There is a push underway—long championed by Republican Senator John McCain and Representative Peter King—to secure a pardon for the legendary boxer Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion of the 20th century. In 1913, Johnson was convicted by an all-white jury on “Mann Act” charges—otherwise known as “white slavery”—for transporting a white sex worker named Lucille Cameron across state lines “for immoral purposes.” Even though, Johnson married Cameron several months later, the state still pushed the case until Johnson was found guilty. It was a racist conviction aimed at bringing low a fighter who was never afraid to wear expensive clothes, consort with white women, and tell mainstream America that they could kiss his ass. He was also perhaps the most powerful symbol of resistance to white supremacy since Nat Turner, inspiring spirituals and songs of protest from the fields of sharecroppers to the hard labor of chain gangs.
Johnson received the maximum sentence of a year and a day in federal prison, but instead of accepting their verdict, he lived in exile for seven years. Then he eventually returned and served his sentence in Leavenworth Prison. McCain was asked by The Undefeated’s Jesse Washington about whether he believed President Obama would deny the pardon. He said, “I hope not, but I’m afraid so. I’m very confused by it. I have not understood, where this is an egregious act of racism, that the president of the United States wouldn’t want to correct history.”
But the question is not whether the US government will “right this wrong” but whether Jack Johnson’s family should even allow the US to sit in judgment of this towering figure. Johnson lived a rebel’s life, and his persecution by this government is precisely part of what makes him such a powerful symbol of resistance to this day. He was both brash and uncompromising in an era when public lynchings against black men took place on weekly basis. Johnson was not an explicitly political figure like Muhammad Ali, making speeches against the Philippine American war. But as a walking, self-conscious political symbol, he explored new boundaries. (The Nation)