Barack Obama asked to pardon first black heavyweight champion Jack Johnson

One hundred years ago today, on July 4, 1910, Jack Johnson, his glistening skin perspiring and his powerful physique taut and focused, defeated James Jeffries in Reno, Nevada, to become the first African-American heavyweight champion of the world.
He was unorthodox, flamboyant, and proud. He was also happy to let his free spirit run, unshackled by the procrustean mores of the time. He suffered for it. And now his family believe he should be pardoned.

In a few hours’ time a bell will ring in Reno, Nevada, at the site where he fought Jeffries. It is now a scrap metal yard. Since then, his family feel Johnson has suffered enough junk himself.
A gathering of friends and family will unite in memory of the late fighter, essay a quiet prayer and then place another request for a Presidential pardon for a man most often articulated as the first black heavyweight champion.
Johnson, a vibrant character who captured the imagination of society, yet simultaneously the attention of the anti-liberals in society, was both prizefighter extraordinaire, and pariah.
The sound of the bell is a reminder of a near century long injustice his family claims pertains to racism, in this case the conviction of Johnson under the Mann Act in 1913.
The law claimed Johnson had flaunted his wealth and status as the heavyweight champion and openly dated and married white women.
The Mann Act made it illegal to transport a woman across state lines for immoral purposes.
100 years on…Can he do it ? Yes, he can. And perhaps Mr President should.
Surely it is time for President Barack Obama to involve himself in the pardon of  Johnson, who symbolised a timeline in the emancipation and expression of black Americans through sport.
After Johnson, came his great friend Joe Louis, then Muhammad Ali, and then, in the Nineties, Mike Tyson. Pioneers in their periods; time-shifters. Men who pushed the boundaries through the will of their unbridled spirits, and ultimately, very often to their own physical or societal demise. A photograph of Ali rests on the wall in President Obama’s office. He knows.
Behind the nostalgia, Johnson’s family  plan to make renewed calls for a posthumous presidential pardon for Johnson on grounds of his conviction for transporting a woman across state lines for immoral purposes was steeped in the racism of the time.
Sen. John McCain, who sponsored a pardon resolution along with Rep. Peter King, last year welcomed renewed support for the cause in Reno.
McCain remains hopeful President Barack Obama will sign the pardon.
“I know the president, once he looks carefully at this issue, would want to correct a grave injustice done.”
Jeffries’ great-great nephew Gary Wurst said he supports the pardon.
“I think it’s time for it,” the 72-year-old Wurst. “It would rectify the wrongs of the past. Times have changed so much.”
Johnson, who died in a car crash in 1946, served nine months of a one-year and one-day prison sentence in 1920 after returning from exile overseas.
As the acclaimed American film-maker Ken Burns said in his 2006 documentary Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise And Fall Of Jack Johnson: “Johnson in many ways is an embodiment of the African-American struggle to be truly free in this country – economically, socially and politically. He absolutely refused to play by the rules set by the white establishment, or even those of the black community. In that sense, he fought for freedom not just as a black man, but as an individual.”
Johnson, with a 79-8 win-loss record, was a fighting phenomenon, one of the first black celebrity sportsmen. Born in Galveston, Texas, on March 31 1878, to a former slave, he was a great defensive fighter, who could box both off the front and back foot.
The man who became known as the “Galveston Giant” won the world heavyweight title on Boxing Day 1908, after police in Australia stopped his 14-round match against the severely battered Canadian world champion, Tommy Burns.
As world champion, Johnson enjoyed his luxuries, including a fleet of cars, hand-tailored clothes and – taboo at the time – white confidantes. He also married three times, each time to a white woman.
The Long Island socialite Etta Duryea, who met Johnson at a car race in 1909, never heard from her father again after her 1911 marriage to Johnson. She committed suicide in 1911, reportedly miserable over rumours that Johnson was cavorting with other women.
Sentenced in 1913 to a year in prison, Johnson fled the US, with his next wife Lucille Cameron, returning seven years later, when he agreed to complete his jail term.
Johnson died in a car crash in North Carolina in 1946, aged 68.
Presidential posthumous pardons are rare, but in 1999, President Bill Clinton pardoned Lt Henry O. Flipper, the Army’s first black commissioned officer, who was drummed out of the military in 1882 after white officers accused him of embezzling funds.
Terry and Tommy Lane, the sons of famed boxing referee Mills Lane, put together this weekend’s festival of boxing remembrance in Reno. Events included a boxing bill last night, a panel discussion on Johnson’s place in history and his place in the African American community.
“Our whole lives we knew we wanted to be a part of the commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the Johnson-Jefferies fight,” said Terry Lane. “Looking back shows 100 years of progress. We’re not perfect, but we’ve come a long, long way.”
“There is no good reason for President Obama not to pardon Jack Johnson, especially when the Mann Act was specifically created just around Jack Johnson,” Lane said. “Now would be the perfect time to correct a century-long injustice.”

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