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Pardon for boxer Jack Johnson may be elusive

President Obama hasn't responded to requests for a pardon for Jack Johnson, convicted in 1913 in a racially charged case.

October 26, 2009|Joe Markman

WASHINGTON — Nearly a century after Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight boxing champion, was convicted of crossing state lines with a prostitute, two conservative, boxing-enthusiast lawmakers are pressuring President Obama to grant him a measure of justice.

Dual requests for a posthumous pardon have passed the Senate and House.

They were sponsored by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a former amateur boxer, and Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.), who trains and spars in his spare time.

Advocates say the president should, in the words of the House resolution, "expunge from the annals of American criminal justice a racially motivated abuse of the prosecutorial authority."

Obama has yet to respond.

Vindication for Johnson, who died in a car crash in 1946, is not as straightforward an idea as it seems.

The president has largely sought to avoid directly addressing racial issues. And critics add that posthumous pardons -- used only twice in presidential history -- consume precious time and resources from the president and Justice Department that could instead be focused on wading through thousands of clemency requests for people still living.

King said the push for Obama to pardon Johnson has no political overtones, since he and McCain started their efforts several years ago under President George W. Bush. But a pardon would be a strong symbol of racial and political harmony, said King, who, like McCain, is white.

"Because the treatment of Jack Johnson was so shameful in our history, his case is beyond controversy, except perhaps in the eyes of the most contentious bigots," said Leonard Steinhorn, professor of communications and history at American University and an expert on politics and race.

The White House declined to comment for this article or to discuss the pardon process in general.

Johnson was convicted in 1913 under the Mann Act, which prohibits transporting women across state lines for "immoral purposes."

McCain and King say Johnson was persecuted because he defeated "The Great White Hope," former undefeated champion James J. Jeffries, and constantly flouted cultural norms of his era by carousing with white prostitutes, two of whom became his wife.

"We strongly believe this is a real stain on boxing history," King said.

Race riots broke out across the country after Johnson successfully defended his title against Jeffries, a handpicked white opponent who came out of retirement for the July 4, 1910, fight.

"The law was never aimed at a man in New York traveling to Hoboken to have sexual relations with his secretary," said Randy Roberts, a history professor at Purdue University and the author of a biography about Johnson. "[Johnson] may not have been living a moral life, but he wasn't doing anything wrong that other boxers weren't."

Bill Clinton was the first president to grant clemency to a dead person when he pardoned Henry Flipper, the first black graduate of West Point, who was court-martialed under questionable circumstances in 1881.

Bush last year pardoned Charles Winters, who was convicted of smuggling three B-17 bombers to Israeli forces in 1948. Winters died in 1984.

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joseph.markman @latimes.com

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