Obama should come out swinging for boxing legend

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

He was widely traveled, but cited his time in Chicago as crucial to his later success. He entered into contests with a large number of men, but emerged as the last man standing. He was a trailblazer who rose to the height of his profession. Yes, it turns out Jack Johnson and President Barack Obama have more than just skin-tone in common.

Both houses of Congress have now approved a resolution urging a presidential pardon for Johnson, who became the first black heavyweight champion in 1908 – a century before Obama’s election as the nation’s first black President.

Johnson, publicly defiant of the Jim Crow-era laws that ruled the day, was the first person prosecuted under the Mann Act, which banned the transport of females across state lines “for immoral purposes.” The official offense cited was for consorting and traveling with a white prostitute whom he later married. Unofficially, it was his destruction of Jim Jeffries, the white American titleholder whom Johnson met in the ring in 1910.

That match, held in Reno, Nevada and dubbed “the Battle of The Century” (at a time when that title was not yet trite) resulted in deadly riots and cast Johnson as the villain in the eyes of the white establishment. The Los Angeles Times wrote afterward: “A word to the Black Man. Do not point your nose too high. Do not swell your chest too much.
Do not boast to loudly. Do not be puffed up. You are on no higher plane, deserve no new consideration, and will get none…because your complexion is the same as that of the victor at Reno.”

Johnson was convicted in 1913 and sentenced to a year and a day in jail, the maximum penalty allowable. He fled, and was a fugitive in Europe and Mexico for seven years. He eventually surrendered and served ten months at Leavenworth. Attempts to resurrect his boxing career after his release largely failed – it didn’t help that the champion at the time, Jack Dempsey, refused to fight him – even though Johnson was 43 by then. He died in a car crash in 1946 at the age of 68. (It would be more than two decades later before the U.S. Supreme Court essentially legalized inter-racial marriage, in 1967, with its ruling in Loving v. Virginia.)

In his autobiography, Johnson wrote that he was determined to “act as if prejudice does not exist.” While that noble stance may have better fit Johnson’s times, is not one our President would embrace today. He has made clear the importance of an ongoing discourse on race in our country.

The Congressional resolution says Johnson’s 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.”

President Obama’s ascension to the nation’s highest office could have been de-railed by the firestorm over some incendiary comments from his former pastor, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright. Instead, he seized the moment, and, standing at the Constitution Center in Philadelphia, delivered what history will surely judge as one of the seminal speeches on race in America. In it, he said “The path to a more perfect union means acknowledging that what ails the African-American community does not just exist in the minds of black people; that the legacy of discrimination…are real and must be addressed.”

The President, having just recently defused another controversy over race – and one he largely helped to fuel, may be loathe to go near anything with a racial theme for a while. His role in the debate over the arrest of Henry Louis Gates Jr. became a major distraction for the White House, but one that, however awkwardly, fit the President’s criteria for making race that ongoing conversation. As he said in Philadelphia, “Race is an issue that this country cannot afford to ignore right now.”

The White House has so far had no comment on the resolution. The resolution passed by Congress does not require the President’s action. His inaction, however, would be a missed opportunity.

This one, Mr. President, is as obvious as a right cross. Take the shot. Pardon Jack Johnson.