President Donald Trump’s announcement he’s considering a full pardon of legendary boxer Jack Johnson is an excellent idea and something which should have happened decades ago. Johnson, for those wondering, was Muhammad Ali before there was an Ali and Mike Tyson before there was a Tyson. He was the first black man to be World Heavyweight Champion with famed boxer John L. Sullivan calling him a “big, husky piece of humanity.” Johnson also spawned the creation of The Great White Hope because of his stranglehold on the championship for almost five full years from 1910-1915.
Johnson has a criminal record for one simple reason: he allegedly violated the Mann Act. Johnson was arrested twice on Mann Act-related charges, a law which made it illegal to take a woman across state lines for so-called illicit purposes. Johnson’s “crime” was sleeping with two white women (he actually slept with, dated, and married more than just two). One alleged dalliance was a prostitute while the other later became his second wife. Via PBS:
In the summer of 1912, Jack Johnson met Lucille Cameron, an 18-year-old prostitute from Milwaukee who visited the Café de Champion with a friend. He soon hired her as his “stenographer,” but less than a month after Etta Duryea’s funeral she was seen in public on Johnson’s arm. In October, Cameron’s mother went to the police and charged Johnson with kidnapping her daughter. She told the press, “Jack Johnson has hypnotic powers, and he has exercised them on my little girl. I would rather see my daughter spend the rest of her life in an insane asylum than see her the plaything of a n*****.” On October 18, Johnson was arrested for violating the Mann Act, but Cameron refused to cooperate and the case fell apart. Less than a month later, Johnson was arrested again on Mann Act charges. On December 4 — less than three months after Duryea’s suicide — Johnson and Cameron were married, an act that outraged the public.
Geoffrey C. Ward wrote in Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson how the Texas boxer was targeted by federal prosecutors in Chicago by finding a white prostitute/madam he’d been with (emphasis mine).
Agents tracked down Belle Schreiber to Grace Sinclair’s “resort” at 1229 D Street in Washington. She proved eager to talk. She hadn’t seen the champion since early 1911, when he lied to her about his marriage and her relationship with him had forced her onto the street for the last time, and she remained bitter. Her memory of where and when they’d been together seemed encyclopedic-she had bills and receipts to back up much of what she said. Most of their travels had taken place before the Mann Act went into effect in June of 1910, but prosecutors thought a case could be built around event of mid-October of that year, when Johnson had paid for Belle’s rail fair from Pittsburgh to Chicago, and then set her up as a madam at the Ridgewood Apartments. Lins told Bielaski that everyone in the Chicago office was “very much pleased with the prospects of making a case against Johnson with the evidence you have furnished us.”
It wasn’t just white people who were mad at Johnson because blacks also had issues with the champ. Via The Fight of the Century: Jack Johnson, Joe Lewis, and the Struggle for Racial Equality by Thomas R. Hietala.
Others sought to isolate Johnson from the race. The Nashville Globe saw “nothing [in] common” between them. “He placed a great gulf between himself and his people,” the Globe stated. “He has no respect for black women, and black people despise his name.” Billy Lewis of the Indianapolis Freeman viewed Jonson’s entanglement with Cameron as “very, very bad.” Like others, Lewis knew Johnson’s private life could affect his race’s reputation and prospects. “There is no time to advocate individual emancipation,” Lewis advised, “when the entire race is looked on as a unit.” He faulted Johnson for defying “the unwritten laws” against “racial amalgamation.” A Freeman editorial advised the two not to marry. “If Lucille Cameron becomes Lucille Johnson,” the Freeman warned, “that moment she is as good as mourned as dead by her own kind, and she will be without cordial reception anywhere.” Etta’s suicide foreshadowed the ordeal Lucille would face should she “step across the color line” to marry Jack.
It’s under these conditions Johnson was convicted and given a year in prison for violating the Mann Act. He ended up skipping to Canada and spent seven years abroad before eventually serving his prison sentence. Johnson kept fighting until he was 50 when he decided to retire. He died in a car crash in 1946.
A major push to give Johnson a pardon has been going on since 2008. President Barack Obama twice received congressional resolutions asking for a pardon but did nothing about it. One reason why Johnson may be yet to receive a pardon is because he’s been overshadowed by Ali, Tyson, George Foreman, and Floyd Mayweather in popularity. He’s also been dead for 70+ years, and posthumous pardons are rare. Yet his contribution to history cannot be ignored. He’s a key figure in American history and someone unjustly convicted of a crime. It’s doubtful the Mann Act will ever be repealed, but Johnson did not deserve to be tried and sent to prison. Trump can and should correct this error by pardoning Johnson.