More than 100 years after he was prosecuted under a racist law, more than 70 years after his death and after decades of lobbying by local people, national leaders and luminaries across the county, Galveston-born boxing champion Jack Johnson is no longer a convicted criminal.
President Donald Trump on Thursday signed a pardon for Johnson, the first black heavyweight boxing champion, who was convicted under the Mann Act in 1913 for transporting a white woman across state lines.
“One last victory for the Galveston Giant,” said Sam Collins III, a Hitchcock resident who led recent efforts, including letter-writing campaigns, for the pardon.
“It is done, it is done.”
Trump took the long-awaited step during a ceremony in the Oval Office about a month after announcing his intention to approve the rare posthumous pardon. The event was attended by some of Johnson’s descendants, World Boxing Council heavyweight champion Deontay Wilder, retired heavyweight titleholder Lennox Lewis and actor Sylvester Stallone, who apparently was instrumental in persuading the president to clear Johnson’s name, The Associated Press reported.
"I am taking this very righteous step, I believe, to correct a wrong that occurred in our history and to honor a truly legendary boxing champion," Trump said during the ceremony, according The AP.
"It's my honor to do it,” Trump said. “It's about time.”
Guests at the ceremony brought with them a colorful boxing championship belt, which sat front and center on the president's Resolute Desk as he spoke.
Trump jokingly asked Lewis whether he could "take Deontay in a fight" if he really started working out.
Lewis said Johnson had been an inspiration to him personally, while Stallone said Johnson had served as the basis of the character Apollo Creed in his "Rocky" films.
Islander Scott Freudenburg said Thursday he was glad about the pardon. He had written letters to the White House asking for the pardon, he said.
“It’s a shame Jack Johnson was never recognized as a role model because of the time he lived,” Freudenburg said.
“It’s not only a great day in the history of Galveston, it’s a great day for the history of Galveston,” Freudenburg said. “It makes you feel good for the city.”
Johnson, the first African-American to win the world heavyweight boxing title, was convicted in 1913 by an all-white jury of accompanying a white woman across state lines.
Johnson grew up on the island and learned to fight on the Galveston docks.
He won the world heavyweight boxing title by defeating Tommy Burns the day after Christmas in 1908 in Sydney, Australia. That victory was followed by a spree of racial violence.
Johnson lived in exile for a time after being charged with the crime but returned in 1920 and was imprisoned until 1921. Johnson died in 1946.
Collins and many other locals had hoped the pardon would come under the administrations of George W. Bush, a Texan, or Barack Obama, the nation’s first black president.
U.S. Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, and Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat who retired from the Senate in 2017, spent years lobbying for Johnson’s pardon.
Congress in 2016 passed Every Student Succeeds Act with a resolution urging Obama to pardon Johnson.
The resolution showed the White House there was support in Congress for the pardon. However, Obama never acted on the resolution.
The U.S. Department of Justice never made a recommendation to the president to issue the pardon. It is the longstanding departmental practice to not make recommendations about posthumous pardons.
Efforts to secure a pardon for Johnson continued as Galveston residents wrote letters to get a presidential pardon for Johnson.
In a 2014 ceremony, the Galveston Historical Foundation and the Texas Historical Commission dedicated a Texas Historical Marker in Galveston that honors Johnson.
It was the first time in Texas history that a historic marker honored an African-American male athlete.
Johnson defended his title many times, including the Fight of the Century, when he fought former champion Jim Jeffries on July 4, 1910, in Reno, Nev.
“This injustice has finally been corrected,” Collins said.
“America doesn’t always get it right, but we move closer to being a more perfect union. We are moving forward as a country.”
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