Congress urges pardon for first black boxing champ

Congress approved a resolution Wednesday urging a presidential pardon for Jack Johnson, the late black heavyweight champion who was imprisoned because of his romantic ties with a white woman...

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FREDERIC J. FROMMER,Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON (AP) — Congress approved a resolution Wednesday urging a presidential pardon for Jack Johnson, the late black heavyweight champion who was imprisoned because of his romantic ties with a white woman.

The House passed the resolution by voice vote, about a month after the Senate approved it.

Johnson became the first black heavyweight champion in 1908, a century before the nation elected Barack Obama its first black president. The Senate resolution was sponsored by Obama’s 2008 GOP rival, Sen. John McCain of Arizona.

“I’m pleased the House has joined the Senate in passing a resolution to express the sense of Congress that Jack Johnson, the best heavyweight fighter of his era, should receive a posthumous pardon for being convicted of violating the Mann Act in 1913,” said McCain.

The resolution’s House sponsor, New York Republican Peter King, said that he was thrilled that after five years of efforts, it’s passed both chambers of Congress.

“Jack Johnson is a trailblazer and a legend, whose boxing career was cut short due to unjust laws and racial persecution,” King said. “I urge the president to do the right thing and take the final step and grant his pardon.”

The White House, which didn’t comment after Senate passage, had no immediate comment Wednesday night.

In 1913, Johnson was convicted of violating the Mann Act, which made it illegal to transport women across state lines for immoral purposes. The law has since been heavily amended, but has not been repealed.

Johnson fled the country after his conviction, but agreed years later to return and serve a 10-month jail sentence. He tried to renew his boxing career after leaving prison, but failed to regain his title. He died in a car crash in 1946 at age 68.

The resolution approved by Congress says that Johnson should receive a posthumous pardon “for the racially motivated conviction in 1913 that diminished the athletic, cultural, and historic significance of Jack Johnson and unduly tarnished his reputation.” It says a pardon would “expunge a racially motivated abuse of the prosecutorial authority of the federal government from the annals of criminal justice in the United States.”

Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., D-Ill., noted that Vernon Forrest, a former boxing champion who was killed when he exchanged gunfire with robbery suspects over the weekend, had championed Johnson’s cause — including meeting with members of Congress a few years ago.

Jackson praised Forrest for his “consciousness, for his willingness to fight for something bigger than himself, and for the extraordinary legacy that he has left us all.”

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.

Johnson, a native of Galveston, Texas, won the 1908 world heavyweight title after police in Australia stopped his 14-round match against the severely battered Canadian world champion, Tommy Burns — leading to a search for a “Great White Hope” who could beat Johnson.

Two years later, Jim Jeffries, the American world titleholder Johnson had tried for years to fight, returned to the ring from retirement but lost in a match called “The Battle of the Century,” resulting in deadly riots.

“It has now been over 100 years since Jack Johnson won the heavyweight title, and it’s time we restore his reputation with a pardon that is long overdue,” said King, who spars at boxing gym on Long Island.

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