On May 24, 2018, President Donald Trump officially signed a posthumous pardon for heavyweight boxer Jack Johnson. As a radical and a sports fan, it was a surreal moment on a number of levels. But to explain how, it is important to know who Johnson was.
Jack Johnson was a top boxer in the early 1900s, but he consistently had his career hampered, limited and blocked by the realities of institutionalized white supremacy. As an African American, he secured the World Colored Heavyweight Championship, which he defended 17 times, and was the inaugural African American Heavyweight Champion of the World, but was frequently denied a fight for the World Heavyweight Championship, held by Jim Jeffries, because of the color line.
After Jeffries retired in 1905, the title was eventually won by Tommy Burns in 1906. Johnson spent two years pressuring Burns into breaking the color line and accepting an interracial title fight. The night of December 26, 1908 was a one-sided slaughter, and Jack Johnson became the first black World Heavyweight Boxing champion after the referee stopped the fight. It was a title he went on to hold for another six-and-a-half years, while a reactionary public searched for “great white hopes” to take the title from the brash champion. Even Jim Jeffries, coming out of retirement in the self-proclaimed “fight of the century,” failed to dethrone the mighty Jack Johnson, as the champ toyed with Jeffries in another one-sided contest. While Jeffries’ stated purpose to go “into this fight for the sole purpose of proving that a white man is better than a Negro” surely failed, Johnson’s declaration that “in pugilism I am Jeffries’ master” rang true. It not only was a boastful statement of confidence, but also oozed with the defiant tone of racialized politics in an era where people who had been slaves and slave masters were still alive in the country.
Responses to Johnson’s victory were quick and harsh. Race riots of white mobs killed over 150 African Americans in several cities. Congress banned the distribution of prizefight films from 1912 until 1940, as many Southern legislators did not want footage of a black man victorious over a white man played anywhere, because of the subversive power it could have to dismantling institutional white supremacy.
Beginning in 1912 and finally ending with a conviction in 1913, Johnson was arrested for violations of the Mann Act. The government alleged that travels with white women (most notably his wife Lucille Cameron) were “transporting women across state lines for immoral purposes,” as the women were alleged to have been sex workers. Despite the alleged actions used to convict him happening before the passage of the law, an all-white jury convicted him, and he was sentenced to a year and a day in prison. After the trial, Johnson fled the country for France, South America and Mexico before returning to serve his sentence in September, 1920.
Since 2004, there have been legislative pushes calling for a posthumous pardon. From the late Senator Ted Kennedy and conservative reactionary New York representative Peter King to documentarian Ken Burns and Public Enemy front man Chuck D, there have been myriad demands that this injustice be corrected across multiple presidencies, with no action.
Yet, on May 24, 2018, in a surreal moment, President Donald Trump shocked many when he signed the pardon for the country’s first African American heavyweight boxing champion—a man who W.E.B. DuBois described as being “so beset by his own country … because of his unforgivable blackness.”
Firstly, it is a bit surprising that Trump publicly acknowledged a celebrity for suggesting action on a country’s policy, thanking actor and on-film boxer Sylvester Stallone for informing him about the story. What isn’t too remarkable, given the alleged animosity and dislike between the two men, is his slight in omitting the efforts of Senator John McCain, who has been working on the pardon campaign for the last 14 years.
It is also a bit dreamlike to see a number of prominent, conservative Republicans calling for this issue of overt racism to be addressed. From McCain’s early career voting against making Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday a federal holiday (which he later recanted, saying he was a “little late … in doing the right thing”) to his voting against the Civil Rights Act of 1990 to reactionary New York Representative Peter King likening the kneeling of protesting athletes during the National Anthem to them throwing up “Nazi salutes,” it is a bit odd to see them being part of the vanguard and using the language of racial justice in opposing this specific example of institutional racism from over a century ago.
But most notable among that bunch is the current President Donald J. Trump acting on this. During the 2016 election cycle, he doubled down on the full-page ad he took out in 1989 demanding the death penalty for the Central Park Five, despite the fact that in the interim the men had had their sentences vacated due to DNA evidence and a confession from the real perpetrator. He has called attendees at the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia “very fine people.” Most notably, he has been endlessly attacking professional football players for taking a knee during the national anthem: demanding that they stand, that they lose their jobs for protesting, and even calling them “sons of bitches.”
If Trump and his ilk were contemporaries of Jack Johnson, they would likely be vilifying him, condemning him and subjecting him to the racist abuse that led to his criminal conviction, given their track record on these issues. It feels like a symbolic gesture, not of genuine justice but of opportunism, that can be pointed to to say “look at how not racist Trump/the Republican Party is.” It is heartening to see Johnson be given his exoneration, but this should not have been the political movement to do it and gain the social capital from having done so.
As problematic as it all is, there may be a small ember of hope here: that it could be a starting point for conversations with McCain, King, Trump and other reactionaries. If you think the Jack Johnson case was a miscarriage of justice, then you won’t believe the numerous others that are happening right now. Let’s talk.