Despite all the appeals from prominent politicians, a resolution from both houses of the U.S. Congress, despite support in Galveston — which considers Jack Johnson a native son — and despite a Texas Historical Society recognition awarding a historical marker to go along with the park the city of Galveston saw fit to embrace, he remains a felon more than 70 years after his death.
U.S. Sen. John McCain, a Republican from Arizona who has supported a Johnson pardon since 2004, said that “Jack Johnson was a boxing legend and pioneer whose career and reputation were ruined by a racially charged conviction more than a century ago. Johnson’s imprisonment forced him into the shadows of bigotry and prejudice and continues to stand as a stain on our national honor.”
Johnson, the son of former slaves, defeated Tommy Burns for the heavyweight title in 1908 at a time when blacks and whites rarely entered the same ring. He then mowed down a series of “great white hopes,” culminating in 1910 with the undefeated former champion, James J. Jeffries.
But Johnson also refused to adhere to societal norms, living lavishly and brazenly and dating outside of his race in a time when whites often killed African-Americans without fear of legal repercussions. In 1913, he was convicted of violating the Mann Act, which made it illegal to transport women across state lines for “immoral” purposes, a woman he married.
It’s an all-too-true story of the times a century ago.
But the second question of justice that we pose, in today’s times, might be the more important one.
What are his descendants owed? We think a manner of respect to them is owed.
For the stain on Johnson’s reputation forced some family members to live in shame of his legacy — the exact opposite of how Johnson led his life, a recent Associated Press story reported.
“They were led to believe that he did something wrong,” Linda E. Haywood, 61, said of family attitudes about her great-great uncle. “They were so ashamed after being so proud of him. The white man came and told them that he did something wrong, he did something dirty and they painted him out to be something that he wasn’t.”
Jack Johnson was not in his time a civil rights leader. He was a boxer who dominated the then white-dominated sport.
But the respect he earned in the boxing ring was not the respect he earned in his everyday life.
The only logical conclusion we can come to is the explanation for denying a pardon is from the U.S. Justice Department, which makes recommendations about pardons to the president.
The Justice Department makes decisions on potential pardons through an application process and typically makes recommendations to the president.
The general DOJ policy is to not accept applications for posthumous pardons for federal convictions, The Associated Press reported, citing the department’s website. The Justice Department policy said “processing posthumous pardon petitions is grounded in the belief that the time of the officials involved in the clemency process is better spent on the pardon and commutation requests of living persons.”
Given that numerous requests, not only from family members, but high-ranking officials in the U.S. government, the city of Galveston and the state of Texas, has requested a pardon for Jack Johnson, just how much “time of officials involved” would be wasted?
A pardon is deserved, if not for Jack Johnson, but for his family.
• Dave Mathews