Jack Johnson, First Black Heavyweight Champion, Pardoned By President Trump

Jack Johnson, who was convicted of violating the Mann Act in a case obviously infected with racism, has been pardoned by President Trump.

Yesterday, President Trump issued a posthumous pardon to legendary Jack Johnson, the first African-American heavyweight boxing champion, who was prosecuted at the beginning of the 20th Century in a case that was clearly tinged with racial bias:

WASHINGTON — President Trump on Thursday pardoned Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion, who was convicted in 1913 of transporting a white woman across state lines.

Mr. Trump signed the pardon for Johnson during an Oval Office ceremony, sitting at the Resolute Desk and flanked by Sylvester Stallone, Lennox Lewis and other fighters.

The president called Johnson “a truly great fighter, had a tough life,” but served 10 months in federal prison “for what many view as a racially-motivated injustice.” Mr. Trump said the conviction took place during a “period of tremendous racial tension in the United States.”

Decades after Johnson was convicted, his case drew significant attention as a gross miscarriage of justice and a symbol of the depths of racism in the American justice system.

He was convicted of violating the Mann Act, which prohibited travelling with a woman across state lines “for immoral purposes.” The woman Johnson transported, Belle Schreiber, who had worked as a prostitute, had dated the heavyweight champion.

Johnson was sentenced to a year in prison, but he fled the country for several years, returning in 1920 to serve his sentence.

“He was treated very rough, very tough,” Mr. Trump said Thursday as he signed what he called an “executive grant of clemency, a full pardon” to Johnson.

The president noted that bipartisan requests for the pardon for Johnson had been made for years, but that despite that, no previous president had been willing to sign one. He noted — with a glancing reference to former President Barack Obama — that the last resolution in Congress calling for the pardon was in 2015.

Over recent years, there have been several efforts to void Johnson’s criminal prosecution, both via Congressional action and Presidential pardon. Many people had hoped that President Obama, the first African-American President, would take it upon himself to be the one to finally issue the pardon that Johnson clearly seemed to deserve given the circumstances of his arrest, trial, and conviction. His cause was taken up by boxing officials and boxers, by celebrities such as Sylvester Stallone, and by politicians such as Arizona Senator John McCain, who said in a statement this afternoon that the pardon “closes a shameful chapter in our nation’s history.”

The Mann Act, which has also been called the “White-Slave Traffic Act,” was passed by Congress in 1910 with the alleged intention of combatting the problem of young women being transported across state lines for prostitution. In reality, it was often used to attack African-American men who were in relationships with, and in some cases even legally married to, white women. This is exactly what happened in Johnson’s case:

On October 18, 1912, Johnson was arrested on the grounds that his relationship with Lucille Cameron violated the Mann Actagainst “transporting women across state lines for immoral purposes” due to her being an alleged prostitute. Her mother also swore that her daughter was insane.  Cameron, soon to become his second wife, refused to cooperate and the case fell apart. Less than a month later, 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. In the courtroom of Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the future Commissioner of Baseball who perpetuated the baseball color line until his death, Johnson was convicted by an all-white jury in June 1913, despite the fact that the incidents used to convict him took place before passage of the Mann Act. He was sentenced to a year and a day in prison.

Johnson skipped bail and left the country, joining Lucille in Montreal on June 25, before fleeing to France. To flee to Canada, Johnson posed as a member of a black baseball team. For the next seven years, they lived in exile in Europe, South America and Mexico. Johnson returned to the U.S. on July 20, 1920. He surrendered to federal agents at the Mexican border and was sent to the United States Penitentiary, Leavenworth to serve his sentence in September 1920. He was released on July 9, 1921.

While a posthumous pardon does not compensate Johnson personally for the wrong that was done to him, nor does it give him back the time that was stolen from him as a result of this conviction, it strikes me that this was an entirely appropriate action. Johnson’s prosecution and conviction was based entirely on the fact that he was a bombastic, outspoken, famous African-American who spoke his mind dated and married white women during a period when Jim Crow was still gripping the south and racial attitudes in the rest of the nation weren’t exactly enlightened. Had he been a white man, it seems rather obvious that he would not have been prosecuted at all regardless of the circumstances under which he was caught. His conviction was a stain both on his own record and on the record book of history. I haven’t complimented President Trump for many things over the past sixteen months, but he did the right thing here.

