For all the things President Obama says he can’t do because of the political gridlock in Washington, he can right a century-old wrong simply by picking up a pen. Tomorrow wouldn’t be too soon.
Jack Johnson, boxing’s first black heavyweight champion, was arrested in October 1912, railroaded by an all-white jury the following June and eventually served a year in prison, essentially for escorting a white woman across state lines. All these years later, for all the other things that have changed since, Johnson’s name is still lashed to those tracks.
For the third time in less than a decade, a bipartisan group of lawmakers sent a resolution back to the president’s desk Tuesday urging him to change that by granting Johnson a posthumous pardon. The first one went up to the White House in 2004, but it was declined by Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, even though while governor of Texas, Bush honored the Galveston native with a “Jack Johnson Day” for five straight years.
Obama, likewise, passed on his first chance in 2009. By way of explanation, the attorney in charge of pardons at the Department of Justice said at the time that the resources of his small staff could be put to better use pardoning the living. Fair enough. There are plenty of deserving people who could benefit from clemency right now.
Yet in terms of granting pardons, Obama has room to spare. So far, he’s been the least generous president in modern history, issuing a total of 39, including 17 just last week, and none posthumously. According to data compiled by the DOJ, President Clinton granted 396 pardons over his two terms, but only one posthumously; Bush pardoned 189 people over his two, also just one posthumously.
Two of Johnson’s staunchest backers, Sen. John McCain of Arizona and Rep. Peter King of New York, both Republicans, were joined in the latest effort by Democrats Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada and Rep. William Cowan of Massachusetts.
“Johnson’s memory was unjustly tarnished by a racially motivated criminal conviction and it is now time to recast his legacy,” Reid said in a statement. Not long after it was issued, the White House declined to comment. Exactly why remains anyone’s guess.
The measure certainly seems popular enough. In addition to the lawmakers, supporters as diverse as filmmaker Ken Burns and rapper Chuck D have lobbied on Johnson’s behalf at one time or another. It can’t be because the president or the DOJ needs more information about his life and times, either.
Johnson’s win over white boxer Jim Jeffries in the 1910 “Fight of the Century” touched off deadly race riots across the country. Scorned by the same boxing establishment for many of the same sins a half-century later, Muhammad Ali lionized Johnson and like his predecessor, refused to back down. Unlike Johnson, Ali has lived long enough to see the world around him change.
But Obama knew all that already. And as a former law professor, especially one who taught a course in sports and law, he no doubt admired Johnson’s legal moxie. An urbane man by any measure, but especially for his time, Johnson filed more than a few appeals for clemency on his own from the jailhouse, unafraid to get straight to the point. In one letter to the attorney general, Johnson demanded to know why the previous AG denied his parole despite a recommendation from the board.
“I would like to know if my being a black man would have anything to do with the action of (his predecessor). I would like to know if my being a pugilist has had anything to with the denial of the application. … I am up a tree as to why I should be denied and other men released, men whose criminal records are almost as black,” Johnson wrote, “as the ace of spades.”
Johnson died in a car crash in 1946, racing into the night along U.S. Highway 1 after being refused service at a diner near Raleigh, N.C. He was buried in an unmarked grave in Chicago, where a stone bearing only the name “Johnson” was eventually put up. All those who hoped the nation’s first black president might help relaunch their campaign to provide a more fitting tribute to the man who blazed a similar trail in infinitely tougher times are waiting still.
A few hold out hope that Obama will get around to pardoning Johnson, as the rapper Chuck D put it, “at the tail end of his presidential run.”
But as the president himself is fond of pointing out, if something is worth doing, there’s no time like the present.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org and follow him at Twitter.com/JimLitke.
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