the Barest of things...
Like it or not, Donald Trump did an undeniably moral and just thing. No, I am not talking about backing out of the North Korea meeting as, even though I am inclined to agree with the move, I realize opinions vary wildly on the subject. No, Instead I am speaking of his long overdue Presidential pardon of the great Jack Johnson.
Forty years before Jackie Robinson made history as the first African American to play in the major leagues, Jack Johnson - the “World Colored Heavyweight Boxing Champ” – was stalking the recognized white champion, Tommy Burns, across the globe, publicly challenging him to a title fight at every opportunity. After nearly two years of torment Burns finally relented and the fight took place in Australia in 1908. Roughly 20,000 white spectators watched as Johnson pummeled Burns for 14 rounds until police stepped in to stop the fight, thus crowning the world’s first black heavyweight boxing champion.
Johnson still held the title in 1912 when he was arrested for violation of the Mann Act which prohibited “transporting women across state lines for immoral purposes”. It did not matter that Johnson was simply traveling with his future wife but, rather, that she was white and authorities were looking for any opportunity to do something about this unapologetically confident black boxing champion. In 1913, an all-white jury did in court what no man could do in the ring and brought down the mighty Jack Johnson, sentencing him to a year in prison.
Uninterested in being shipped off to serve hard time, Johnson skipped town, first heading to Canada and then to France where he defended his title, albeit sporadically. Eventually he took a fight with America’s newest Great White Hope, Jess Willard, in Cuba in 1915. Johnson lost the fight but a credible theory exists that he would be granted leniency for his “crimes” if he would throw the match and return the title to its “rightful” place in the hands of a white man. Whatever deal was made and negotiations followed, it was not honored and Johnson was promptly sent to prison upon his eventual return to the United States in 1920.
Johnson served his time but was well into his 40’s before he could attempt a return to the ring. Some sad, past-a-great-one’s-prime matches took place before Johnson hung up his gloves at the age of 51. He hoped to train the next African-American heavyweight champion, Joe Louis, but was pushed away by Louis’s managers who feared Johnson’s controversial reputation would hurt their client’s marketability. Johnson stayed as close to the boxing business as he could before he died in a car accident in North Carolina at the age of 66.
What does any of this have to do with the President of the United States, you ask? Well, in 2008, Congress introduced a bill that would request then President Bush to grant Johnson a posthumous presidential pardon but after passing the House, it stalled in the Senate. A second bill spearheaded by Senator John McCain was reintroduced and passed in 2009, but President Obama declined to issue any pardons. Another attempt was made in 2016 on the anniversary of Johnson’s death but, again, President Obama declined. Apparently the Department of Justice recommends against posthumous pardons but the fact that certain exceptions cannot be made seems a tad silly.
Yesterday, after a request in April presented by Sylvester Stallone, Donald Trump of all people cleared the name of Jack Johnson, acknowledging the legacy and unfair treatment of the world’s first black heavyweight boxing champion.
It only took a few moments after this announcement for those blinded by politics and an intense hatred of Donald Trump to cry about his motives for such an action. “He’s just creating a distraction from Russia/Mueller/North Korea/etc.” many said, while others suggested that he simply “wanted to make Obama look bad” which, in this case at least, he had done all on his own. This simple minded negativity is foolish at best and, at worst, tarnishes the significance of what just happened. You do not have to like or even respect Donald Trump to acknowledge that he has done the right thing here.
It took immense courage for the great Jackie Robinson to step out on the baseball diamond in 1947 as he famously broke baseball’s color barrier. As such, he is lauded as a hero to this day, with Hall of Fame credentials and many a film and book about his life being well earned. Hell, his number was not just retired by his team but by Major League Baseball as a whole, an honor bestowed upon no other player in the history of the game.
Now think about Jack Johnson. Anyone who has ever stepped foot in the ring, even once in their life, knows that it is the loneliest place you will find in the sporting world. Johnson did this as a defiant black man, time and time again, with no teammates or organization to support him. He did it on his own, in front of crowds that despised him for nothing more than his confidence and color of his skin. He embraced the challenge, achieved the highest level of success possible, and made sports history while being punished for it at every opportunity.
Today, instead of celebrating justice being served and the wrongs against Jack Johnson finally being righted, at least symbolically, people are turning this into a political issue and shame on them for that. Jack Johnson, his legacy, and his descendents that are alive today are worthy of better than this. Without him, there might never have been a Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali, or who knows who else and Jack Johnson deserves to be remembered for that and nothing less.