Senators again ask Obama to pardon boxing legend

Anita Kumar

For 10 years now, lawmakers on Capitol Hill have asked the president of the United States to posthumously pardon American boxing legend Jack Johnson.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.. sent a letter to President Barack Obama on Wednesday asking him to pardon Johnson a century after his racially motivated conviction of taking a woman across state lines for immoral purposes.

"Jack Johnson was a tremendous athlete, and his legacy continues to be marred by this miscarriage of justice," the senators wrote. "A posthumous pardon is long overdue, and would be an important step in repairing the legacy of this great boxer and a rare opportunity for our government to right an historical wrong."

President George W. Bush failed to act, but in 2009 some congressmen thought they might be able to convince the nation’s first African-American president to do so on behalf of the world’s first African-American heavyweight boxing champion. But Obama hasn’t issued a pardon either, and his administration says it’s unlikely he will.

The Justice Department, however, generally doesn’t consider pardons for people after they die, according to department guidelines. Those investigations are lengthy and complex, and the department would rather spend its resources on the pardon and commutation requests of living people, the guidelines say.

“It is the department’s position that the limited resources which are available to process requests for president clemency – now being submitted in record numbers – are best dedicated to requests submitted by persons who can truly benefit from a grant of the request,” pardon attorney Ronald Rodgers wrote to King in December 2009. The pardon attorney, at Justice, assists the president in the exercise of executive clemency.

Posthumous pardons are extremely rare but they have been granted.

In 1999, President Bill Clinton pardoned Lt. Henry O. Flipper, the Army’s first African-American to graduate from West Point, who’d been forced out of the military in 1882 after white officers accused him of embezzling commissary funds. In 2008, Bush pardoned Charles Winters, who’d been convicted of violating the Neutrality Act in 1948 by helping to transfer two B-17 aircraft to Israel.

Johnson, born to former slaves in Texas, was initially denied the right to fight professionally because of his race. When he was finally granted the opportunity, he defeated the title holder to become the first African-American heavyweight champion. He reigned over the boxing world from 1908 to 1915 before losing his heavyweight title to a white fighter – Jess Willard – in Havana, Cuba, in 1915. But he kept his influence over the boxing world, including future fighter Muhammad Ali.

Johnson’s success in the ring – and indulgent lifestyle – prompted resentment as well as a search for a white boxer who could defeat him, dubbed the “great white hope.” After Johnson defeated a white champion who’d returned from retirement to fight him, race riots broke out in several cities.

Soon after, an all-white jury convicted Johnson of transporting a white girlfriend across state lines, under the Mann Act, a law designed to prevent trafficking of women for prostitution. He eventually served 366 days in prison.

In 2004, Congress failed to pass a similar resolution. In 2008, the House of Representatives approved a resolution but the Senate did not. In 2009, the Senate and House passed the resolution, the first time since 1974 that both chambers had passed a concurrent resolution recommending a posthumous pardon for Johnson. They did so again in 2011.

Johnson died in a car crash in North Carolina in 1946 at age 68, after being refused service at a diner near Raleigh. His story has been chronicled in numerous stage and film productions of “The Great White Hope,” including a 1970 film starring James Earl Jones, and more recently in “Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson,” a PBS documentary by Ken Burns.

Anita Kumar
McClatchy Washington Bureau