McCain seeks presidential pardon for late boxing champ

McClatchy NewspapersApril 1, 2009 

WASHINGTON — Sen. John McCain and Rep. Peter King are hoping that they have a fighting chance of persuading the nation's first African-American president to pardon posthumously the world's first African-American heavyweight boxing champion.

McCain, R-Ariz., and King, R-N.Y., unveiled a congressional resolution Wednesday calling on President Barack Obama to pardon Jack Johnson, who won the heavyweight title a century before Obama took the oath of office.

Johnson's 1908-1915 reign atop the boxing world was flamboyant and controversial. Many whites reviled him at the time for his boxing prowess, his wealth and for openly courting and marrying white women.

Displeasure with Johnson spawned a search for a "great white hope," a white challenger who could knock him to the canvas and take his title. However, the law delivered the biggest blow to Johnson in 1913, when he was convicted under the Mann Act for having a consensual relationship with a white woman across state lines.

McCain, King and historians think that Johnson's conviction was racially motivated. Johnson fled the United States to France before he was sentenced. He finally lost his heavyweight title to a white fighter — Jess Willard — in Havana, Cuba, in 1915. "We need to erase this act of racism," McCain said. King, a recreational boxer and conservative lawmaker from Long Island, said Johnson "was hounded out of the championship and out of boxing.

"He didn't get his due and the African-American community didn't get their due, This would help clear that cloud."

Johnson died in a car crash in North Carolina in 1946. His story has been chronicled in stage and film productions of "The Great White Hope" and in "Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson," a PBS documentary by Ken Burns.

"A pardon is much needed. It's fairly clear that Jack Johnson was framed, railroaded," said Christopher Rivers, a French professor at Mount Holyoke College and a boxing enthusiast who translated into English a memoir Johnson wrote in French during his exile years. "He was unapologetic, sassy, always with a smile on his face. White Americans were not ready to see a black man beat up white men and get paid lots of money for it."

This is the latest attempt at a Johnson pardon for McCain and King. A similar resolution didn't make it through both houses of Congress in 2004. The House of Representatives approved a resolution last year urging then-President George W. Bush to pardon Johnson, who, like Bush, grew up in Texas. The Senate failed to approve a similar measure and Bush didn't pardon Johnson.

King and McCain think that, given the historic nature of Obama's presidency, the time is now right for Johnson.

"It certainly would be a moment in history to have the first African-American president grant a pardon to the first African-American heavyweight champion, who was not allowed to enjoy the privilege of being heavyweight champion," King said. "I would think he would get tremendous satisfaction from seeing that historical moment."

Posthumous presidential pardons are rare, but they happen. In 1999, President Bill Clinton pardoned Lt. Henry O. Flipper, the Army's first African-American to graduate from West Point. He was forced out of the military in 1882 after white officers accused him of embezzling commissary funds.

Last year, Bush pardoned Charles Winters, who was convicted of violating the Neutrality Act in 1948 by helping to transfer two B-17 aircraft to Israel.

Chances of the McCain-King resolution passing and Obama granting a pardon also may be enhanced by Washington's eagerness of late to recognize and address historic wrongs. In 2007, Bush awarded the Tuskegee Airmen, the first African-American military aviators, the Congressional Gold Medal, the nation's highest civilian honor.

Led by Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, female Republican and Democratic senators introduced a bill last month calling for the Women Airforce Service Pilots to receive the Congressional Gold Medal. They were female aviators who helped in the World War II effort but were denied military status and benefits.

"I assume Johnson's chances are excellent. He should be someone who's appealing to President Obama," Rivers said.

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