Jack Johnson was a turn of the last century prize fighter whose flamboyant lifestyle, penchant for white women, and racial politics of the time put him on a collision course with the powers that be – much as Muhammad Ali’s stand against the Vietnam War. A collision course that would see Jack Johnson jailed.
Hat Tip – The Grio
A century ago, black heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson reached the pinnacle of his career when he defeated “Great White Hope” Jim Jeffries in Reno in what was billed as the “Fight of the Century.”
One hundred years later fans of the legendary fighter are still seeking a posthumous presidential pardon for Johnson, saying that his later conviction for transporting a woman across state lines for immoral purposes was steeped in racism.
The Johnson faithful will gather here July 2-4 for the centennial of the July 4, 1910, bout to celebrate his life. They also hope to build on a resolution passed by Congress last year urging President Barack Obama to issue the pardon.
“I think it’s wonderful that everyone is rallying around his cause,” said Linda E. Haywood, 54, of Chicago, Johnson’s great-great niece. “It’s time that the wrong that was committed against my uncle be righted.”
Johnson had no children. Only one of his siblings, Janie Johnson Rhodes, did, and five of her descendants, including Haywood, plan to attend the event that will feature tours of the fight site and Johnson’s training camp, lectures, and appearances by family members of Jeffries and promoter Tex Rickard.
The Justice Department refused last year to endorse the pardon resolution, saying its general policy is not to process pardons for dead people. However, the department did note two such pardons — one each by Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.
The 1910 bout was perceived by many as a battle for racial supremacy at a time when racism was pervasive in the U.S., said Wayne Rozen, author of a book on the fight titled “America on the Ropes.” Rozen, who will be the keynote speaker at a Reno dinner during the centennial observance, believes Johnson was unjustly imprisoned because of his romantic links to white women.
“He just had the audacity to be with white women and they knocked him out on that,” Rozen said. “They couldn’t stand that the most important title in sports was held by a black man. The book was thrown at him for a very minor offense and it changed his life forever.”
U.S. Sen. John McCain, who sponsored the pardon resolution along with Rep. Peter King, said he welcomed renewed support for the cause in Reno. He told The Associated Press that he is still hopeful that Obama will sign the pardon. “I know the president, once he looks carefully at this issue, would want to correct a grave injustice done.”
As a former boxer and avid boxing fan, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid helped spearhead passage of the resolution.
Asked whether Reid would press Obama to issue the pardon, Reid spokesman Jon Summers replied, “That is a decision for President Obama to make.”
White House spokesman Adam Abrams declined to comment on the pardon request.
Johnson became the first black heavyweight champion in 1908, when he whipped Canadian world champion Tommy Burns in Australia.
Three years after beating Jeffries bloody, Johnson was convicted on the Mann Act charges. He fled the country after his conviction, but agreed to return in 1920 and serve the one-year and one-day prison sentence. He failed to regain his title after that, and died in a car crash in 1946 at age 68.