According to newspaper reports this week, Sen. John McCain, the former Republican candidate for president, has introduced a resolution to Congress urging President Barack Obama to pardon Jack Johnson for his conviction of an alleged violation of the Mann Act ninety six years ago. (UPI) The resolution, originally presented to the Congress of George W. Bush in September, 2008 states in part, that Johnson was “wronged by a racially motivated conviction prompted by his success in the boxing ring and his relationships with white women. ” (API)
In 1904 Jack Johnson became the first African American heavy weight champion. At a time when black men were being lynched, beaten and burned for daring to look a white man in the eye, Jack Johnson was beating them viciously in the boxing ring while taunting the on-looking crowd of whites that screamed for his defeat. Jack London, a popular American author of the time, (who had an ex-slave as a major maternal influence in his life) railed against the black pugilist, writing essays pleading for ‘some white man, any white man, to knock Johnson’s block off’.
(Starnes) When white America could not come up with a “Great White Hope” to defeat Johnson they chose to defeat Jack in the only way they could – through a federal law created to protect against transporting white females across state lines for the purpose of prostitution. (Mann) Prosecutors used this law despite the fact its original purpose was the prevention of non-consensual sexual abuse (e. g. , prostitution) of white females. Jack Johnson married the woman he allegedly transported across state lines for ‘immoral purposes’.
When she would not testify against him, a former lover chose to cooperate with federal prosecutors. Jack Johnson fled the United States to avoid incarceration but returned in 1920 and served one year and one day in Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary. While there were anti-miscegenation laws in America beginning in the late 17th century, which persisted until 1967, all such laws were local and not federal so prosecutors used the Mann Act to accuse, try, and convict Jack Johnson.
Irony is one of the greatest factors of life for African Americans: no law ever protected black women from being transported across state lines for ‘immoral purposes’. While marriage between black and white was illegal in most states until 1967, no laws prohibited the rape of black women by white males. Once the importation of slaves was illegal, slavery was sustained, in part, by the sexual relationships between both white men and women and black slaves. The children that resulted were most often slaves. These offspring usually added to the labor force on southern plantations.
Much of America’s history has involved denying the most basic right – to love another human being – to its African American citizens. Irony is at its peak when the federal conviction of a black man, for having sex with a white woman, should wind up on the desk of another black man who is the offspring of a black man and white woman! Bibliography Pardon sought for champion Jack Johnson United Press, “Pardon sought for champion Jack Johnson”, Sports http://www. upi. com, (22/4/2009), Associated Press “Congress Seeks Pardon For Boxing Champ”, http://www. cbsnews. com (9/26/2008)