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Monday, 20 December 2010

Why won't Obama pardon Jack Johnson?

In this photo taken in 1910 and provided by the Nevada Historical Society, Jack Johnson is seen in a photo postcard by Dana Studio.

In my household, you were not allowed to date white women. It's no fun being raised by four generations of black women all at the same time, not when you're a teenager in the midst of it anyway. The rules were emphatic, and that was one of them.
You see, Jack Johnson, who was the first black heavyweight champion, is not the only one who didn't quite understand why white women were off limits, I too struggled with such a mandate. And while I'm in a beautiful relationship with an African-American woman, I never quite got the decree or the memo that said one must date his own race.
So when I heard that a resolution sponsored by Sen. John McCain and Rep. Peter King was passed in July of 2009, urging President Obama to grant a posthumous pardon, I got excited. Our president was going to get a chance to right a wrong that had been done to one of black America's greatest heroes.
Johnson won the title from Tommy Burns in Australia in 1908, prompting writer Jack London to call for a white hope to put the black man in his place, specifically calling for previous undefeated champ James Jeffries to come out of retirement for that purpose. And he did.
Jeffries said at the time: "I feel obligated to the sporting public at least to make an effort to reclaim the heavyweight championship for the white race. I should step into the ring again and demonstrate that a white man is king of them all." Keep in mind, Jeffries was out of shape and had not fought in six years. But he just couldn't help himself. White supremacy forced him back into the ring.
Needless to say, Johnson beat Jeffries on July 4, 1910 in Reno, Nevada, in the storied "Great White Hope" fight. Whites reacted across this country with rage and dismay as they rioted and lynched blacks at will. The racism was so deep that the U.S. Justice Department pursued Johnson for his involvement with white women until it won a conviction.
He was convicted on a morals charge in 1913 for his relationship with a white woman. He was convicted under the Mann Act of the crime of transporting a white woman across state lines. As you can imagine, marriage between white and blacks was outlawed.
He was arrested for his relationship with Lucille Cameron, who was a prostitute, who later became his second wife. Initially the case fell apart as Cameron refused to cooperate. But less than a month later, Johnson was arrested again on similar charges. This time, the woman, another prostitute named Belle Schreiber, with whom he had been involved in 1909 and 1910, testified against him. Johnson was convicted by an all-white jury, despite the fact that the incidents used to convict him took place prior to passage of the Mann Act. He was sentenced to a year and a day in prison.


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