Legendary boxer Jack Johnson is best known to many as the first Black heavyweight champion in the sport. In 1913, Johnson’s arrest for a now outdated law remains a political point of contention as a bi-partisan effort to seek a presidential pardon remains ongoing.
In 1913, Johnson violated the Mann Act, a law that made it illegal to transport for a Black man to transport a white woman across state lines. Johnson was already a controversial figure, as he typically vanquished his white foes with ease and lived a lavish lifestyle. Johnson’s defiance and what W.E.B. Du Bois referred to as his “unforgivable Blackness” made life outside the ring uncomfortable for the fighter.
That same woman that Johnson was charged for transporting across states eventually became his wife. His open dating of white women made him a target of racists despite his notoriety and fame.
Since 2004, elected officials from both the Republican and Democratic parties have pushed for a pardon. Led by Senators Harry Reid and John McCain alongside Congressmen Gregory Meeks and Peter King, they’ve crossed party aisles in the fight to clear Johnson’s name. Former President George W. Bush rebuffed the pardon and President Obama has done the same.
Obama’s lack of action on the Johnson pardon angered McCain and sparked an impassioned plea from Meeks, as both feel that the first Black president of the United States should make the symbolic gesture and clear the blemish from Johnson’s record.
This week, playwright Tommie J. Moore opened a one-man-play, Dare To Be Black, Off-Off Broadway, which highlights Johnson’s career and the trials he faced along the way.
Johnson died in a car crash in 1946 after being refused service at a North Carolina diner at the age of 68.