Commentary: Time for a Presidential Pardon for Jack Johnson

The Senate and House have approved a measure calling for a posthumous pardon of the heavyweight boxing champion, a call Obama should heed.

Posted: 03/07/2013 10:00 AM EST

(Photo: AP Photo)

Congress has approved a resolution calling for a posthumous presidential pardon for the Jack Johnson, the African-American boxing champion who went to jail because of his intimate involvement with a white woman in the world of the early 20th Century.

President Obama has had to wrestle with how to deal with sequestration, with strategies to avert going over the so-called fiscal cliff as well as such difficult matters as immigration reform, job creation and crafting gun-control policies.

This one is a no-brainer.

Johnson was, by the standards of any era, a man who was adamant about living his life in precisely the manner he wished. He became the heavyweight boxing champion in the height of the Jim Crow era in America and remained the champ from 1908 to 1915. He was a highly famous boxer who was viewed with pride by some and utter revulsion by others. As Ken Burns observed in his fine documentary, "for more than thirteen years, Jack Johnson was the most famous and the most notorious African-American on Earth.”

In an age where interracial marriage was illegal in most of the country, Jackson made clear that he had no intention to be bound by such conventions. All three of his marriages were to white women. He was outspoken and arrogant about his affection for white women, a horrifying spectacle for most of segregated America.

It was his marriage to his second wife, Lucille Cameron, that led to a host of legal troubles for Johnson. He was arrested in 1912 on charges that their union violated the Mann Act, which made it illegal to engage in "transporting women across state lines for immoral purposes" due to her being an alleged prostitute and due to Johnson being Black.

Johnson was arrested again on similar charges. This time, the woman, another alleged prostitute named Belle Schreiber, with whom he had been involved in 1909 and 1910, testified against him. He was found guilty and sentenced to a year in prison. Instead, he skipped bail and traveled to Canada and, then, Europe. In 1920, he returned to the United States and surrendered to deferral agents and was sent to serve his sentence in Leavenworth.

In the world of 2013, Johnson’s “crime” seems utterly absurd. And the Senate resolution was sponsored by Senator John McCain of Arizona, a Republican. The measure was sponsored in the House of Representatives by Republican Congressman Peter King of New York.

“Jack Johnson is a trailblazer and a legend, whose boxing career was cut short due to unjust laws and racial persecution," King said. "I urge the president to do the right thing and take the final step and grant his pardon.”

For Obama, who frequently laments the lack of bipartisanship in Washington, this would be an easy way to achieve cross-party unity on at least one issue.

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