Justice Department Won't Recommend Posthumous Pardon for Nation's First Black Boxing Champ

Will President Obama Step in to Clear Jack Johnson's Name?

ByABC News
October 20, 2009, 5:38 PM

Dec. 11, 2009 -- The Justice Department won't recommend a posthumous pardon for Jack Johnson, the nation's first African-American heavyweight boxing champion, but signaled that President Obama has the authority to grant one.

Johnson was sentenced to prison nearly a century ago for his open affair with a white woman but his biggest crime may have been his years of dominance in the ring.

In a letter to Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., the Justice Department's pardon attorney, Ronald L. Rodgers, said it is general policy not to process posthumous pardon requests. The letter was in response to one King and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., had sent to the president.

Given the time that has passed since Johnson's case, the department's limited resources "are best dedicated to requests submitted by persons who can truly benefit from a grant of the request," Rodgers wrote last week in the letter that was released today.

Johnson held the heavyweight title for nearly seven years but the biggest punch came from the nation's justice system. Now, Johnson supporters say, Obama has the opportunity to lift the boxer's legacy off the canvas.

Rodgers noted in his letter from the Justice Department that the president has the constitutional right to pardon or commute sentences "at his sole discretion, guided when he sees fit by the advice of the Pardon Attorney."

The Justice Department attorney pointed out that both President Clinton and President George W. Bush issued one posthumous pardon.

King, who, with McCain, has led the effort in Congress to get a posthumous pardon for Johnson, is still putting the pressure on the White House.

"The Justice Department is stating that, historically, it is the president who grants posthumous pardons," King said. "I agree and respectfully urge that president Obama grant a pardon to Jack Johnson."

The White House declined to comment on the pardon request and the Justice Department's letter to King.

The boxing champ was railroaded by racism and jealousy over his athletic prowess, King and McCain said. The two boxing enthusiasts have worked together for several years to get a resolution supporting a pardon for Johnson. This year, for the first time, the measure passed both the House and Senate.

McCain said he is confident that Obama will issue the pardon, eventually.

"It was a miscarriage of justice and one that deserves to be corrected," McCain told ABC News in October. "It was a stain on our national honor."

King echoed the sentiment.

"This is long overdue," he said. "We can rectify that and we should rectify that."

The resolution notes that Johnson should receive a posthumous pardon "to expunge a racially motivated abuse" by the justice system from the "annals of criminal justice in the United States."

It says that the charges against Johnson were brought up "clearly to keep him away from the boxing ring where he continued to defeat his white opponents."

King said, "A terrible wrong was done to him. He was unjustly prosecuted, unjustly convicted. He was basically destroyed at the height of his career."