WASHINGTON – Sen. John McCain,R-Ariz.,and documentary filmmaker Ken Burns announced Tuesday they are seeking a posthumous presidential pardon for John Arthur “Jack” Johnson,the first African-American Heavyweight Champion of the World.
Johnson was convicted in 1913 of violating the Mann Act,which outlawed the transportation of women in interstate commerce for the purpose of prostitution. McCain,Burns and others on the Committee to Pardon Jack Johnson say Johnson was convicted only because he was a black man who socialized with white women and beat white boxers.
Burns decided to pursue the pardon after researching Johnson's life for his documentary,“Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson.” It will air on PBS on Martin Luther King Jr. Day in January.
The committee held a Capitol Hill news conference to say it had filed the petition with the Department of Justice.
Other on the committee include Sen. Edward Kennedy,D-Mass.,Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr.,D-Ill.,former New York City Mayor David Dinkins,boxers Sugar Ray Leonard and Vernon Forrest and actor Samuel L. Jackson.
“He was prosecuted as a symbol,and we ask the president to pardon him as a symbol,” said John Siegal,of the law firm Proskauer Rose,in New York. Siegal prepared the petition,which documents how Johnson's conviction stemmed from charges that were racially discriminatory.
“I think the only crime he committed was he fell in love with somebody that was not his same color,” said boxer Vernon Forrest. “He was a great fighter,but most importantly a man of strong conviction and stature.”
Even the district attorney and sentencing judge presiding over the case admitted that Johnson was convicted to send a message to African-American men,the committee said.
“He was an incredible athlete. He made significant inroads for other African-American athletes,” McCain said. “The use of a law was perverted and sent this decent American to jail.”
Johnson,who was born March 31,1878,in Galveston,Texas,defeated Tommy Burns in Melbourne,Australia,in 1908 to become the first African-American heavyweight champion boxer.
Controversy began soon after and was further incited by Johnson's relationships with several white women. In October 1912,Johnson became involved with a 19-year-old white woman named Lucille Cameron whom he married in December that year. Her mother sought action from the Department of Justice,claiming Johnson had kidnapped her daughter.
When Cameron refused to cooperate with authorities,Belle Schreiber,a former girlfriend,claimed Johnson had kidnapped her,according to the petition. He was convicted.
While appealing his conviction,Johnson fled to Canada,Europe and Mexico. He lost his title in 1915 to Jess Willard in Havana. He surrendered to U.S. authorities in 1920 and served a year in prison.
Johnson was never given a chance to regain his heavyweight title. He died in a car crash in Raleigh,N.C.,June 10,1946,at the age of 58.
“His legacy deserves to be reinstated,” said Jackson. “His good name deserves to be reinstated.”
If the pardon is granted,it will be only the second posthumous presidential pardon in American history,according to the committee. The first was President Clinton's 1999 pardon of former slave and first black army officer Henry O. Flipper.
“We just think this is so obvious and necessary,” Burns said. “We look forward to singing as loudly as we can the merits of our cause.”