Saturday, December 19, 2009

Just Pardon The Poor Guy, Dammit!

Offered in memory of my mother, a great boxing fan and civil rights
activist, who would have celebrated her 84th birthday today.

For being the greatest heavyweight fighter of his generation and the first black heavyweight champion of the world, Jack Johnson got an extraordinary amount of grief.

Johnson, known as the "Galvaston Giant" for his Texas hometown and imposing size, held the title from 1908-1915 and won 124 fights and lost only 14 overall through a then-distinctive defensive approach to boxing where he would wait for his opponent to make a mistake and the capitalize on it, all the while punishing his foes rather than trying to knock them out.

The white press characterized this effective approach as cowardly and devious, and he already was a polarizing figure when he beat formerly undefeated white heavyweight champion James Jeffries in the "Fight of the Century," (top photo) a July 4, 1910 bout before 22,000 fans in Reno, Nevada.

White fans felt humiliated when Jeffries was twice knocked down in the 15th round and refused to continue for fear of being knocked out. The outcome of the fight triggered race riots in 25 cities across the U.S. after blacks began celebrating in the streets, and at least 23 blacks and two white died and hundreds were injured.

As a black man, Johnson broke a powerful taboo in consorting with white women, and would verbally taunt men -- both white and black -- inside and outside the ring.

In July 1920, he surrendered to federal agents for allegedly violating the Mann Act against "transporting women across state lines for immoral purposes" by sending his white girlfriend a railroad ticket to travel from Pittsburgh to Chicago. It was widely viewed as a misuse of the act, which was intended to stop interstate traffic in prostitutes.

Johnson was sent to the U.S. Penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kansas, where he served a one-year sentence. While imprisoned, he invented a tool to help tighten fastening devices and later was granted a U.S. patent.

He died in a car crash near Raleigh, North Carolina
at age 68 in 1946, just one year before Jackie Robinson broke the color line in Major League Baseball.

There have been renewed calls to grant Johnson a posthumous presidential pardon since Barack Obama became president, but don't hold your breath. The Department of Justice, responding to a request from Representative Peter King, a New York Republican and former pugilist himself, said that Johnson was simply too time consuming to investigate by DOJ's small pardons staff and punted the question to the White House, which has "plenary" power to issue posthumous pardons.

Okay, Barack. The ball's in your court.

1 comment:

joel hanes said...

"I'm Jack Johnson, heavyweight champion of the world!
I'm black!
They never let me forget it.
I'm black all right.
I'll never let them forget it."
Miles Davis, Yesternow, A Tribute to Jack Johnson