WASHINGTON — Researching a documentary on Jack Johnson, filmmaker Ken Burns decided that racism, not justice, sent the first black heavyweight boxing champion to jail nearly a century ago.
Burns decided to seek a presidential pardon to right the wrong. On Tuesday, civil rights leaders and Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Orrin G. Hatch of Utah joined Burns to announce the filing of legal papers with the Justice Department seeking the pardon.
The petition argues that Johnson's 1913 conviction under the Mann Act, a law passed three years earlier that banned the interstate transport of women for immoral purposes, punished Johnson for a consensual relationship with a white woman.
"A gross and grave injustice was done to Jack Johnson, where a law was perverted to send this decent American to jail," McCain said. "Pardoning Jack Johnson will serve as a historic testament of America's resolve to live up to its noble ideals of justice and equality."
Johnson died in a traffic accident in 1946 at age 68. If granted, the pardon would be only the second awarded posthumously. The first was President Clinton's 1999 pardon of Henry O. Flipper, a former slave who became the first black Army officer.
Johnson became the first black champion when he stopped Tommy Burns in Australia in 1908. Two years later, he defeated challenger Jim Jeffries, who had come out of retirement as the "great white hope" to beat the black fighter.
Johnson's victory, in an era when Jim Crow laws and segregation ruled, sparked race riots.
Johnson was arrested in 1912 on the charge of abducting Lucille Cameron. He was indicted, but the government lost Cameron as a witness when she became the second white woman to marry Johnson; a wife cannot be forced to testify against her husband.
The prosecution came up with a witness, Belle Schreiber, also white and a former mistress. Her testimony led to Johnson's conviction. He served a 10-month sentence.