Jack Johnson’s Pardon

Boxing has a long history of rich white men exploiting black fighters for their own personal gain. Donald Trump did it as a casino magnate before his holdings in Atlantic City devolved into bankruptcy. He did it again on May 24 when he pardoned Jack Johnson.

Johnson’s story is well known. He was the greatest heavyweight of his era and a symbol of towering importance.

Thirty years ago, Arthur Ashe told me, “I think that, within the United States, Jack Johnson had a larger impact than Muhammad Ali because he was first. Nothing that Frederick Douglass did, nothing that Booker T. Washington did, nothing that any African-American had done up until that time had the same impact as Jack Johnson’s fight against Jim Jeffries on July 4, 1910. It was the most awaited event in the history of African-Americans to that date. Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was not done with widespread prior knowledge. Half of black America didn’t know it was going to be issued. And even after it was, many African-Americans didn’t know about it for weeks. But virtually every black American knew that Johnson versus Jeffries was going to take place. They knew it; they knew what was at stake; and they also knew they could get the results almost immediately because of the advent of the telegraph. And when Johnson won, it completely destroyed one of the crucial pillars of white supremacy – the idea that the white man was superior in body and mind to all the darker peoples of the earth. That was just not true as far as anybody was concerned anymore, because now a black man held the title symbolic of the world’s most physically powerful human being. It had an emotional immediacy that went beyond what Ali, Joe Louis, or even Jackie Robinson did because it was the first time anything like that had ever happened. It provided a tremendous spiritual and emotional uplift.”

In 1913, Johnson was convicted of violating the federal Mann Act (a statute aimed at combatting prostitution). He was alleged to have transported several women across state lines “for immoral purposes.” One of the women was a prostitute named Belle Schreiber. Another was a 19-year-old runaway named Lucille Cameron who Johnson later married.

There’s little doubt that Johnson was singled out for prosecution because of his status as heavyweight champion, his flamboyant lifestyle, and, most of all, his color. He was sentenced to a year in prison, fled the country, and returned in 1920 to serve ten months in prison.

As noted by Jeffrey Sammons (author of Beyond The Ring: The Role of Boxing in American Society), “Johnson never saw himself as a racial symbol. He felt he was as good as anybody else and that he shouldn’t be denied anything that anybody else had, but he didn’t think in racial terms. He never became part of a movement or aligned himself in a crusade with others the way Muhammad Ali chose to do.”

That theme is echoed by historian Randy Roberts (author of Papa Jack: Jack Johnson and the Era of White Hopes), who recounts, “Johnson was treated as a black menace, but he didn’t have a highly developed racial consciousness. Most of his friends were white and he made a number of derogatory comments about blacks, particularly black women, throughout his life. By contrast, Ali’s message was racial pride, the glorification of being black, a refusal to accept that black was anything less than best, a demand for dignity and full entitlements for all black people.”

This brings us to Donald Trump’s pardon of Jack Johnson. It was signed one day after the National Football League announced a policy requiring that “all team and league personnel on the field shall stand and show respect for the flag and the Anthem” when the National Anthem is played before a game. Teams whose players kneel or otherwise fail to “show respect for the flag” will be fined. Teams may also choose to fine their own players directly for such conduct.

The National Anthem controversy began in August 2016 as a protest against the inappropriate use of force by a small number of police officers against people of color and the inadequate response of the criminal justice system to these incidents. Thereafter, Donald Trump got into the act, demanding that players who kneel be precluded from playing.

Trump‘s position on the anthem issue is very much in keeping with his support of laws that have the effect of keeping people of color from voting, his reference to the white supremacists who marched in Charlottesville last year as “good people,” and his stand on immigration.

Now Trump has pardoned a person of color who has been dead for 72 years. But the living people he pardons are men like sheriff Joe Arpaio (convicted of violating court orders with regard to racial profiling and other discriminatory conduct) and Lewis “Scooter” Libby (a corporate lawyer and former adviser to Dick Cheney, who was convicted of obstruction of justice and perjury in conjunction with the leak of classified government information).

The Jack Johnson pardon ceremony in the Oval Office at the White House was marked by hypocrisy.

Sylvester Stallone, who for 42 years has said that Muhammad Ali was the inspiration for Apollo Creed, rewrote history by saying, “The inspiration for Apollo Creed was Jack Johnson.”

World Boxing Council president Mauricio Sulaiman, a self-described “proud Mexican” who lives on the south side of the wall that Donald Trump wants to erect between the United States and Mexico, declared, “Mr. President, I would like to praise, congratulate, and thank you for taking this gigantic step for human equality and inclusion.”

One of the most disheartening things about the ceremony was Donald Trump suggesting that he’s more sensitive to minority issues than Barack Obama because Obama failed to pardon Jack Johnson.

“They thought it [the pardon] was going to be signed in the last administration, and that didn’t happen,” Trump proclaimed. “So that was very disappointing for a lot of people. The Congressional Black Caucus supported it very very powerfully, very strongly, but they couldn’t get the president to sign it.”

Here it should be noted that one reason Barack Obama chose to not pardon Jack Johnson was Johnson’s history of physically abusing women. But we already know that Donald Trump has limited respect for women.

The issue here isn’t whether Jack Johnson should have been pardoned. The issue is that, coming from Donald Trump, it’s a cynical, politically-calculated gesture that will be used as cover to justify his ongoing assault against human dignity and human rights; an assault that has particularly harsh consequences for people of color.

Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at thauser@rcn.com. His most recent book – There Will Always Be Boxing – was published by the University of Arkansas Press. In 2004, the Boxing Writers Association of America honored Hauser with the Nat Fleischer Award for career excellence in boxing journalism.

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