One hundred years ago, Jack Johnson, the world’s first black heavyweight boxing champion, was arrested in violation of the Mann Act, a law designed to prevent the transporting of women for prostitution and other immoral acts across state lines. Johnson was traveling with his lover and (second) wife-to-be Lucille Cameron, who happened to be a white woman.
The conviction has since been regarded as an act of outright racism, with several legislators motioning for a presidential pardoning of Johnson, who died in a car crash in 1946. Both Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Representative Peter King (R-N.Y.) have proposed such legislation for several years. Last month, they were joined by senators Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and William “Mo” Cowan (D-Mass.), who was appointed by Gov. Deval Patrick to replace Secretary of State John Kerry until the Bay State’s upcoming special senatorial election on June 25.
“Jack Johnson was one of the great African-American athletes,” Cowan, the Commonwealth’s second-ever African-American senator, said in a written statement. “His skill and perseverance to get back up every time he was knocked down made him a champion in the eyes of the sports world and for those who, like him, pursued their dreams despite racial intolerance.”
Thus far, President Obama has not agreed to pardon Johnson. With the hundred-year anniversary of the champ’s conviction coming up this May, however, some are worried that a pardon, though deserved, could be used to whitewash the legacy of Johnson, and the revolutionary role he played in early twentieth-century American society.
Johnson had a passion for flamboyant fashion and fast cars, and a preference for white women as well. He opened a “black and tan” club in Chicago, where whites and black were encouraged to intermingle. Almost every aspect of his lifestyle was an affront to early twentieth-century sensibilities.
“When Johnson became the first heavyweight boxing champion with black skin,” author Dave Zirin writes in A People’s History of Sports in the United States, “his victory created a serious crisis in the conventional wisdom about race.” Following the famed author Jack London’s call for “a great white hope” who would return the title to the white race, Jim Jeffries, the unbeaten former heavyweight champ (who had previously refused Johnson a fight), agreed to come out of retirement, announcing that he was “going into [the] fight with the sole purpose of proving that a white man is better than a Negro.”
Jeffries, of course, was proved wrong. Johnson knocked him out in front of 25,000 mostly white, disappointed boxing fans and pseudo-social Darwinists. Violence then ensued, with “white lynch mobs attacking blacks in … Illinois, Missouri, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Colorado, Texas, and Washington, D.C.,” Zirin continues. It was the largest racial uprising the country had ever experienced, and helped make Johnson a target more than ever before. It’s believed to have led to his conviction under the Mann Act, which was often used selectively.
“Why then this thrill of national disgust?” asked Great Barrington native and NAACP founder W.E.B. DuBois. “It comes down … to this unforgivable blackness.”
“Johnson had the book thrown at him in an era when laws prohibiting interracial marriage were the rule across much of the nation,” Theresa Runstedtler, author of Jack Johnson: Rebel Sojourner, wrote on The Feminist Wire. “Facing a 366-day prison sentence and a $1,000 fine, Johnson fled the country in protest, and spent the next seven years in exile abroad. When he finally returned in 1920, he still had to serve a 10-month sentence at Leavenworth Penitentiary.”
But Johnson’s experience represents more than the unjust application of an unfair law. “It points to the broader criminalization of black life in the early twentieth century,” continues Runstedtler, “and in particular, to the demonization of black working-class men’s bold expressions of New Negro masculinity. Johnson was simply the most famous member of this emerging black working-class subculture that embraced conspicuous consumption and outspoken bravado. These expressions of New Negro manhood provided black men with a means to publicly recuperate their sense of dignity and to protest their dehumanizing experiences of racial discrimination and economic exploitation. In many respects, it was the hip-hop culture of its day, widely associated with black criminality and black masculine pathology.”
A posthumous pardoning of Johnson, Runstedtler fears, would be “used by politicians on both sides of the aisle to demonstrate their respective parties’ supposed commitment to improving the lives of people of color, especially poor and working-class people of color … [when] such a professed concern simply is not reflected in their legislative records.”•