New York Congressman Peter King and Arizona Senator John McCain have re-introduced their resolution to pardon legendary black boxer Jack Johnson for a bogus crime that happened a century ago. King and McCain first introduced the resolution a few years ago. There was no opposition to the resolution in the House or Senate when they first introduced it, and there was none when they reintroduced it this week.
King and McCain’s reasons for pushing a Johnson pardon make perfect sense; enough good sense that conservatives can sign off on it. The most obvious reason is that Johnson was the victim of an overblown, racist mob hysteria because he had the temerity to wrest the heavyweight crown from a white man, and the brashness to flaunt his romantic trysts with white women. He paid the price for that with a blatantly selective unjust prosecution under a law, the Mann Act, which made it illegal to transport women across state lines for immoral purposes. The law was aimed specifically at nailing him. There was no real legal basis for the Johnson conviction and imprisonment other than racial bigotry.
King and McCain have repeatedly reiterated this point while lobbying for the pardon. They’ve gone even further and tied their congressional resolution to a separate boxing reform bill that would carry Johnson’s name on it. Filmmaker Ken Burns, helped form a committee to pardon Jack Johnson in 2005 following the success of his acclaimed PBS documentary Unforgivable Blackness, which highlighted Johnson’s remarkable career and exploits inside and outside the ring. The documentary pulled no punches in showing the public and legal persecution of Johnson for his ring prowess and personal lifestyle.
The one apparent obstacle to the Johnson pardon is the Justice Department. They have cited no point of law, statue, legal principle, or moral or character issue in their refusal to address a Johnson pardon. Their opposition boiled down to the fact that Johnson is dead, and that pardons should be given to right wrongs, injustices, or to show mercy and forgiveness, for the living. However both presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton have pardoned deceased individuals.
And it’s hardly novel for presidents to award medals, commendations and even approve reparations and compensation to those long departed if it’s the right thing to do, and there’s public consensus, or at least no opposition to redressing historic grievances or wrongs done to individuals or groups. Though the Justice Department did not approve the Johnson pardon, it conceded that Obama had the right to pardon whomever he wanted. In other words, ultimately it was the president’s call and if Obama decided to pardon Johnson, the Justice Department would not make an issue of it.
The White House’s deaf ear to the plea for a Johnson pardon has puzzled King, McCain and others. The pardon seems safe and innocuous enough at least on the surface. But there’s no mystery as to why Obama remains cautious about Johnson. It’s an old racial wrong that was marred with controversy. And that’s always fraught with risk for a president that has had to walk a fine line on racial matters in the White House. Obama is under an intense racial microscope, and any misstep, real or invented, will bring instant howls from his enemies as yet another example of racial favoritism.
It’s also a question of presidential priorities. In light of the contentious and ongoing congressional battles over economic and health care policy, as well as the multiple foreign policy crises emerging in the Middle East and North Africa — a Johnson pardon ranks far down on the list of pressing concerns.
Then there’s the issue of what pardons should be given for. President Obama has been even more spare and hesitant than his predecessor in granting pardons. He granted his first handful of pardons to relatively low level offenders at the close of 2010 for mostly petty crimes. The pardons came after a spate of articles and editorials criticizing the White House for going nearly two years without granting a single pardon. Obama gave no indication then that his policy on moving with caution and little deliberate speed on pardons would change. And since pardons remain the sole prerogative of a president, they fear accusations that they grant pardons for political reasons or because they are under political pressure to do so.
Obama may or may not eventually pardon Johnson. It’s certainly the right thing to do. It would put him firmly on record that he, like past presidents, will use his pardon power to right a shameful and disgraceful injustice. This should be an easy call. But in politics, especially when race lurks under the surface, nothing is ever easy. The Johnson pardon, unfortunately, is yet another textbook example of that.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He hosts national Capitol Hill broadcast radio talk show on KTYM Radio Los Angeles and WFAX Radio Washington D.C. streamed on ktym.com and wfax.com and internet TV broadcast on thehutchinsonreportnews.com Follow Earl Ofari Hutchinson on Twitter: http://twitter.com/earlhutchinson