Today is the birthday of Jack Johnson, Galveston’s most famous native son. And it’s a good day to remind members of the Texas congressional delegation that they should be lobbying for a presidential pardon for “The Galveston Giant.”
Johnson was the first African-American to win the heavyweight boxing title. A century ago, he was shamefully convicted in an awful miscarriage of justice.
Johnson grew up on the island and learned to fight on the docks. He won the world heavyweight boxing title by defeating Tommy Burns on the day after Christmas in 1908. That victory was followed by a spree of racial violence.
Johnson couldn’t be beaten in the ring. So, the U.S. government used its resources to get him.
In 1913, Johnson was convicted of violating the Mann Act. His crime was consorting with white women. In other words, he challenged white America’s notion of the proper role of black Americans.
Johnson lived in exile for a while but returned and served time in prison.
What that demonstrated is what we’ve always known in this country: A government can break an individual just because it has more power.
There was nothing right about the conviction. There is no moral high ground in this story.
So, again this year, we make a plea for a pardon.
The Justice Department has suggested it doesn’t have the time to invest in posthumous pardons. What time the Justice Department spends in seeking justice for the dead is time not spent on seeking justice for the living.
We can see the point, but in this case it would take no investment of time and energy in figuring out what’s fair. There is no debate about what happened — and what happened is a stain on the American judicial system.
It’s time for a pardon.
Incidentally, some national political leaders — John McCain of Arizona has been the most insistent — have been urging President Barack Obama to pardon Johnson. It would be nice to see a few more Texans in that group.