jack johnson, pardon, boxing

By Harry Allison

For more than 100 years, Jack Johnson’s legend as the first black heavyweight boxing champion has been undisputed, but his legacy had been tarnished by a racially tainted criminal conviction.

His battles against white opponents, in the ring and outside of it, gave rise to “The Great White Hope” play and movie and he came to be lionized as a barrier breaker.

But the criminal conviction from 1913 that most would find abhorrent today — for transporting a white woman across state lines — haunted Jack Johnson well after his death in 1946 and motivated politicians and celebrities for years to advocate for a pardon, however symbolic.

Yesterday, in the Oval Office, Jack Johnson posthumously found an unexpected champion: President Trump.

Although his own record on civil rights has come under question, often harshly, Trump, flanked by boxing champions and Sylvester Stallone, the actor who brought the case to his attention, signed an order pardoning Johnson.

The president called Johnson “a truly great fighter” who “had a tough life” but served 10 months in federal prison “for what many view as a racially motivated injustice.” Trump said the conviction took place during a “period of tremendous racial tension in the United States.”

Trump has often found himself in the center of fiery debates over race and sports, and civil rights in general, repeatedly admonishing NFL players, a majority of them black, who have knelt during the national anthem at games to protest racism and police brutality.

Hours before he announced the pardon, he told Fox News that he agreed with the NFL’s new policy requiring players to stand for the national anthem or remain in the locker room before games, saying of those who did not stand, “maybe you shouldn’t be in the country.”

The president also came under sustained criticism several months ago after making remarks sympathetic to white supremacists after a deadly rally by them in Charlottesville, Va.

“This, isolated, is a good gesture to right a miscarriage of justice,” said Stefanie Brown James, a Democratic political consultant. “However, there are a lot of current, modern-day issues that he could address as the living president that he chooses not to. I’m just personally tired of symbolism.”

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