John­son de­scen­dant hopes for par­don, maybe from Trump

The Oklahoman (Sunday) - - SPORTS -

In Jim Crow Amer­ica, it's no won­der that Jack John­son was the most de­spised African-Amer­i­can of his gen­er­a­tion.

The first black box­ing heavy­weight cham­pion of the world, John­son hu­mil­i­ated white fight­ers and flaunted his af­fec­tion for white women, even flee­ing the coun­try af­ter an all­white jury con­victed him of "im­moral­ity" for one of his re­la­tion­ships.

Now, more than 100 years later, John­son's great-great niece wants Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump to clear the cham­pion's name with a post­hu­mous par­don. And she has the back­ing of Sen. John McCain, who has sup­ported a John­son par­don since 2004.

"Jack John­son was a box­ing leg­end and pi­o­neer whose ca­reer and rep­u­ta­tion were ru­ined by a ra­cially charged con­vic­tion more than a cen­tury ago," McCain said in a state­ment to The As­so­ci­ated Press. "John­son's im­pris­on­ment forced him into the shad­ows of big­otry and prej­u­dice, and con­tin­ues to stand as a stain on our na­tional honor."

John­son, the son of former slaves, de­feated Tommy Burns for the heavy­weight ti­tle in 1908 at a time when blacks and whites rarely en­tered the same ring. He then mowed down a se­ries of "great white hopes," cul­mi­nat­ing in 1910 with the un­de­feated former cham­pion, James J. Jef­fries.

"He is one of the crafti­est, cun­ningest box­ers that ever stepped into the ring," said the leg­endary boxer John L. Sul­li­van, in the af­ter­math of what was called "the fight of the cen­tury."

But John­son also re­fused to ad­here to so­ci­etal norms, liv­ing lav­ishly and brazenly and dat­ing out­side of his race in a time when whites of­ten killed AfricanAmer­i­cans with­out fear of le­gal reper­cus­sions. In 1913, he was con­victed of vi­o­lat­ing the Mann Act, which made it il­le­gal to trans­port women across state lines for "im­moral" pur­poses.

Af­ter seven years as a fugi­tive, John­son even­tu­ally re­turned to the U.S. and turned him­self in. He served about a year in fed­eral prison and was re­leased in 1921. He died in 1946 in an auto crash.

Muham­mad Ali of­ten praised John­son and would ex­plain how he ad­mired John­son's courage.

"They say I'm con­tro­ver­sial and they say I'm bold, but I wasn't noth­ing like Jack John­son," Ali once told broad­caster Howard Cosell. "They had lynch­ings and rap­ings and burn­ings and ev­ery time he'd fight they'd lynch Ne­groes and burn houses.

This man was told if you beat this white man we're go­ing to shoot you from the au­di­ence.

He said well just shoot my black so-and-so be­cause I'm a knock him out.

"Here's a Ne­gro dur­ing the time you'd be lynched for look­ing at white ladies. He'd walk down the street and left the coun­try with them. He was bold . ... He had to be a coura­geous man."

The stain on John­son's rep­u­ta­tion forced some fam­ily mem­bers to live in shame of his legacy — the ex­act op­po­site of how John­son led his life.

Fam­ily "didn't talk about it be­cause they were ashamed of him, that he went to prison," Linda E. Hay­wood, 61, said of her great-great un­cle. "They were led to be­lieve that he did some­thing wrong. They were so ashamed af­ter be­ing so proud of him. The white man came and told them that he did some­thing wrong, he did some­thing dirty and they painted him out to be some­thing that he wasn't."

Hay­wood said she didn't find out she was re­lated to John­son un­til she was 12. She re­mem­bers learn­ing about John­son when she was in sixth grade dur­ing Black His­tory Month, and only learned later that he was kin.

Once, she re­called, she asked her mother about John­son.

"She just gri­maced," Hay­wood said.

Hay­wood re­mem­bers her mother call­ing John­son de­fi­ant and say­ing: "'Momma, no dis­re­spect, that man wasn't de­fi­ant.' He was just be­ing a man. He was be­ing him­self."

Hay­wood has pressed to have John­son par­doned since Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush was in of­fice, a decade ago. Post­hu­mous par­dons are rare, but not un­prece­dented. Pres­i­dent Bill Clin­ton par­doned Henry O. Flip­per, the first African-Amer­i­can of­fi­cer to lead the Buf­falo Sol­diers of the 10th Cavalry Reg­i­ment dur­ing the Civil War; he was framed for em­bez­zle­ment. Bush par­doned Charles Win­ters in 2008, an Amer­i­can vol­un­teer in the Arab-Is­raeli War con­victed of vi­o­lat­ing the U.S. Neu­tral­ity Acts in 1949.

Hay­wood wanted Barack Obama, the na­tion's first black pres­i­dent, to par­don John­son, but Jus­tice Depart­ment pol­icy says "pro­cess­ing post­hu­mous par­don pe­ti­tions is grounded in the be­lief that the time of the of­fi­cials in­volved in the cle­mency process is bet­ter spent on the par­don and com­mu­ta­tion re­quests of liv­ing per­sons."

The Jus­tice Depart­ment makes de­ci­sions on po­ten­tial par­dons through an ap­pli­ca­tion process and typ­i­cally makes rec­om­men­da­tions to the pres­i­dent.

The gen­eral DOJ pol­icy is to not ac­cept ap­pli­ca­tions for post­hu­mous par­dons for fed­eral con­vic­tions, ac­cord­ing to the depart­ment's web­site.

"In terms of Jack John­son, I think the Depart­ment of Jus­tice came back rec­om­mend­ing — not rec­om­mend­ing a par­don on that," press sec­re­tary Robert Gibbs said in 2009.

A spokes­woman for Obama de­clined fur­ther com­ment.

Hay­wood wants the his­tory books rewrit­ten.

"Know­ing that he was treated un­fairly and un­fairly con­victed and tar­geted be­cause of his choice of com­pan­ions, who hap­pened to be Cau­casian, that's wrong," she said.

"It both­ered my peo­ple to the point they didn't even want to talk about it. My mother didn't even want to talk about it. That's stupid ... It both­ers me.

"The last thing you want to do is die and have your name tar­nished. That's wrong. You don't want it to be tar­nished if you're liv­ing."

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