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?

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."

Johnson's Dominance Spurred Search for 'Great White Hope'

Johnson was a lightning rod for controversy, with his flamboyant style, his years of dominance in the boxing ring and his open courting of white women at a time when such behavior was taboo, not to mention dangerous, for a black man.

Johnson became the first African-American to win boxing's heavyweight crown Dec. 26, 1908, a century before Obama's election as the nation's first black president and nearly 40 years before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball.

Johnson's record in the ring against his mostly white opponents spurred the furious search for a "Great White Hope."

For years, Johnson sought a fight with James Jeffries, a hulking white boxer who reigned as heavyweight champion for nearly six years.

Jeffries left the sport rather than face Johnson and risk losing. But, later, he was persuaded to leave retirement and step into the ring for the ultimate showdown.

The Johnson-Jeffries fight July 4, 1910, in Reno, Nev., was deemed the "Battle of the Century," two titans of the sport fighting with not just a title on the line but significant racial issues as well.

"I am going into this fight for the sole purpose of proving that a white man is better than a Negro," Jeffries said before the fight.

But Johnson prevailed over Jeffries in the 15-round fight. His victory sparked deadly race riots and violence across the nation and further fueled the hostility directed at Johnson.

In 1910, Congress passed the Mann Act, which made it unlawful to transport women across state lines "for the purpose of prostitution, debauchery, or for any other immoral purpose."

The bill was aimed at cracking down on prostitution but some people believe it was used against Johnson as retribution for his success in the ring and his lifestyle.

Law enforcement authorities first targeted Johnson's relationship with a white woman named Lucille Cameron. But the two got married and she refused to cooperate with the investigation.

Prosecutor Called Johnson a Scapegoat

Another former lover of Johnson's, a white woman named Belle Schreiber, came forward to testify against him.

Based on her testimony, Johnson was convicted in 1913 of violating the Mann Act. He fled to France before he was sentenced in order to avoid punishment.

Johnson's story was chronicled in Ken Burns' 2005 documentary, "Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson."

The prosecutor in the case said after the verdict that Johnson was made into a scapegoat, according to the documentary.

"This Negro, in the eyes of many, has been persecuted," the prosecutor said. "Perhaps as an individual he was. But it was his misfortune to be the foremost example of the evil in permitting the intermarriage of whites and blacks."

His reign as heavyweight champion came to an end when he lost to a white boxer, Jess Willard, in a fight in Cuba in 1915. He returned to the United States in 1920 to surrender to authorities and served 10 months in prison.

Johnson tried to resuscitate his boxing career but he never regained his crown. The former champion died in a car accident in North Carolina in 1946 at the age of 68.

In April, McCain and King appeared with three of Johnson's relatives to announce their resolution urging a presidential pardon.

"We need to erase this act of racism which sent an American citizen to prison on a trumped-up charge," McCain said then. "I have great confidence this president will be more than eager to sign this legislation and pardon Jack Johnson."

In their letter to the president in October, McCain and King asked Obama to "right this wrong and erase an act of racism that sent an American citizen to prison."

The two lawmakers noted that it is their second letter to the president asking him to consider Congress' request for a pardon.

"Regrettably, we have not received a response from you or any member of your administration," they wrote.

Both McCain and King told ABC News that they have yet to hear from the White House on the issue.

Obama Has a Lot on His Plate

"We're not upset about it or unhappy about it," McCain said. "We know the president's very busy."

King said he understood that Obama has a lot on his plate but this is an issue that could bring people together.

"I don't want to sound critical because he does have Afghanistan," King said. "I don't want to be saying, 'Hey, it's more important to be pardoning Jack Johnson than deciding on Afghanistan.

"On the other hand, I do think President Obama can do both things."

Both McCain and King noted the significance of a presidential pardon for Johnson.

It would show, McCain said, "that America's come a long way and that Americans, even though it takes us way, way, way too long, are willing to do what we can to correct injustices that were committed on any of our citizens."

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events