The enormous heavyweight champ stood up to white America. But the presidents interest in the case isnt due to civil rights

A few weeks ago, Sylvester Stallone called Donald Trump with a suggestion: why not grant a posthumous pardon to Jack Johnson, the first blacknes heavyweight champion? Given the left-field nature of the relevant recommendations, there’s a good chance the president may actually go through with it.

Johnson reigned from 1908 -1 915, though in the opinion of numerous boxing experts, he was the best heavyweight in the nations of the world for a much longer period. And as documentarian Ken Burns says in his 2004 movie, Unforgivable Blackness:” For more than 13 times, Jack Johnson was the most famous and the most notorious African American on Earth .”

Johnson was born in 1878- or some time around then, there are no surviving records- and grew up in Galveston, Texas, a town, for the time and place at least, loosened on ethnic concerns. He played with white minors, unaware of the restrictions he would face in the outside world as he changed older. It’s a testament to his persuasivenes of will that when he was confronted by those frontiers in later life, he simply discounted them.

When Johnson became rich enough to afford vehicles, he raced them down public streets, and when stopped by white police, flogged out some invoices from his wallet and “ve told them” to “keep the change.” According to a narrative which has never been verified, Henry Ford afforded Johnson a brand-new gondola every year, assuming that when he was pulled over for accelerate, a photo of a grinning Johnson beside his glossy new Ford would appear in newspapers across the country.

It was the same story in the ring. He teased and razzed his white adversaries, mocked his black contestants, realise his own deals without white managers, flaunted his success in public, and, most shocking of all to both blacks and whites, wooed and married white-hot dames, abusing at least one of them.

Though Johnson was undeniably brilliant in the ring, he was far from the Colin Kaepernick or Muhammad Ali of his period. When he stood up to white America- something that took immense personal courage- it was to help himself rather than African Americans as a whole. He uttered no show solidarity with other color Americans and even took agonies to distance himself from their spokesmen. As Paul Beston writes in his superb history of the American heavyweight division, The Boxing Kings, “[ WEB] DuBois and[ Booker T] Washington is accepted that a pitch-black human in the public eye had broader responsibilities to the race. Johnson didn’t think so.’ I have found no better way of eschewing racial prejudice ,’ he wrote,’ than to act in my relations with parties of other hastens as if prejudice did not exist .’ Individualism was his creed .” Simply employed, Johnson lived a doctrine as free from identity politics as a Fox News commentator.

His victories wreaked pride to millions of African Americans but the wins over lily-white fighters likewise sparked race rampages in which perhaps hundreds of men and women were injured and more than a few died( at least 20 reported killed after his 1910 fighting against the beloved former champ Jim Jefferies ). But Johnson took no agonies to tranquilize the perturbed seas he had stimulated.

In the 2004 profile, Unforgivable Blackness( a attendant part to the Ken Burns documentary ), Geoffrey Ward criticized the narrative of Johnson as a role model for black activists.” He never seems to have been interested in collective action of any kind. How could he be when he saw himself always as a unique someone apart from everyone else ?”

Despite his suffering at the handwritings of a prejudiced boxing organisation, Johnson did little to help other pitch-black fighters. He neglected challenges from the other great blacknes heavyweights of his period, specially the three men who numerous regarded as the uncrowned champion, Sam Langford( the pair had fought before Johnson won the heavyweight name, with the much larger Johnson said to have won readily ). Instead, he campaigned well-known white boxers. Johnson was a far superior boxer than the vast majority of white boxers he routinely thump, even when umpires and bunches to fight against him. That riled white-hot America, which was determined to take him down. In 1913, the bigots replaced. After relentless investigations into his relationships with white ladies, Johnson was imprisoned( by an all-white jury) of flouting the Mann Act, bringing a prostitute across commonwealth lines in a decidedly precarious occurrence.

As Jesse Washington wrote on The Undefeated:” The first pitch-black heavyweight champion was wrongfully jailed a century ago by racist authorities who is currently outraged by his eradication of lily-white boxers and his relationships with white dames .” Johnson instantly fled to Europe where, he said, he would be treated” like every human being “. He returned back to US in 1920 and provided 10 months of his one-year sentence.

