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The Cynicism of Jack Johnson's Presidential Pardon

Today, the news came down that President Trump has pardoned Jack Johnson, the long-deceased Black heavyweight champion of the world, who in 1913 was convicted of violating the Mann Act for transporting a white woman across state lines for what was euphemistically labeled as "immoral purposes." At the time of his conviction, Johnson was one of the most famous Black men in the world, having become the first African-American to claim the heavyweight championship with his victory over Tommy Burns in 1908. For the next seven years, Johnson ruled the heavyweight division, defeating several "white hopes" who had been cajoled into taking on the champion. Most famously, Johnson had knocked out the former heavyweight champion Jim Jeffries in Reno, Nevada on July 4, 1910, a victory that sparked a wave of race riots throughout the country, as enraged white mobs attacked black homes and businesses, killing dozens and wounding hundreds.

Living in an era when many of the world's most famous athletes are Black, it can be difficult to understand why Johnson's victory would have sparked such violence. (Or maybe not.) But we have to remember that at the beginning of the twentieth century, boxing was really the only major sport where interracial competition was allowed at all. The nation's other sporting obsession, baseball, had terminated a brief flirtation with interracial teams in the 1880s, thereafter maintaining a de facto ban against Black participation in the American or National leagues. As a result, the mythology of white supremacy in athletics was protected and maintained by the highest sporting authorities in the country.

But boxing, which, despite its immense popularity, occupied a more nebulous position in popular culture, as a violent, unsavory profession that was in fact banned in many states, did not have the same rigorous oversight to maintain the kind of impermeable racial barriers that existed in baseball. To be sure, many Black boxers, including legends like Sam Langford, who was forced to settle for the title of World Colored Heavyweight Champion, were denied the opportunity to challenge the great white boxers of the time. But all it took for Johnson to get his shot at the title was a white champion willing to give it to him. Enter the Canadian Tommy Burns, who had claimed the heavyweight crown in 1906. Though it took two years of Johnson taunting him in the press, as well as a $30,000 guarantee for the champion, Burns agreed to the fight, which Johnson won.

Johnson’s victory produced something of a racial panic in white America, as his title threatened the very foundations of white supremacy, given that the title of heavyweight champion carried such cache as a symbol of extraordinary manliness, strength, courage, and guile. What’s more, Johnson refused to play the role of the humble black athlete, as he regularly boasted of his ability to thrash his white opponents, while also flaunting his wealth and dating a string of white women.

Johnson held the heavyweight crown from 1908 to 1915.

Johnson held the heavyweight crown from 1908 to 1915.

In Jim Crow America, that kind of cockiness demanded correction. Jeffries, who had previously held the world title for nearly six years from 1899 to 1905, had initially retired with an undefeated record, relinquishing the belt and promising to remain out of the ring unless the championship should fall into the hands of “some foreigner,” as he put it. In 1900s America, that label applied to Black athletes like Johnson, and so Jeffries dutifully pulled himself out of retirement in order to claim white vengeance. The effort failed spectacularly, as Johnson battered Jeffries around the ring for 15 rounds before knocking him out. Films of the one-sided beating were banned in many places throughout the country, so explosive was the visual imagery of Black defiance of white supremacy.

As Johnson made a mockery of his white opponents in the ring, the government found another way to silence him. Passed about 10 days before the Johnson-Jeffries fight, the Mann Act prohibited the transportation of women across state lines for “immoral purposes.” Its proponents claimed to be interested in checking the flow of human trafficking and prostitution, but in Johnson’s case, the “immoral purpose” was dating a white woman and taunting white America with his audacious performance of Black freedom, and his refusal to accept the subservient place reserved for him. In 1913, while still in the midst of his heavyweight championship reign, Johnson was arrested for his relationship with Belle Schreiber, a white woman he had been dating on and off for the previous four years. In the subsequent trial, Johnson was convicted and sentenced to a year in federal prison. The judge in that case, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, would go on to become the first commissioner of Major League Baseball in 1920, where he would maintain the ban on Black players in the Major Leagues for the next 24 years.

Rather than do the time, Johnson skipped bail and fled the country, landing in Paris, where he would defend his heavyweight crown twice. In 1915, he lost the championship to Jess Willard in Havana, Cuba. Five years later, out of money and with his ring skills in decline, Johnson returned to the US to serve his sentence.

He died in 1946, in an America where the racial injustices that had defined his life had remained largely unchanged. By that time, there was a new Black heavyweight champion of the world, Joe Louis, who had been embraced by many white Americans because he carefully avoided the brashness and provocations that had defined Johnson’s career. (It also helped that he knocked out the German Max Schmeling in 1938, an alleged victory for “American democracy” over the Nazis’ “Aryan supremacy.”) At the beginning of his career, when Louis was just emerging as a contender during the Great Depression of the 1930s, the “Brown Bomber” had been told by his trainer, Jack Blackburn—himself a former contender who had been denied opportunities to compete for championships because of his race—that he must learn from Johnson’s mistakes. “You know, boy,” Blackburn told Louis, “the heavyweight division for a Negro is hardly likely. The white man ain’t too keen on it….If you really ain’t gonna be another Jack Johnson, you got some hope. White man hasn’t forgotten that fool nigger with his white women, acting like he owned the world.”

Louis, right, served in the Army during World War II.

For decades after Johnson’s banishment from America, that was the bargain for the successful Black athlete: say the right things and you will be celebrated. But don’t get too comfortable, because at the end of the day, none of this is really yours.

In many ways, it would take a third Black heavyweight champion—Muhammad Ali—to challenge the respectability politics that confined Black athletes for much of the twentieth century. For his defiance of the American government, and his embrace of the Nation of Islam and Black Power, Ali was stripped of his title and nearly sent to prison. White America only learned to love him once the Parkinson’s syndrome that was the price of his glory in the ring took away his ability to speak.

And now, today, we have the news that Johnson, who died more than 70 years ago, is now free, the blemish of his 1913 conviction expunged like a bad memory. Meanwhile, the man who has delivered this heavenly reprieve, Donald Trump, has described the protesting black athletes of today as “sons of bitches,” and has built his entire political career around the targeting of Muslims and Latinos as “foreigners” unfit for America, just as Jeffries regarded Johnson as a “foreigner” unfit for the heavyweight crown. Just yesterday, Trump declared that NFL players who kneel for the national anthem “shouldn’t be in the country.” These comments have landed within the context of government policies of mass deportation, carried out by ICE agents who have destroyed millions of families, even warehousing brown-skinned children in detention centers throughout the land. Trump’s policies show clearly that the Jack Johnsons of the world, and the millions of people who are similarly excluded from the national imagined community, are not a part of the country whose greatness he demands everyone celebrate. In Trump’s America, only the dead and the mute belong. Everything else is whitewash.

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