There's no excuse for not pardoning Jack Johnson

Now is the time for President Barack Obama to pardon the legendary heavyweight boxing champ Jack Johnson.  The only thing more outrageous than the conviction of America’s first black champion was the motivation behind it.

Simply put, Johnson was done in because he was a black athlete who defeated his white competitors.  Johnson beating a white man in the ring was enough to spark deadly race riots.

And that fact upset and angered many whites back in early 1900s Jim Crow America.  And just to add to that, he spent a lot of money, and kept company with white women, which was even worse.  That was enough to get a black man lynched.  In Johnson’s case, it landed him behind bars doing federal time.  And by the way, an angry mob did threaten to lynch him.

In 1912 Johnson was indicted by a federal grand jury under the Mann Act of 1910 as a form of racial retaliation, one of the earliest prosecutions—or persecutions—under the law.  The act, also known as the White Slave Traffic Act, made it a crime to transport women across state lines “for the purpose of prostitution or debauchery, or for any other immoral purpose.”  Although it was purportedly an anti-prostitution law, the act was used to criminalize consensual sex in general.  The overtones of the legislation were both sexist and racist, designed as a response to the increased independence of women in the Industrial Revolution.  Moreover, the law was used for blackmail and political witch hunts.

And the “prostitute” that Johnson allegedly transported across state lines was his white girlfriend Lucille Cameron, whom he later married after his arrest.  The key witness in the case was Belle Schreiber, a white former prostitute who claimed Johnson paid for her travel from Pittsburgh to Chicago for sexual purposes.

In 1913, the boxer was sentenced by an all-white jury to one year in federal prison, plus a $1,000 fine.  Johnson jumped bail and the couple fled the country to Paris.  Johnson returned to the U.S. in 1920 and served his sentence in Leavenworth penitentiary.  At the height of segregation, this was what justice looked like for black men.

The push to pardon Jack Johnson due to a racially-motivated conviction enjoys bipartisan support, including backing from some of the most conservative members of Congress.

A resolution passed both houses in 2009, but the president failed to act on it.  Senators Harry Reid (D-Nevada), John McCain (R-Arizona), and William “Mo” Cowan (D-Massachusetts), and Rep. Peter King (R-New York) recently reintroduced the resolution.

“Jack Johnson was one of the great African-American athletes. His skill and perseverance to get back up every time he was knocked down made him a champion in the eyes of the sports world and for those who, like him, pursued their dreams despite racial intolerance,” Senator Cowan said in a written statement.

“In past years, both chambers of Congress unanimously passed this resolution, but unfortunately, it still awaits executive action and no pardon has been issued,” said Senator McCain.  “We can never completely right the wrong perpetrated against Jack Johnson during his lifetime, but this pardon is a small, meaningful step toward acknowledging his mistreatment before the law and celebrating his legacy of athletic greatness and historical significance.”

If Republicans and Democrats are on board, what is stopping President Obama?  This is a no-brainer, and most of all there is no risk involved for the relatively popular lame duck president.

Some presidents made far bolder moves when it came to the pardons process.  After all, Gerald Ford pardoned Richard Nixon for his Watergate dirty tricks while in the White House, and Robert E. Lee for being a Confederate traitor.  Jimmy Carter even pardoned Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy, while Bill Clinton pardoned his brother Roger for cocaine possession.

Meanwhile, several days ago, Obama pardoned 17 people, but for minor offenses such as stealing food stamps, selling stolen goods, altering a money order, and possession of an unregistered firearm.

Once again, this president is playing it safe, particularly where race plays a factor.  He has pardoned turkeys in the past, but now the first black president appears too chicken to pardon the first black heavyweight champion, despite the zero consequences for doing so.

President Obama can do this.  More importantly, and ironically as the child of an interracial relationship, he must make it right.

Follow David A. Love on Twitter at @davidalove