President Obama is dealing with costly wars in Iran and Afghanistan, an economy that borders on a depression and a contentious fight with Congress over healthcare, so people might want to excuse the president for not putting one of U.S. Sen. John McCain’s requests atop his to-do list.They shouldn’t, though – not on this issue. McCain, along with U.S. Rep. Peter King, is continuing his campaign to set right an historical wrong. He’s asking Obama to pardon Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champ, posthumously for a felony that sent the boxer to prison in 1913.
Johnson’s crime: sleeping with a white woman.Yet that was just a pretext for what was a more egregious crime in turn of the 20th-century America. Sleeping with a white woman, particularly one with a whore’s reputation, didn’t bother white society as much as seeing the heavyweight champion’s belt around the waist of a black man – not just any black man, but one who mocked conventions of the era and lived life on his terms. Johnson won the belt in Australia on Dec. 26, 1908, a time when social mores differed from what they are today. He had chased champion Tommy Burns around the world before cornering him in one of the few spots on the planet that would let a black man fight a white man for the ultimate symbol of white superiority. In the end, it wasn’t much of a fight. For 14 rounds, Johnson battered Burns, a Canadian, so badly that police had to step into the ring to stop the bloodletting. The championship belonged to the grinning, arrogant Johnson, a title that won him enemies everywhere history remained steeped in old ways. In Jim Crow America, those old ways flourished from sea to shining sea. They led to a campaign for a “great white hope,” someone who could beat the arrogance out of Johnson. No one emerged – not immediately.
Instead of beating Johnson in the ring, his critics and the race-haters sicced the legal system on him. He couldn’t beat them. He was convicted under the federal Mann Act, which outlawed taking a woman across state lines for "immoral purposes." The law was aimed at fighting prostitution; it was supposed to punish pimps and not a man who was taking the woman he loved somewhere for a good time.
Did that matter to Americans in the early 1900s? No.The trumped-up allegations forced Johnson to flee to Europe. He didn’t find happiness abroad, because he wasn’t a man who lived on the run. He was an American, and he loved America, its faults and all. So he worked out an agreement that brought him back to his homeland. He would spend 10 months in prison for having the audacity to sleep with a white woman, although his real crime was holding a title that belonged to white men. What happened to Jack Johnson was a dark moment in this country’s history. It might not rival what happened half century later in Birmingham or Selma, Ala., or Little Rock, Ark. But his conviction showed the lengths white Americans would go to protect their property. Justice can be as blind as Ray Charles, and putting time and reason between a wrong doesn’t always lead to 20/20 vision. Besides, people don’t step forward and admit a wrong so easily. That’s why you have to applaud McCain (and King) for trying again to right this one. As he asked President Bush in 2005, McCain wants the taint that hangs over Johnson’s legacy to vanish, and it can go away with the stroke of Obama’s pen. That’s all McCain, a former boxer, has asked of the president: to sign a pardon for Johnson, who died June 10, 1946. "Regrettably, we have not received a response from you or any member of your administration," McCain and King said Friday in a letter to the president.
The White House has made no comment, which ought not surprise anybody.
Since taking office in January, President Obama has shown he’s a deliberate leader. He hasn't rushed into decisions. But some decisions are easier to make than others, and the president shouldn’t need more than a minute to realize that siding with McCain on pardoning Jack Johnson is worth his time to do.