­viv­ing John­son rel­a­tives want the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion to grant John­son a posthu­mous par­don. The re­quest is a long­stand­ing one.

A par­don is a pow­er­ful ex­pres­sion of pres­i­den­tial au­thor­ity, and at times that au­thor­ity has been abused. In the wan­ing hours of his pres­i­dency, Bill Clin­ton granted no fewer than 140 par­dons, many of them to peo­ple with whom he had po­lit­i­cal con­nec­tions. Cer­tainly a gross mis­use of ex­ec­u­tive dis­cre­tion, and one we de­nounced.

Used cor­rectly, how­ever, a par­don makes a pow­er­ful state­ment not just about a man’s in­no­cence, but also about the mis­treat­ment so­ci­ety in­flicted on him, in John­son’s case the use of law as a cud­gel of dis­crim­i­na­tion. The rea­sons why John­son should get a posthu­mous par­don out­weigh what­ever in­con­ve­nience the pa­per­work poses for the fed­eral gov­ern­ment.

This is a par­don that the Jus­tice De­part­ment should make time to process, and that the Trump White House should grant. Even in death, a name means so much. Es­pe­cially the name of a box­ing leg­end who de­fied color bar­ri­ers, even as so­ci­ety fiercely clung to them.

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