America’s first Black boxing champion Jack Johnson could receive a pardon more than a century after he was imprisoned for being apologetically Black.
President Donald Trump considers granting Johnson, who was convicted by a Jim Crow court, a posthumous pardon after receiving a call from actor Sylvester Stallone, the president tweeted on Saturday. Stallone gave Trump a brief history lesson about Johnson’s case.
“His trials and tribulations were great, his life complex and controversial,” Trump stated about Johnson. “Others have looked at this over the years, most thought it would be done, but yes, I am considering a Full Pardon!”
Johnson, a Galveston, Texas native, won the championship in 1908 by knocking out the reigning champion, Tommy Burns. That set off a search for a “Great White Hope” to defeat Johnson, who would often taunt his White opponents in the ring. But their hope was dashed when Johnson destroyed the former champion, Jim Jeffries, in a match that was dubbed “the fight of the century.”
Johnson lived at a time and in a place where White men lynched Blacks sometimes just for sport. Yet, Johnson was never afraid to wear expensive clothes, flaunt his wealth, date White women and challenge the notions of White supremacy.
Since he was unstoppable in the ring, Johnson’s enemies used the criminal justice system to end his reign. In 1913, an all-white jury convicted him for taking his White girlfriend on a trip in violation of the Mann Act, federal legislation that criminalized crossing state lines with a woman “for the purpose of prostitution or debauchery, or for any other immoral purpose.”
Johnson skipped bail after the trial and lived in exile for several years in Europe and South America with his girlfriend, Lucille Cameron. He ultimately surrendered to U.S. authorities in 1920 and served his one-year sentence.
Bipartisan resolutions have pass in Congress multiple times to obtain a pardon for Johnson, including while President Barack Obama was in the White House. GOP lawmakers, including Arizona’s Sen. John McCain and New York Rep. Peter King, have made a show of supporting Johnson’s pardon.
But there’s an argument to be made against pardoning Johnson, who died in 1946.
“Johnson lived a rebel’s life, and his persecution by this government is precisely part of what makes him such a powerful symbol of resistance to this day,” wrote Dave Zirin for the Nation.
Much of the movement to pardon Johnson is about the false claim that we live in a post-racist America, “more about how this country wants to regard itself today than any sense of righting past wrongs,” he added.