GALVESTON — Civil rights activists joined a relative of former Galveston boxer Jack Johnson on Sunday to urge President Barack Obama to posthumously pardon the first African American heavyweight champion.
Johnson earned the title in 1908 by defeating Canada’s Tommy Burns in Sydney, Australia.
Johnson, who was black and married white women, was arrested in 1912 and ultimately convicted and sentenced to prison for violating the Mann Act, a federal statute that outlawed the transportation of women across state lines for prostitution, debauchery or other immoral purposes.
The conviction was seen as punishment for having relations with white women amid the racial inequality that permeated the United States through the 20th century.
Chicago resident Linda Haywood celebrated Sunday what would have been the 135th birthday of Johnson, her great-great-uncle, at the Galveston park bearing his statue and named in his honor.
Haywood joined former boxing greats Eric Carr, “Buffalo” Gill, Frank Tate and nearly 100 spectators in a spirited, videotaped chant that proclaimed, “President Obama, pardon Jack Johnson.”
“What does it matter?” Haywood said. “For so many years, my family was so ashamed of the fact my uncle went to prison.”
When Johnson visited his family, he had to sneak in at night with his white wives and girlfriends, Haywood said. Because of the shame associated with Johnson, Haywood didn’t learn until she was 12 that she was related to him. A pardon would erase the stigma associated with a great man, she said.
“The color of your skin should not determine who or how you love,” Haywood said. “And he shouldn’t have had to apologize for that, and he certainly should not have had to go to jail for it.”
Leon Phillips, president of the Galveston County Coalition for Justice, organized the gathering at the park, 2601 Ave. M., adjacent to the state’s first black high school.
When people learned Johnson’s birthday fell on Easter, some questioned whether to hold the celebration Sunday, Phillips said.
“Easter is about the resurrection,” Phillips said. “Why not resurrect (Johnson’s) good name?”
Tarris Woods, a former Galveston city councilman, was honored at the celebration for his 45 years as a civil rights activist. Woods told the gathering that in 1990, Johnson was inducted in the International Boxing Hall of Fame.
“I look up there at Washington, D.C., and see the first African American president who has the power to pardon this man and, four years later, he still has not been pardoned,” Woods said. “We want to send a message all the way to D.C.: President Barack Obama, you have the power to give Jack Johnson a pardon tomorrow,”
In 2009, the both the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives passed resolutions in support of a pardon for the Galveston native.