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The Fight to Pardon Jack Johnson.

jackjohnson The Fight to Pardon Jack Johnson. The year was 1913 and Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion of the modern era, fled his country, the United States of America, after he was convicted of a violation of the Mann Act. What was Johnson’s violation? According to the Mann Act, it is the

transportation of an individual across state lines for the purpose of illegal sexual activity: “Whoever knowingly transports any individual in interstate or foreign commerce, or in any territory or possession of the United States, with intent that such individual engage in prostitution, or in any sexual activity for which any person can be charged with a criminal offense, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than five years, or both.” Johnson’s crime? Messing around and marrying white women.

In 1915, while in exile, his skills diminishing with age, Johnson lost the heavyweight title to Jess Willard in Cuba. In 1920, Johnson returned to the U.S. and served 10-months at Leavenworth. It does not take historical 20/20 hindsight to realize that the Mann Act (since revised) violation committed by Johnson was a ploy by the government to help keep black men in line and to discourage interracial relationships.

Now, led by Arizona Senator John McCain, the U.S. may be finally ready to accept responsibility for its actions. “No one should be punished for choosing to go their own way,” McCain said.

Thanks to filmmaker Ken Burns’ documentary “Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson”, which documented Johnson’s case, the U.S. congress could soon be passing legislation to pardon Johnson of his crimes. “While we cannot change history, and Johnson’s passing makes it impossible to ease his suffering, a pardon will reaffirm America’s dedication to fairness and justice for all,” said Illinois Representative Jesse Jackson, Jr.

When the charges were filed, Johnson was the most hated man in the United States. And, unlike now, in 1913, there was no future in being hated. The term “Great White Hope” was coined for the search to find a white man to beat Johnson. Jim Jeffries, who had retired as undefeated heavyweight champion, whipped himself into shape to try and wrest the title from the talented black champion. After fourteen rounds of taunting and carnage at the hands of Johnson, Jeffries was done.

Johnson was a man born to the wrong era. He created his own persona. He was the man he chose to be – flamboyant and gregarious; Johnson married three times, all to white women. New York Representative Peter King is helping to push the House version of the bill. “He was a victim of the times, he was a victim of the racial ethos,” King said.

It is not hyperbole to state that in the early 1900’s; Jack Johnson was the monster that terrified the dreams of white men. In the early 2000’s, however, it is time to change Johnson’s reputation officially. He was a brilliant fighter and a master showman. He was Muhammad Ali almost fifty years before Cassius Clay existed. As boxing fans, it is our responsibility to help Congress make the right choice. Here is a link www.ams.org to give you information on how to contact your representatives. Boxing, the fans included, is a family. It’s time to take care of one of our own.

William Wolfrum can be reached at wkw@williamkwolfrum.com

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