By Frederick H. Lowe
President Donald Trump is considering a full pardon for Jack Johnson, the first black world heavyweight boxing champion, who had to first raise his arms in triumph overseas after defeating Tommy Burns in Sydney, Australia, in 1908 because no white-American fighter would step into the ring with Johnson, according to his biography “Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson” by Geoffrey C. Ward.
At the time, the heavyweight boxing crown was the world’s biggest in sports prize and only white men had held the title because they refused to box black fighters. When Johnson whipped Jim Jeffries on July 4, 1910, to retain the heavyweight championship in Reno, Nevada, lawless whites rioted, killing blacks. Johnson lost his title to Jess Willard on April 5, 1915 in Havana, Cuba.
President Trump said actor Sylvester Stallone called him asking that he pardon Johnson.
“Sylvester Stallone called me with the story of the heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson,” Trump tweeted. “[Johnson’s] trials and tribulations were great. His life was complex and controversial. Others have considered taking this action over the years, most thought it would be done, but yes, I am considering a Full Pardon!”
U.S. Senator John McCain, former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and others who are not as well known have sought a full pardon for Johnson.
Johnson, a native of Galveston, Texas, held the world heavyweight boxing title from 1908 to 1915. In 1912, police arrested him for violating the Mann Act in which he was accused of taking a woman across the state lines for illicit purposes.
The charge against Johnson was racially motivated because he took a white woman across state lines. Feds called relationships between black men and white women unnatural, but they didn’t have anything to say about couplings between black women and white men.
The Mann Act has caught other famous people in its web.
Architect Frank Lloyd Wright was arrested for the violating the Mann Act, but the charges were dropped. Actor Charlie Chaplin was acquitted of violating the Mann Act. Singer Chuck Berry like Johnson was convicted of violating the Mann Act, which was named after Illinois Congressman James Robert Mann.
An all-white jury convicted Johnson in 1912. He fled the country for Canada and France, returning a year later to serve in a year in the United States Penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kansas.
Johnson was a controversial among his fellow blacks. In the 1936 bout between Joe Louis and Max Schmeling of Germany, Johnson bet heavily on Schmeling who won. Johnson had complained that Joe Louis held his left too low. Schmeling saw it too and knocked out Louis.
Jack Johnson inspired an album bearing his name by Miles Davis and a television documentary by Ken Burns.
On June 10, 1946, Johnson died in a car crash near Raleigh, North Carolina, after angrily leaving a diner that refused to serve him.
He was taken to the closest black hospital in Raleigh. He was 68 years old at the time of his death. He is buried at Graceland Cemetery in Chicago.