FILED UNDER: Donald Trump, Entertainment, Law and the Courts, Politicians, Popular Culture, Quick Takes, Race and Politics, Sports, US Politics
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. CSK says:

    If Johnson was unlawfully convicted, it would seem an exoneration rather than a pardon would be in order. When someone is pardoned, he or she is forgiven for wrongdoing. If Johnson did no wrong…

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  2. Franklin says:

    This move was way overdo, but in some ways I’m glad Trump did it rather than Obama. Thank you, President.

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  3. teve tory says:

    Good. That was long overdue. And there’s lots more work to be done on reforming our legal system.

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  4. Kathy says:

    Humans are peculiar creatures, who value grand, dramatic symbolic gestures over small, undramatic, tangible improvements in the lives of others, or even in their own lives.

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  5. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    Good that it was done…even if for the wrong reason.

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  6. Slugger says:

    I may be suffering from a overdose of cynicism, but this strikes me as peculiar. I don’t mean the gesture to Johnson; I mean that it is Trump doing it while simultaneously condemning the anthem kneelers. If Johnson were alive today and transgressed by kneeling during the anthem instead of consorting with a woman, what would Trump say? I don’t think that Trump is a racist. He is too focused on himself to see other people at all. Yesterday, he demagogued in two directions, pro Johnson and anti kneelers.
    Making people who oppose him irrationally cynical might be his strategy.

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  7. al Ameda says:

    You just can’t make this stuff up.
    If Jack Johnson was around today Trump would be insulting and berating him daily through Twitter

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  8. drj says:

    His conviction was a stain both on his own record and on the record book of history.

    I kinda disagree.

    First, as far as I am concerned, his conviction wasn’t a stain on his record as it was blatantly unjust.

    Second, I believe we need these stains in the “record book of history” in order to remember to do better in the future.

    Since Johnson or his descendants obviously don’t benefit from this pardon, it feels like the whitewashing of history. What about all these other racially-motivated convictions under Jim Crow? Why is the record of all these other (non-famous) black people who were unjustly convicted not cleared?

    It’s rather more like removing a Confederate statue and pretending that there was no Confederacy than removing such a statue to remedy a current wrong.

    So I have mixed feelings, I guess.

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  9. James Joyner says:

    @CSK:

    If Johnson was unlawfully convicted, it would seem an exoneration rather than a pardon would be in order.

    I don’t think we have a mechanism for that in our system. It’s not like there’s new DNA evidence.

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  10. CSK says:

    @James Joyner:

    I’m thinking of the Scottsboro boys, who were posthumously pardoned a few years ago. But the state admitted that they had committed no crimes. So they should properly have been exonerated rather than pardoned.

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  11. george says:

    Seems long overdue. I wonder why no previous president did it?

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  12. gVOR08 says:

    I think Trump’s just looking for non-controversial cases he can use to practice at pardoning.

    Also, this isn’t. when viewed from the right, contradictory. The pardon is another demonstration that racism ended when Republicans passed the Civil Rights Act, so those football players have no real reason to protest.

    Sean Illing has an interview with one Ben Carrington in VOX. Carrington makes the point that this is happening in the NFL partly beause the players have less power than in the NBA, and that for the owners this is really about maintaining control.

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  13. James Joyner says:

    @CSK: I understand your point. In these cases, I think the “pardon” is the equivalent of exoneration. Dead people can’t be released from jail or have their civil liberties restored. But I don’t think we have a formal “you’re hereby exonerated” process. Even acquittal by the original jury or judge isn’t an exoneration; it’s just a finding that the state did not meet its burden of proof.

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  14. teve tory says:

    Sean Illing has an interview with one Ben Carrington in VOX. Carrington makes the point that this is happening in the NFL partly beause the players have less power than in the NBA, and that for the owners this is really about maintaining control.

    Steve Kerr made a good statement about the NFL yesterday.

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  15. TM01 says:

    How does this benefit Russia?

    Or Israel?

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  16. Mister Bluster says:

    I’m Jack Johnson, Heavyweight Champion of the World.
    I’m black. They never let me forget it.
    I’m Black alright. I’ll never let them forget it!

    see Jefferies go through the ropes!

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  17. JohnMcC says:

    @george: Didn’t look into details but the explanation that the Obama WH gave for not pardoning Mr Johnson was that he had a history of domestic violence.

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  18. JohnMcC says:

    @Mister Bluster: There is another famous photograph of Jack Johnson ‘losing’ his championship in a fight that has been generally condemned as fixed. It was in Havana in the summer and Jess Willard was the ‘white hope’. The picture is famous because Johnson is on his back on the canvas with his knees elevated and only his heels touching. Looking at it you instantly realize that he was keeping his legs up off the scorching surface of the ring.

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