Jack Johnson’s marriage to a lily-white girl, Etta Duryea, scandalized much of America. Photograph: Ullstein Bild/ ullstein bild via Getty Images

In 1927 Johnson publicized a memoir, In The Ring and Out, which was surprisingly well received. With the book, Johnson, in effect, published his own lore. In 1946 he was driving to New York to watch a Joe Louis fight- Johnson, resentful of the second black man to win the heavyweight name, scoffed Louis’s the capabilities and experienced enticement him from ringside. Johnson disintegrated his Ford into a light-footed spar near Raleigh, North Carolina- after apparently leaving a dinerthat refused to serve him because of his race- and was declared dead at 68.

That was the end of an amazing life, but not of the Johnson legend. Twenty years after his death, in an era of burgeoning black consciousness, Johnson was hoisted as the kind of hero he never aspired to in life. In 1967, Howard Sackler’s play, The Great White Hope , realized its introduction. It starred a perfectly cast James Earl Jones as Jack Jefferson, a just disguised sketch of Johnson, and in 1970 the play was adapted into a much admired movie. A year later, the coolest boy on the planet, Miles Davis, exhausted Jack Johnson( later reissued as A Tribute to Jack Johnson) as the soundtrack for a documentary.

Unless, that is, the coolest male on countries around the world was Muhammad Ali. Ali sometimes reverberated as if he thought he was the reincarnation of the first blacknes champ:” I am Jack Johnson !” he was fond of saying. But Ali was far more than that. He was persecuted for his association with the Nation of Islam- then known as the Black Muslims- and for his political judgments, especially his refusal to be inducted into the armed forces during the Vietnam War on moral fields. Johnson wouldn’t have come within a mile of the Black Muslims. And if the US government had tried to draft him during a campaign, he’d have left the country rather than face the consequences.

Over the years numerous politicians have swum the concept of posthumously reprieving Johnson, most recently Senator John McCain. Johnson did get a bum rap on the Mann Act, but the Jack Johnson whose brand Republican want to “save” is the Johnson attribute of The Great White Hope, the man anointed by Davis and Ali.

And why a excuse for Johnson now? Perhaps wisely, Barack Obama took a second pass in 2015( the first was in 2009) when Congress approved a greenback which included a resolution to pardon Johnson. As Jesse Washington observed,” Exonerating Johnson would have opened Obama up to ethnic repercussions unique to the firstly pitch-black president … Obama was focused on clemency for living victims of mass incarceration programmes, which disproportionately change the black community .” If Obama had pardoned Johnson, you can bet Fox News would have rejuvenated the real Johnson and screamed murderou murder.

So why has Trump decided to be Johnson’s savior? There is perhaps a feeling that Trump would use a pardon to score objects over Obama. Washington feels that” a acquittal would ply Trump with an opportunity to do something, albeit symbolic, about racial sin. Trump’s Justice Department is recreating the’ tough on crime’ public policies that developed the racially biased disaster of mass incarceration- the exact devastation that Obama tried to mitigate with both program and his huge number of commuted convicts .”

So should Johnson be reprieved? After all, the Mann Act rap on Johnson never had much credence. Gerald Early, chairman of Black American Studies at Washington University in St Louis and editor of, among other notebooks, The Muhammad Ali Reader, says:” I think it is fine to reprieve Johnson. It was patently a racially motivated prosecution that was done under a very poorly conceived portion of legislative measures. But there were other questionable or arguable prosecutions under the act that should be looked into as well, Chuck Berry’s for example. In as much the law is an example of federal overreach and has clearly not done well what it was claimed to be trying to do- namely, protect women against being prostituted- probably many who were incarcerated under the act should be excused .”

When Louis lost his first fight with Schmeling in 1936 in New York, African American souls openly wept on the streets of Harlem; some suffered heart attack listening to the fight on the radio. The African American singer Lena Horne, performing at a squad that night, broke down when she sounds the report. Her mother censured her,” You don’t even know the man .” Horne replied that she didn’t have to know him:” He belongs to all of us .”

And so Louis does, then and now. Much more so than Johnson, who never truly belonged to anyone but himself. Maybe, in Johnson, Donald Trump attends a kindred spirit.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here