In July of 2009, the US Congress approved a resolution to pardon Jack Johnson. The House passed the resolution by voice vote a month after the Senate approved it. Yet, when it came time for President Barack Obama to issue a presidential pardon that even his fiercest political rivals agreed was long overdue, he declined to do so.
The question then remains who was Jack Johnson and why is this pardon so important?
On December 26, 1908 Johnson became the first African American heavyweight champion of the world by defeating Tommy Burns at Rushcutters’s Bay in Sydney, Australia. It was a controversial fight because Johnson was constantly being denied his chance to fight for the title due to his race.
This was also a time in history when black athletes were forbidden to compete against white athletes. From that day on, Johnson became a wanted man; promoters all over the world looked for the “Great White Hope” to dethrone the newly crowned black heavyweight champion of the world.
What makes this story even more compelling is that Johnson was born to a former slave on March 31, 1878 in Galveston, Texas. At that time in U.S. history, it was illegal for blacks to walk down the same side of the street as white people.
After his win in Australia, Jack Johnson had become legendary taking on the greatest fighters in the world. Along with being the first black heavyweight champion, Johnson’s escapades and marriages to white women turned a large part of the US public against him.
On October 12, 1912 Johnson was arrested for violating the White Slave Traffic Act, an act that was intended to disallow the transport of women across state lines for the purposes of prostitution. On December 4, Johnson married Lucille Cameron. In May of 1913, Johnson was convicted in Chicago of violating the “White Slave Traffic Act.”
On June 4,1913 Johnson was sentenced to a term of imprisonment for one year and one day plus a $1,000 fine. Later that month with his appeal pending, Johnson fled the United States while free on bond. Johnson decided to call Europe home and later South America.
Johnson decided to stop his exile and in 1920, he surrendered to federal authorities and served eight months in Kansas’ Leavenworth penitentiary. After his release, Johnson fought sporadically until 1928 when he officially retired at the age of 50.
Johnson went on to act in a few Hollywood movies. He owned a Chicago nightclub and fought bulls in Spain during his long and elaborate career. In 1946, Johnson was working as an amusement arcade entertainer when he was tragically killed in an automobile accident.
To this day, many boxing and sports historians believe that Jack Johnson is one of the most significant black athletes in history.
According to Washington press correspondents, The White House has declined to comment on the situation.
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