No pardon for Jack Johnson

President Obama left office without taking action on at least one pardon application—a request that boxer Jack Johnson be pardoned for a Mann Act conviction in 1912.

Johnson fought and defeated the “great white hope,” Jim Jeffries in Reno on July 4, 1910. Jeffries, a former champ, had been hauled out of retirement by white racists when Johnson became the first African American to take the heavyweight title. Jack London wrote, “Jim Jeffries must now emerge from his alfalfa farm and remove that golden smile from Jack Johnson’s face. … The White Man must be rescued.”

At an arena between Sparks and Reno, Johnson humiliated Jeffries until the white hope’s managers stopped the fight to avoid a knockout. That night, white rioting erupted around the United States as blacks were brutalized and killed (“The great black hope,” RN&R, July 1, 2010).

Johnson was not a retiring type. His lifestyle included fast cars and white women by his side. The Mann Act, enacted to prosecute transport of women across state lines for immoral purposes like prostitution, was stretched to cover Johnson’s consensual relationships, and he was prosecuted and convicted. He went into exile but eventually returned to the U.S. and spent a year in prison.

People have agitated for years for a posthumous pardon for Johnson, who died in 1946. They have recently been joined by lawmakers such as Harry Reid and John McCain. The notion of a black president pardoning Johnson was irresistible, and all during the Obama presidency the issue stayed alive. As President Obama’s days in office dwindled down, the issue kept getting attention.

“‘White Slavery’ Pardon for Chicago Boxer Awaits Obama OK,” read one headline. Harvard Law School professor Ronald Sullivan submitted a pardon application.

The Nation magazine argued Johnson’s family should refuse the pardon: “Jack Johnson’s open mockery of the ceremonies of white supremacy made him more than a boxer. It made him the lightning rod of white rage and exemplar of Black Pride. … We are a country that just used the political tool of 18th and 19th century slaveholders—the Electoral College—to elect a white-supremacy sympathizer even though he received 3 million fewer votes than his opponent. This is a sick system, and it lacks the moral authority to pardon Jack Johnson for any reason other than its own public relations. It’s not for us to forgive Jack Johnson.”

The debate served little purpose. Obama left office without acting on the case.