In my household, you were not allowed to date white women. It’s no fun being raised by four generations of black women all at the same time, not when you’re a teenager in the midst of it anyway. The rules were emphatic, and that was one of them.
You see, Jack Johnson, who was the first black heavyweight champion, is not the only one who didn’t quite understand why white women were off limits, I too struggled with such a mandate. And while I’m in a beautiful relationship with an African-American woman, I never quite got the decree or the memo that said one must date his own race.
So when I heard that a resolution sponsored by Sen. John McCain and Rep. Peter King was passed in July of 2009, urging President Obama to grant a posthumous pardon, I got excited. Our president was going to get a chance to right a wrong that had been done to one of black America’s greatest heroes.
Johnson won the title from Tommy Burns in Australia in 1908, prompting writer Jack London to call for a white hope to put the black man in his place, specifically calling for previous undefeated champ James Jeffries to come out of retirement for that purpose. And he did.
Jeffries said at the time: “I feel obligated to the sporting public at least to make an effort to reclaim the heavyweight championship for the white race. I should step into the ring again and demonstrate that a white man is king of them all.” Keep in mind, Jeffries was out of shape and had not fought in six years. But he just couldn’t help himself. White supremacy forced him back into the ring.
Needless to say, Johnson beat Jeffries on July 4, 1910 in Reno, Nevada, in the storied “Great White Hope” fight. Whites reacted across this country with rage and dismay as they rioted and lynched blacks at will. The racism was so deep that the U.S. Justice Department pursued Johnson for his involvement with white women until it won a conviction.
He was convicted on a morals charge in 1913 for his relationship with a white woman. He was convicted under the Mann Act of the crime of transporting a white woman across state lines. As you can imagine, marriage between white and blacks was outlawed.
He was arrested for his relationship with Lucille Cameron, who was a prostitute, who later became his second wife. Initially the case fell apart as Cameron refused to cooperate. But less than a month later, Johnson was arrested again on similar charges. This time, the woman, another prostitute named Belle Schreiber, with whom he had been involved in 1909 and 1910, testified against him. Johnson was convicted by an all-white jury, despite the fact that the incidents used to convict him took place prior to passage of the Mann Act. He was sentenced to a year and a day in prison.By now, it’s no secret that Johnson was a known for enjoying the company of white women, considering he was married four times and three of his wives were white. According to Johnson’s 1927 autobiography, Jack Johnson in the Ring and Out, he married Marry Austin, a black girl from Galveston, Texas, in 1898. No record exists of this marriage, and the 1900 census showed that he lived at home with his parents and siblings. It has been said that they were probably never legally married.
After returning from Australia, Johnson began traveling with white women exclusively, writing in his autobiography that “the heartaches which Mary Austin and Clara Kerr (who was also black) caused me led me to forswear colored women and to determine that my lot henceforth would be cast only with white women.”
But it should not have landed him in jail. If anything he made it possible for the plethora of mixed relationships that exist today. Yet he paid a heavy price. Besides, women have always been drawn to boxing greats. It goes with the territory. Like it or not, I’m often asked, what do black athletes see in white women? My response? I don’t know, ask them. After covering sports for more than two decades, I still can’t figure it out.
Unfortunately, my excitement has had to be tempered. Because in December of 2009, the Justice Department did something I thought they just couldn’t or wouldn’t do. They delivered some unnerving news. They recommended against a pardon for Johnson.
In a letter to King, a New York Republican, Justice Department pardon attorney Ronald Rodgers said it is general policy not to even process posthumous pardon cases because pardon resources “are best dedicated to requests submitted by persons who can truly benefit from a grant of the request.”
Rodgers’ letter was apparently the Obama administration’s response to a letter King and McCain sent to President Obama urging him to act on the pardon. The president has not been heard from directly.
McCain and King said they were “sorely disappointed,” and urged the president to reject “Mr. Rodgers’ assessment, concur with Congress and swiftly issue a posthumous pardon for Mr. Johnson.”
If and when the pardon comes, it surely will be 100 years too late. Like the president himself, Johnson broke the mold; a trailblazer who imposed his will not only on other men in the ring, but on the course of history.
Johnson died in 1946 in a car crash after leaving a diner in anger after they refused to serve him. Now it’s as if our government is refusing to serve him again. And while the policy may be that pardons are for the living, two wrongs don’t make a right. Some things are just worth doing, because everybody needs closure.