Jack Johnson was the first African-American heavyweight champion, and it galled those white supremacists who, like Jack London, called for a great white hope to defeat him. Johnson defeated their best men, notably Jim Jeffries at the fight of the century in Reno on July 4, 1910. Then they turned to the law, using the Mann Act—which was intended to deal with prostitution—to send him to federal prison for his consensual relationships with white women (“The great black hope,” RN&R, July 1, 2010). A century later, members of the U.S. House and Senate are sponsoring resolutions calling on President Obama to posthumously pardon Johnson. Working to that end in Reno is George Nelson, a retired United Auto Workers member who hands out letters to the president for people to sign.
Why do you want the pardon?
First of all, it was a wrong thing done to the man. I mean, he was a boxing champion, and he may have been a rapscallion, but that didn’t mean that he should have been convicted of a crime that was usually followed by a fine and a slap on the risk. It was an injustice. They couldn’t beat him in the ring, so they beat him through the law and so that’s why we need a pardon for him. … And after all, too, we’re getting different in our racial attitudes from what we had in the old days, and times are changing. My father’s generation, they had a whole different attitude … and it’s just changing, so why have something on a person’s record? And he still has a family. There are folks in Chicago who are related to him, and they don’t want that stigma. And he really didn’t do anything horrendous. …
Times are changing. But are you surprised by how much racism still hangs on?
I can’t say. I feel bad that it has. And I don’t know if it will ever change. …
What do you think the prospects are for the pardon to be granted anytime soon?
I have no idea. I’m not going to even comment because we sent it [a congressional resolution] to the president in ’09 and again in ’10 and, of course, it has been going to presidents since ’04. … [Documentary maker] Ken Burns tried to get George Bush to give a pardon. That was ’04. Then he tried again in ’05 and ’06, and it didn’t work. So he waited until Obama became president and then he went up to Obama and was not [successful]. And that’s when McCain and [U.S. Rep.] Peter King from New York—these guys are really pushing it in the Congress [“Pardon effort continues,” RN&R, March 14].
The White House says the Justice Department has never signed off on the pardon. How do you account for that?
I can’t say because I don’t know. … My whole goal here is kind of like a foot soldier—just get everyone signed up and then turn it over to someone a lot smarter than I am to try to make it work.