Inspired by Ken Burns’ documentary Unforgivable Blackness on the first African-American heavyweight champion, lawmakers on Tuesday renewed their efforts to persuade President Barack Obama to posthumously pardon boxing legend Jack Johnson for violating the Mann Act in 1913.
Spearheading the cause to eliminate the racially motivated verdict are senators Harry Reid, John McCain, William "Mo'' Cowan and U.S. Representative for New York's 2nd congressional district Peter T. King.
“For more than thirteen years, Jack Johnson was the most famous and notorious African-American on earth,” Burns said of the pugilist who was inducted into the Boxing Hall of Fame in 1954. “This was a man who Muhammad Ali emulated. But Muhammad Ali did his fighting in a decade dedicated to civil rights. Jack Johnson did it in a decade in which more African Americans were lynched than at any other time.”
Nicknamed the “Galveston Giant,” Johnson (80-13-12-14, 45 KOs), an impenetrable defensive wizard who scholar Molefi Kete Asante nominated one of the 100 Greatest African Americans in history, was a bigoted Klansman's worst nightmare.
The third child and first son of former slaves, the “Galveston Giant” blatantly dismissed societal statuses of blacks in that era.
Johnson fornicated with white women, drove expensive cars, and donned flamboyant clothing that would have made a modern pimp blush.
Undoubtedly the grandest boxer in the world, the Texas native was prevented from fighting for the title by Caucasians who prohibited blacks from competing for the crown.
Realizing the yellowness of many whites, Johnson stalked Canadian champion Tommy Burns around the globe and incessantly, and maliciously, mocked the Canuck whenever speaking to the press.
The Texan’s calculated taunts ultimately worked and Burns agreed to battle the “subhuman ape.”
In December 1908, in front of over 20,000 spectators in Sydney, Australia, Johnson punished Burns for 14 rounds until the fuzz charged the ring and halted the bloodbath.
Subsequently, the referee stopped the bout and declared Johnson victorious via TKO.
In the aftermath of Johnson’s violent triumph, racial animosity peaked and socialist Jack London began searching for a “Great White Hope” who could floor the black champ and return the belt to the “superior” Caucasian race.
In 1910, formerly undefeated heavyweight titlist James J. Jeffries returned to the squared circle and, despite intentionally sidestepping Johnson when active, said, “I am going into this fight for the sole purpose of proving that a white man is better than a Negro.”
As loud chants of “kill the nigger” reverberated through the entirely honky crowd, Johnson brutalized Jeffries like the puncher was Nathan Bedford Forrest.
Realizing their man was outclassed, Jeffries’ flunkies mercifully ceased the shellacking.
The outcome of the “Fight of the Century,” which netted Johnson $225,000, triggered race riots across America.
Grasping that no man, not black, white, or maroon, could trump Johnson in a legitimate fistfight, racist authority figures pinched Johnson for allegedly “transporting women across state lines for immoral purposes.”
Going on the lam for a year in Mexico to avoid unfair prosecution, Johnson resurfaced on U.S. soil and surrendered to Federal agents to face the bogus charge.
Johnson, a man comparable to Andy Dufresne who modified a wrench and patented the improvements while incarcerated, was sent to the United States Penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kansas to serve a flimsy one-year sentence behind bars.
Upon being released from the pen, Johnson attempted to reclaim his control of the sport.
Unfortunately, while an inmate in the Sunflower State, the “Galveston Giant” forever lost the famed speed and timing that made him a pugilistic icon.
Johnson, a man who once fought with a ringside band playing “All Coons Look Alike to Me,” was unjustly persecuted and black Americans were robbed of a hero and athletic marvel because of a deplorable court judgment.
A tremendous warrior who faced unimaginable obstacles to become one of the supreme figures in prizefighting history, Johnson’s invaluable contributions should be celebrated and his unjust criminal record needs to be expunged.
Initially disregarded in 2009, President Barack Obama must reconsider and correct the wrong that was done to Jack Johnson.