Trump Ponders a Pardon for Jack Johnson

by Ralph E. Stone on April 26, 2018

So Trump is pondering pardoning Jack Johnson,  nicknamed the Galveston Giant, the controversial boxer who, at the height of the Jim Crow era, became the first African American heavyweight boxing champion (1908–1915). I’m not sure Trump even knew who Jack Johnson was until Sylvester Stallone suggested a pardon.

Highlights of his life include the 1910, “Fight of the Century,” against former undefeated heavyweight champion James J. Jeffries who came out of retirement to challenge Johnson.  Initially Jeffries had no interest in the fight, being quite happy as an alfalfa farmer. But those who wanted to see Johnson defeated badgered Jeffries mercilessly for months, and offered him an unheard sum of money, reputed to be about $120,000 (equivalent to $3.2 million in 2017) to which he finally acquiesced. He was no match for Johnson who defeated him in 15 rounds.

In 1912, Johnson was arrested on charges of violating the Mann Act  which prohibits the transport of a woman across state lines for “immoral purposes.” His incarceration was racially motivated because he was viewed as an uppity Black who didn’t know his place and he had the audacity to date white women — he even married one.

On April 5, 1915, Johnson lost his title to Jess Willard, a working cowboy from Kansas who started boxing when he was twenty-seven years old. With a crowd of 25,000 at Oriental Park Racetrack in Havana, Cuba, Johnson was knocked out in the 26th round of the scheduled 45 round fight.  Many people thought Johnson purposely threw the fight because Willard was white, in an effort to have his Mann Act charges dropped (Editor’s Note: This fight was originally scheduled for an arena at 8th and Market Streets in San Francisco, just outside the Tenderloin).

He was sentenced to a year and a day in prison. Johnson skipped bail and fled to France. For the next seven years, he lived in exile in Europe, South America and Mexico. Johnson returned to the U.S. on July 20, 1920 and surrendered to federal agents at the Mexican border and was sent to the U.S. Penitentiary. Leavenworth Penitentiary, Leavenworth to serve his sentence in September 1920.[ He was released on July 9, 1921.

On June 10, 1946, Johnson died in a car crash.

Talk of the possible pardon did bring back memories of the excellent biographical film about him — The Great White Hope — starring the always great James Earl Jones. Also recommended is the 2005 documentary by Ken Burns, Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson based on the nonfiction book of the same name by Geoffrey C. Ward.

History has already vindicated Jack Johnson. A pardon by a racist, mysogynist, homophobic, anti-immigrant, corrupt president would just be an insult to his memory. Trump should leave well enough alone.

Filed under: National Politics

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