President Donald Trump pardons late heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson

He called Johnson "a truly great fighter" who served jail time for "what many view as racially-motivated injustice"

Published May 24, 2018 7:04PM (EDT)

Sylvester Stallone; Jack Johnson; Donald Trump (Getty/Olivier Douliery/Lass)
Sylvester Stallone; Jack Johnson; Donald Trump (Getty/Olivier Douliery/Lass)

President Donald Trump on Thursday granted a posthumous pardon to late boxer Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion, who was convicted in 1913 of transporting a white woman across state lines, following the urging of actor Sylvester Stallone. The president referred to "Rocky" star as "Sly," boasting that the two have been friends for "a very long time."

Trump signed the pardon for Johnson during an Oval Office ceremony. Those who joined him included Stallone, current heavyweight champion Deontay Wilder, heavyweight champion Lenox Lewis and Johnson's great-great niece Linda Bell Haywood.

"Today, I've issued an executive grant of clemency – a full pardon – posthumously to John Arthur 'Jack' Johnson . . . the first African-American heavyweight champion of the world," Trump said.

The president called Johnson "a truly great fighter," who "had a tough life" and served 10 months in federal prison "for what many view as a racially-motivated injustice." Trump added that the conviction took place during a "period of tremendous racial tension in the U.S."

In the decades after Johnson was convicted, and as society became more enlightened, Johnson's case garnered significant national attention as a symbol of racial injustice in the American justice system.

"We have done something today that was very important, because we righted a wrong," Trump continued. "Jack Johnson was not treated fairly, and we have corrected that. And I'm very honored to have done it."

The boxing champion was convicted of violating the Mann Act, which made it illegal to transport women across state lines "for immoral purposes."

Johnson was sentenced to a year in prison in 1913, but he fled the country for several years. He returned in 1920 to serve his sentence.

"He was treated very rough, very tough," Trump said Thursday as he signed what he referred to as an "a full pardon" for Johnson.

The president pointed out that bipartisan requests for Johnson's pardon date back years. Nonetheless, no previous president had been willing to grant one. Politicians and celebrities including current Sen. John McCain, former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Stallone and filmmaker Ken Burns have advocated for Johnson's pardon.

Congress also unanimously approved a resolution in 2009 calling for the champion's pardon. In 2013, a century after Johnson's conviction, Congress reintroduced the resolution.

Trump also took a jab at former President Barack Obama, who rebuffed pardoning Johnson, in part due to allegations of domestic violence against women, according to the New York Times.

In April, Trump had tweeted that he was considering granting a pardon to Johnson.

"Sylvester Stallone called me with the history of heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson. His trials and tribulations were great, his life complex and controversial," Trump wrote in a tweet at the time. "Others have looked at this over the years, most thought it would be done, but yes, I am considering a Full Pardon!"

By Shira Tarlo

MORE FROM Shira Tarlo

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Donald Trump Jack Johnson President Donald Trump Sylvester Stallone The White House White House