Sen. John McCain wants a presidential pardon for Jack Johnson, who became the nation’s first black heavyweight boxing champion 100 years before Barack Obama became its first black president.
McCain feels Johnson was wronged by a 1913 conviction of violating the Mann Act by having a consensual relationship with a white woman — a conviction widely seen as racially motivated.
“I’ve been a very big fight fan, I was a mediocre boxer myself,” McCain, R-Ariz., said in a telephone interview. “I had admired Jack Johnson’s prowess in the ring. And the more I found out about him, the more I thought a grave injustice was done.”
On Wednesday, McCain will join Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., filmmaker Ken Burns and Johnson’s great niece, Linda Haywood, at a Capitol Hill news conference to unveil a resolution urging a presidential pardon for Johnson. Similar legislation offered in 2004 and last year failed to pass both chambers of Congress.
King, a recreational boxer, said a pardon would “remove a cloud that’s been over the American sporting scene ever since (Johnson) was convicted on these trumped-up charges.”
“I think the moment is now,” King said.
Presidential pardons for the dead are rare.
In 1999, President Bill Clinton pardoned Lt. Henry O. Flipper, the Army’s first black commissioned officer, who was drummed out of the military in 1882 after white officers accused him of embezzling $3,800 in commissary funds. Last year, President George W. Bush pardoned Charles Winters, who was convicted of violating the Neutrality Act when he conspired in 1948 to export aircraft to a foreign country in aid of Israel.
The Justice Department and the White House declined to comment on this latest Johnson pardon effort.
However, the idea has a passionate supporter in McCain, who has repeatedly said he was wrong in 1983 when he voted against a federal holiday in honor of Martin Luther King Jr.
“It’s just one of those things that you don’t want to quit until you see justice,” McCain said of Johnson’s case. “We won’t quit until we win. And I believe that enough members, if you show them the merits of this issues, that we’ll get the kind of support we need.”
Johnson won the world heavyweight title on Dec. 26, 1908, after police in Australia stopped his 14-round match against the severely battered Canadian world champion, Tommy Burns. That led to a search for a “Great White Hope” who could beat Johnson. Two years later, the American world titleholder Johnson had tried for years to fight, Jim Jeffries, came out of retirement but lost in a match called “The Battle of the Century,” resulting in deadly riots.
Johnson lost the heavyweight title to Jess Willard in 1915.
In 1913, Johnson was convicted of violating the Mann Act, which outlawed transporting women across state lines for immoral purposes. The law has since been heavily amended, but has not been repealed.
Authorities first targeted Johnson’s relationship with a white woman who later became his wife, then found another white woman to testify against him. Johnson fled the country after his conviction, but agreed years later to return and serve a 10-month jail sentence. He tried to renew his boxing career after leaving prison, but failed to regain his title. He died in a car crash in 1946 at age 68.
“When we couldn’t beat him in the ring, the white power establishment decided to beat him in the courts,” Burns told the AP in a telephone interview. Burns’ 2005 documentary, “Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson,” examined Johnson’s case and the sentencing judge’s admitted desire to “send a message” to black men about relationships with white women.
Both McCain and King said a pardon, particularly one from Obama, would carry important symbolism.
“It would be indicative of the distance we’ve come, and also indicative of the distance we still have to go,” McCain said.
Burns, however, sees a pardon more as “just a question of justice, which is not only blind, but color blind,” adding, “And I think it absolutely does not have anything to do with the symbolism of an African-American president pardoning an African-American unjustly accused.”
Burns helped form the Committee to Pardon Jack Johnson, which filed a petition with the Justice Department in 2004 that was never acted on. Burns said he spoke about the petition a couple of times with Bush, who as governor of Johnson’s home state of Texas proclaimed Johnson’s birthday as “Jack Johnson Day” for five straight years.
Bush gave Burns a phone number which led to adviser Karl Rove, Burns said, but Rove told him a pardon “ain’t gonna fly.”
Rove doesn’t recall any such conversation with Burns, his spokeswoman Sheena Tahilramani said, and “if he had been approached, he wouldn’t have offered an opinion.”