By Frederic J. Frommer
The Associated Press
WASHINGTON — The Senate urged President Barack Obama today to pardon the late black heavyweight champion Jack Johnson, who was sent to prison nearly a century ago because of his romantic ties with a white woman.
Senators approved the resolution by voice vote; it now goes to the House.
Johnson became the first black heavyweight champion in 1908 — 100 years before Obama was elected the nation’s first black president. The boxer was convicted in 1913 of violating the Mann Act, which made it illegal to transport women across state lines for immoral purposes. The law has since been heavily amended, but has not been repealed.
The resolution was sponsored by Obama’s 2008 opponent, Arizona Republican John McCain. Similar resolutions offered in 2004 and last year failed to pass both chambers of Congress.
“One down, one to go,” said the House sponsor, Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., in a telephone interview tonight. “The fact that John got it through the Senate is great.”
He said that there would be “tremendous historic significance” in the nation’s first black president pardoning the nation’s first black heavyweight champ. King added that he hoped the House will take up the resolution early next month.
Neither McCain nor the White House immediately responded to requests for comment Wednesday night. But in unveiling the resolution in April, McCain said, “We need to erase this act of racism which sent an American citizen to prison on a trumped-up charge.”
He also said he was sure that Obama would sign the legislation.
McCain and King are advocating the pardon along with filmmaker Ken Burns, whose 2005 documentary, “Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson,” explored the case against Johnson and the sentencing judge’s admitted desire to “send a message” to black men about relationships with white women. Burns helped form the Committee to Pardon Jack Johnson, which filed a petition with the Justice Department in 2004 that was never acted on.
The resolution approved today says that the boxer should receive a posthumous pardon “for the racially motivated conviction in 1913 that diminished the athletic, cultural, and historic significance of Jack Johnson and unduly tarnished his reputation.” It says a pardon would “expunge a racially motivated abuse of the prosecutorial authority of the federal government from the annals of criminal justice in the United States.”
Johnson, a native of Galveston, Texas, won the 1908 world heavyweight title after police in Australia stopped his 14-round match against the severely battered Canadian world champion, Tommy Burns. That led to a search for a “Great White Hope” who could beat Johnson. Two years later, Jim Jeffries, the American world titleholder Johnson had tried for years to fight, came out of retirement but lost in a match called “The Battle of the Century,” resulting in deadly riots.