Pardon Jack Johnson
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.