RENO, Nevada (AP) — A century ago, black heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson reached the pinnacle of his career when he defeated “Great White Hope” Jim Jeffries in Reno in what was billed as the “Fight of the Century.”
One hundred years later fans of the legendary fighter are still seeking a posthumous presidential pardon for Johnson, saying that his later conviction for transporting a woman across state lines for immoral purposes was steeped in racism.
The Johnson faithful will gather here July 2-4 for the centennial of the July 4, 1910, bout to celebrate his life. They also hope to build on a resolution passed by Congress last year urging President Barack Obama to issue the pardon.
“I think it’s wonderful that everyone is rallying around his cause,” said Linda E. Haywood, 54, of Chicago, Johnson’s great-great niece. “It’s time that the wrong that was committed against my uncle be righted.”
Johnson had no children. Only one of his siblings, Janie Johnson Rhodes, did, and five of her descendants, including Haywood, plan to attend the event that will feature tours of the fight site and Johnson’s training camp, lectures, and appearances by family members of Jeffries and promoter Tex Rickard.
The Justice Department refused last year to endorse the pardon resolution, saying its general policy is not to process pardons for dead people. However, the department did note two such pardons — one each by Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.
The 1910 bout was perceived by many as a battle for racial supremacy at a time when racism was pervasive in the U.S., said Wayne Rozen, author of a book on the fight titled “America on the Ropes.” Rozen, who will be the keynote speaker at a Reno dinner during the centennial observance, believes Johnson was unjustly imprisoned because of his romantic links to white women.
“He just had the audacity to be with white women and they knocked him out on that,” Rozen said. “They couldn’t stand that the most important title in sports was held by a black man. The book was thrown at him for a very minor offense and it changed his life forever.”
U.S. Sen. John McCain, who sponsored the pardon resolution along with Rep. Peter King, said he welcomed renewed support for the cause in Reno. He told The Associated Press that he is still hopeful that Obama will sign the pardon. “I know the president, once he looks carefully at this issue, would want to correct a grave injustice done.”
As a former boxer and avid boxing fan, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid helped spearhead passage of the resolution.
Asked whether Reid would press Obama to issue the pardon, Reid spokesman Jon Summers replied, “That is a decision for President Obama to make.”
White House spokesman Adam Abrams declined to comment on the pardon request.
Johnson became the first black heavyweight champion in 1908, when he whipped Canadian world champion Tommy Burns in Australia.
Three years after beating Jeffries bloody, Johnson was convicted on the Mann Act charges. He fled the country after his conviction, but agreed to return in 1920 and serve the one-year and one-day prison sentence. He failed to regain his title after that, and died in a car crash in 1946 at age 68.
Former Nevada state Archivist Guy Rocha said the brash Johnson flouted social convention of the era by dating and marrying white women, wearing fur coats and driving fancy cars. He married three times, all to white women.
“Jack Johnson was his own man,” Rocha said, and that angered people. “They misused the federal law to hound this man out of the country. What’s so upsetting to me is it really robbed him of his legacy and his proper place in American history.”
Johnson’s rise to heavyweight champion led to a search by writer Jack London and others for a white boxer who could beat him. They eventually persuaded Jeffries to come out of retirement and return to the ring as the undefeated American world titleholder. With Jeffries soundly beaten, deadly riots touched off across the country.
Johnson, a native of Galveston, Texas, was subjected to racial taunts throughout the 15-round fight before 20,000 spectators in Reno.
“The pride of the white race was just destroyed in that ring,” Rocha said. “It was much bigger than just a sporting event because of the racial overtones. It captivated the nation and the world.”
Rozen said the match ranks with the two Joe Louis-Max Schmeling fights in 1936 and 1938 in historic significance. Those bouts pitted boxers from the U.S. and Nazi Germany before World War II. In the second bout, Louis, the first black heavyweight champion since Johnson, avenged his earlier loss to Schmeling with a first-round technical knockout.
“People speak of Jackie Robinson breaking the color line. The real black athlete who broke the color line was Jack Johnson and no one was happy about that,” Rozen said.
James Earl Jones played a boxer modeled after Johnson in the 1967 play “The Great White Hope,” for which he won a Tony Award, and its Oscar-nominated film version, which renewed interest in the former champion’s life story.
Filmmaker Ken Burns helped form the Committee to Pardon Jack Johnson, which filed a petition with the Justice Department in 2004 that was never acted on. Burns’ 2005 documentary, “Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson,” examined the case against Johnson and the sentencing judge’s admitted desire to “send a message” to black men about relationships with white women.
Today, the arena where Johnson pummeled Jeffries is long gone. A historical marker notes its location in a salvage metal yard near the downtown casino area.
On July 4, organizers plan to gather there and ring the original bell used in 1910 at 2:44 p.m. — the start time of the fight that has resonated through history.
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.