President Obama issued a second round of pardons this week. Those receiving them committed such offenses as selling alligator hides, peddling relatively small amounts of marijuana and meth, distributing equipment for unauthorized decryption of satellite cable, and for not paying a transfer tax on the sale of a firearm. The sentences the offenders got were for the most part as lightweight as their offenses and as non-descript as the offenders. But the name that was missing from the list of those Obama pardoned last December and the current crop is that of the first black heavyweight champion boxer Jack Johnson.
That’s the name that should head the list of Obama pardons. The reasons for pardoning Johnson have been oft stated. They were stated again by Republican Sen. John McCain and House Rep. Peter King in announcing that they are reintroducing their resolution urging Obama to pardon Johnson.
“A full pardon would not only shed light on the achievements of an athlete who was forced into the shadows of bigotry and prejudice, but also allow future generations to grasp fully what Jack Johnson accomplished against great odds.” The original resolution overwhelmingly passed Congress in 2009. McCain and King have introduced virtually the same resolution in Congress to pardon Johnson since 2004.
Johnson was the victim of the blatantly racist Mann Act. The law made it illegal to transport women across state lines for immoral purposes. The act was nothing more than a thinly veiled effort to nail Johnson for cavorting with white women, and for doing the unthinkable and that’s wresting the heavyweight boxing crown from a white man in Reno in 1910. Johnson stood the sport and America on its racial head in winning the crown, and stood it further on its head with his brash, outspoken and unapologetic boasts and actions. That alone was a lynchable offense in racially violence prone, rigidly segregated Pre-World War II America.
Obama has not directly said that he wouldn’t pardon Johnson or for that matter has publicly said anything about the Johnson case. But the Justice Department has. In a statement in 2009, the department said that it does not traditionally recommend pardons for the deceased and that the president’s focus should be to pardon persons “who can truly benefit” from a pardon.
This is a spurious argument. Presidents Bill Clinton and George Bush granted posthumous pardons in Clinton’s case to Henry O. Flipper, the first black graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. And in 2008 Bush pardoned Charlie Winters for illegally selling decommissioned bombers to Israel during the Arab-Israeli war in 1948. No known public opposition has been voiced to the Johnson pardon request. In fact, other than sports trivia buffs, boxing historians, few Americans could even say who Johnson was, let alone identify what his alleged crime was.
There would be absolutely no political repercussions, let alone political fallout to Obama for pardoning Johnson. It’s about the safest, no risk pardon, that he could issue. It would send the message that racial injustice no matter when it occurred, or who it was aimed at, will be corrected. This was exactly the message that President Obama delivered in his proclamation in early May on the fiftieth anniversary commemorating the bravery of the Freedom Riders in challenging racial segregation in the South. It is the message delivered by state and federal prosecutors in prosecuting old racial murders and crimes going back decades in the South.
The Johnson pardon in itself would be a sensitive, thoughtful, and most importantly historically significant pardon that would answer some black critics that have increasingly expressed public concern even dismay that Obama is a bit too cautious, even reluctant to take any action that could be deemed controversial when it comes to race.
The Jack Johnson pardon is neither controversial or an act that would or could be seen as racial pandering. It’s an act of simple justice. And President Obama can and should render that act by pardoning Johnson.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is an associate editor of New America Media. He is host of the weekly Hutchinson Report Newsmaker Hour on KTYM Radio Los Angeles streamed on ktym.com podcast on blogtalkradio.com and internet TV broadcast on thehutchinsonreportnews.com. Follow Earl Ofari Hutchinson on Twitter: http://twitter.com/earlhutchinson