JACK JOHNSON was not only one of the finest ever world heavyweight champions but a pioneer for racial equality; his very existence providing apt illustration that he would not be bound by the racist constraints of his time. However, as Black History Month gets into its stride (it began on February 1 in the US) and a new play opens tomorrow (February 4) dramatising Johnson’s historic 1910 victory over Jim Jeffries, it is hard to ignore the fact that the boxing hero has still not received a posthumous pardon for violating the Mann Act in 1913; his ‘crime’ was transporting a white woman – who would later become his wife – across state lines, a racially motivated conviction that leaves an as-yet indelible stain on his legacy.
The new play, Dare to be Black, will begin its run tomorrow in New York. Staged in Theater for the New City (155 1st Avenue, between East 9th and East 10th Streets), it will form part of the drive to grant Johnson a pardon, a campaign, led in Congress by Senators Harry Reid (D-NV) and John McCain (R-AZ), that appeared to be close to attaining success just last month. The senators inserted a resolution requesting a pardon for Johnson into a a much wider-reaching bill, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which was passed by Congress (the House of Reprentatives first then the Senate on December 9) and signed into law by President Barack Obama on December 10. Despite this, Obama did not, a week later on December 18, grant Johnson’s pardon alongside two others, though neither were posthumous. McCain was unhappy with the decision.
“Today, President Obama missed another opportunity to right a historical injustice by issuing a posthumous pardon for boxing legend Jack Johnson, whose good name and reputation were ruined by a racially charged conviction more than a century ago,” McCain stated. “Despite Congress having just enacted legislation calling on the president to restore this great athlete’s legacy, he has once again refused to take action. When President Obama grants more presidential pardons in the year to come, I hope he will finally do the right thing and close this shameful chapter in American history.”
American Presidents have issued posthumous pardons before, including President Clinton for Lieutenant Henry O. Flipper, an African-American officer who was dishonourably discharged from the Army for racially charged allegations.