American politics is a true emotional extravaganza. Just when you think you can’t bear the squabbling and the paralysis and the soul-deadening compromise and the race-baiting and the dog-whistling and the ideological entrenchment any longer, our government comes through with a sudden birth of bipartisan sanity that is almost—almost—enough to restore your faith in democracy and the great American experiment.
Last Wednesday the U.S. House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly to request a pardon for Jack Johnson, the first African-American heavyweight boxing champion of the world and victim of one of the country’s truly great racial and legal hatchet jobs, a mere 102 years after he was convicted on trumped-up charges in Illinois.
Most likely, the majority of the 359 congressmen and –women who voted in favor of a Johnson pardon didn’t realize what they were doing at the time. The pardon is just one small provision of the 1061-page Every Student Succeeds Act, a reauthorization of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act designed to replace No Child Left Behind. The Act, which a White House spokesman has said will “reduce over-testing and one-size-fits-all federal mandates,” doesn’t really have anything to do with boxing but it would shift most educational authority from the federal government to the states and reduce the emphasis No Child Left Behind put on standardized testing. The bill has the support of the National Education Association, teacher’s unions, the National PTA, and the National Governors Association.
All of which sounds fine, but what does an education bill have to do with granting posthumous justice to a wrongly convicted, historically significant, but otherwise largely forgotten former boxing champion?
Johnson was the heavyweight champion at the height of the Jim Crow era. The son of former slaves, Johnson flouted the social and racial conventions of the time, celebrating his own greatness in the press, driving fancy cars and dressing in expensive clothing, and unapologetically pronouncing and acting on his preference for white women. To the racists prevalent during that time Johnson was a demon, the living embodiment of the country’s racial collapse and the moral, even religious, dangers of miscegenation. As soon as Johnson won the heavyweight title in 1908 cries went out in the press for a “Great White Hope” to reclaim the title, redeem the white race, and set the world right again. When Johnson beat former champion James Jeffries in 1910, race riots took place all over the country, resulting in at least 20 deaths.
White America kept at Johnson even as his fame and legend grew, embittered by his success and his arrogance and his refutation of acceptable color roles and his unapologetic sexual interests, and in 1913 the boxer was found guilty by an all-white jury of violating the Mann Act, otherwise known as the White-Slave Traffic Act, which made it illegal to cross state lines with “any woman or girl for the purpose of prostitution or debauchery, or for any other immoral purpose.” The charges and the conviction were nonsense, of course, punishment for Johnson’s relationships with white women, and Johnson fled the country to avoid prison. Seven years later, however, Johnson surrendered to federal agents at the Mexican border and was sent to Leavenworth prison to serve a one-year sentence. The former champion died in a car crash on June 10, 1946.
For more than 10 years, Republican senators and boxing fans John McCain and Peter King have been lobbying presidents (first George W. Bush then Barack Obama) to pardon Johnson posthumously, but nothing has come of it. McCain and King figured they’d have a chance with Obama, but the president has so far demurred. The Justice Department rarely considers posthumous pardons, and a spokesman for the Obama administration has stated that it’s the “department’s position that the limited resources which are available to process requests for president clemency—now being submitted in record numbers—are best dedicated to requests submitted by persons who can truly benefit from a grant of the request”: for example, the non-violent drug offenders Obama has offered clemency to over the past year as part of his push to fix the criminal-justice system.
So, finding himself thwarted in his quest for a presidential pardon by simply asking nicely, earlier this year McCain went and slipped an amendment into the Every Student Succeeds Act, and it was quickly adopted by unanimous consent in the Senate. Though the House signed off on the formal request for a pardon of Johnson last week, Obama still has to give his consent. But administration officials have already said Obama plans to sign ESSA into law, which means Jack Johnson’s long journey from racial injustice to redemption may finally be at an end.
And actually it may not be as strange as it sounds that a sweeping education would be the forum by which a maligned boxer redeems his name. The Every Student Succeeds Act, after all, is just the newest version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which was signed into law in 1965 by President Lyndon Johnson as part of his civil rights agenda. And a pardon of Jack Johnson would have to be seen as a victory for civil rights, no matter how belated.
Besides, the story of Jack Johnson provides an invaluable and unblinking educational tool for kids, a lesson in how America works, both the good and the very, very bad. It’s a story where all the country’s worst demons are on display—its racial vitriol, its contempt, its mob mentality, the violence at its heart—but also where the possibility of redemption and the reaffirmation of the country’s best principles won’t die. Jack Johnson’s story is America’s story. For better and for worse.
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