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The pardoning of Jack Johnson

This article appeared in the Sunday Herald

Kansas Congresswoman Lynn Jenkins’ timing really couldn’t have been any worse when, in August, she called on a “great white hope” to emerge from Republican ranks and challenge Barack Obama. She hadn’t been aware, she subsequently claimed, of the origins of a phrase that was first used by the writer Jack London in 1908 willing the restoration of white ascendancy after Jack Johnson had had the audacity to become the first black heavyweight champion of the world. Her gaffe was made all the worse, though, for the fact she’d not long before voted in favour of a resolution calling for Johnson – who was sent to prison on somewhat equivocal charges after putting several “great white hopes” in the shade – to be given a presidential pardon.

Spurred on by the campaigning of film-maker Ken Burns, whose 2005 documentary Unforgiveable Blackness charts the boxer’s life, and the sponsorship of Senator John McCain, a boxing aficionado, that end now looks to be within reach, Senate and Congress both having given their seal of approval. Fevered debate in cyberspace in the wake of President Obama’s silence on the matter to date, coupled with reactions to Jenkins’ blunder, have served as a reminder, however, of just how deeply Johnson’s career divided America, and how issues of race continue to map onto boxing to this day.

By the time London – a man of the political left – was citing the white man’s “30 centuries of traditions … all the supreme efforts, the inventions and the conquests” as evidence of his racial supremacy, Johnson, the son of freed Texan slaves, had won dozens of fights against both black and white opponents. Already World Coloured Heavyweight Champion, in 1908 he took the belt that mattered, from Canada’s Tommy Burns. Revelling in his status as America’s first black superstar, he then laid waste to several challengers before James J Jeffries, who’d refused to fight Johnson and retired undefeated in 1904, agreed to a comeback “for the sole purpose of proving that a white man is better than a Negro.”

When they eventually fought, in Reno, Nevada, in 1910, the ringside band played a song called “all coons look alike to me” and an all-white crowd chanted “kill the nigger.” But Johnson, faster, stronger and smarter than his opponent, knocked him down twice before Jeffries’ minders called time, after 15 rounds, in order to avoid a knock-out. His title now undisputed, Johnson walked off with $225,000 and black America erupted in spontaneous rejoicing. In more than 50 cities, however, there were riots, as the celebrations drew a violent response from white mobs. At least 20 men were killed in what was the most widespread racial turbulence the US would see until after the 1968 assassination of Dr Martin Luther King.

The day after the fight the Los Angeles Times intoned: “A word to the Black Man… No man will think a bit higher of you because your complexion is the same as that of your victor at Reno.” Johnson, meanwhile, refused to condemn his fellow blacks for having “provoked” whites and was not forgiven: two years later he became the first person to be prosecuted under the Mann Act, which forbade the transportation of women across state lines “for immoral purposes” and was designed to stop the “white slave” trade in prostitutes. The charge involved a young white prostitute, Lucille Cameron, whom Johnson subsequently married. She refused to co-operate and the case fell apart, but another prostitute with whom he’d been involved four years previously testified against him and the authorities got their man: he was sentenced to a year and a day in jail but chose to flee, first to Europe and then to Mexico, before eventually surrendering seven years later and serving 10 months.

While in exile Johnson lost his title to Jess Willard in Havana after being knocked out in the 26th round. He tried to resurrect his fighting career on his release from jail but Jack Dempsey, heavyweight champion from 1919 until 1926, refused to fight him, and in 1928 he retired, aged 50, having lost seven of his last nine bouts but with an overall record of 91-14-12. In 1946, he died in a car crash after racing away from a diner in which he’d been refused service.

The recent resolution on Capitol Hill stated that “the racially motivated conviction in 1913… unduly tarnished his [Johnson’s] reputation.” Others, though, deny this version of events. In April the Chicago Daily Observer noted that Johnson certainly violated the spirit, if not the letter of the law, “as he openly consorted with prostitutes” and even bankrolled a brothel madam.

Like Muhammad Ali half a century later, Johnson made boxing an act of defiance and he was loved and hated for it in equal measure. He refused to know his place in white man’s America, lived his life as he saw fit and courted controversy by marrying three white women. The first, a Brooklyn socialite named Etta Duryea, he beat up several times. The second, Cameron, he wed less than three months after Duryea’s suicide. Johnson’s career unfolded against the backdrop of religious revival in America but there are few yardsticks by which he could be judged a saint.

Some have argued that a pardon in this context would amount to an empty gesture and that it is too late to do “the right thing.” Others go further, resenting the impugnation of the whole of white society at the time and pointing to Bernard Hopkins’ outburst before he fought Joe Calzaghe in 2007 (“I would never let a white boy beat me… I would never lose to a white person”) as evidence that boxing is a sport in which race seems still to count and in which racism cuts in various directions.

Johnson wrote in his autobiography that he had been determined to “act as if prejudice does not exist.” Obama has been clear that it did, and does. Whether that’s enough for him to see a pardon as meaningful remains to be seen.