Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The Sad Saga of the Galveston Giant

With the Mann Act in the news courtesy of now former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer, it seems appropriate to reprise the story of Jack Johnson and one of the most pernicious political prosecutions in American history.
Johnson, nicknamed the "Galveston Giant" for his Texas hometown and imposing size, arguably was the best heavyweight boxer of his generation.

As the first black heavyweight champion of the world, a title he held from 1908-1915, Johnson became the most famous and became the most notorious African-American on earth.
You will have to ask Geraldine Ferraro whether Johnson was fortunate to be a black man, but he did win 124 fights and lost only 14 through a then-distinctive defensive approach to boxing where he would wait for his opponent to make a mistake and the capitalize on it, and he sought to punish his foes rather than knock him 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 L. Jeffries in the "Fight of the Century," 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 the 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, Belle Schreiber, 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 in 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 recurring proposals to grant Johnson a posthumous presidential pardon. Perhaps that can be one of Barack Obama's first acts, no?

1 comment:

JudiPhilly said...

Thanks for writing about this. When I heard about the possible Mann Act charges against Spitzer, my first thought was of Johnson.

Based upon the lack of use of this statute (since then?), it makes one wonder whether there was a concerted effort to find something to use against yet another Democrat in office.

Not to excuse the hypocricy of Spitzer's conduct, but a making a federal case of it? Please!