Justice delayed is justice denied, and Jack Johnson’s supporters have been waiting a long time for justice — since 1912, when one of the greatest boxers of all time was convicted on a racially motivated charge. Boxing’s first African-American champion waited over 100 years for a pardon to finally come from President Donald Trump.
If you’re not familiar with the man they called the Galveston Giant, here are five fast facts you need to know.
1) Jack Johnson was the son of slaves who rose to become one of America’s greatest athletes.
Plenty of athletes like to brag about their humble beginnings. Many of them may indeed have come from environments of privation. None of them, however, had anything on Jack Johnson.
Johnson’s parents were literally first-generation freed slaves; his father had an atrophied leg from his service in the Union’s 38th Colored Infantry during the Civil War. Johnson attended only five years of school and was a frail young man when he began working at the docks in Galveston. He moved onto Dallas, where he took an interest in boxing.
On Nov. 1, 1898, he made his professional debut against Charley Brooks, knocking him out in the second round of a 15-round fight. That would become a common occurrence for one of the most talented — and non-conformist — athletes in the history of America.
2) Johnson’s success may be attributable to his first stint in jail.
In February 1901, a 22-year-old Johnson got knocked out by Joe Choynski during a bout in his native Galveston. That was enough of a setback, but the problem was that prize-fighting was very, very illegal in the state of Texas. Both were arrested and bail was set at $5,000 — well over $125,000 in today’s money. However, the sheriff came up with a unique solution: Both were free to go home at night, so long as they spent their days sparring in the county jail cell.
The aging Choynski gave Johnson both experience and confidence. “A man who can move like you should never have to take a punch,” he reportedly told Johnson. By 1903, Johnson was the World Colored Heavyweight Champion. Five years later, on Dec. 26, 1908 — Boxing Day in Australia — Johnson beat the white Tommy Burns in Sydney, becoming the first black heavyweight champion of the world.
It was a reign that would last seven years — including what became known as the “Fight of the Century” against former undefeated heavyweight champ James J. Jeffries, who Johnson thoroughly dominated. It was also a reign that was marred by controversy and racism.
3) In an era of Jim Crow conformity, Jack Johnson challenged everything.
During the era in which Johnson reigned as champion, prominent African-Americans were supposed to remain circumspect and deferential. Johnson did not have any intention of doing any of that. He earned huge sums of money and spent it lavishly. One infamous incident had Johnson being pulled over for a $50 speeding ticket; he gave the officer $100, saying it was a down payment on the return trip, since he planned on going the exact same speed.
Another bone of contention was Johnson’s willingness to date and marry white women — a contentious issue for some in the African-American community now, but especially so over a century ago. White people may have been racist against Johnson, but it wasn’t like the African-American community was ponying up to show its support for his individual decisions.
Booker T. Washington said that “is unfortunate that a man with money should use it in a way to injure his own people, in the eyes of those who are seeking to uplift his race and improve its conditions, I wish to say emphatically that Jack Johnson’s actions did not meet my personal approval and I am sure they do not meet with the approval of the colored race.”
4) Johnson’s relationships with white women ended with him receiving a racially motivated conviction.
In 1912, the mother of Lucille Cameron — a white woman who Johnson was consorting with — saw a photograph of them together. She contacted the police and claimed that her daughter had been kidnapped. “Jack Johnson has hypnotic powers, and he has exercised them on my little girl. I would rather see my daughter spend the rest of her life in an insane asylum than see her the plaything of a n—–,” she allegedly told the media.
Police tried to stick a Mann Act conviction on Johnson — a law which forbade women to be trafficked across state line for “immoral” purposes — but it initially fell apart due to Cameron’s refusal to cooperate. They eventually made the Mann Act charge stick with an all-white jury and another woman, however, and he was sentenced to about 12 months in prison, though he responded by leaving the country for several years. He was released in 1921 after serving less than one year.
Johnson boxed until 1915, compiling 73 wins, 40 by knockout. “He is one of the craftiest, cunningest boxers that ever stepped into the ring,” legendary boxer John L. Sullivan said about the Galveston Giant.
The conviction didn’t stop him from relationships with white women. In 1925, after divorcing Cameron, he married Irene Pineau. “I loved him because of his courage,” Pineau said. “He faced the world unafraid. There wasn’t anybody or anything he feared.” He lived that way until his death in a car accident at the age of 68 in 1946.
5) Sylvester Stallone brought Johnson’s case to the attention of the president.
There have been attempts to have Johnson pardoned for years, but it took another underdog who made his way up through the ranks via boxing — albeit in a more fictional way — to convince Donald Trump to get the ball rolling.
Sylvester Stallone called me with the story of heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson. His trials and tribulations were great, his life complex and controversial. Others have looked at this over the years, most thought it would be done, but yes, I am considering a Full Pardon!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 21, 2018
“Today I’ve issued an executive grant of clemency, a full pardon, posthumously, to John Arthur ‘Jack’ Johnson … the first African-American heavyweight champion of the world, a truly great fighter. Had a tough life,” Trump said in a Thursday statement.
Johnson wasn’t around to see it, of course. However, one of the boxer’s biggest champions — the man who helped get the ball rolling on the pardon years ago — held on just long enough to see the full pardon through.
“I’m just so happy that Senator John McCain, who has led our efforts to achieve a posthumous pardon for Jack Johnson, has lived to witness this moment,” filmmaker Ken Burns, who documented Johnson’s life, said in a statement.
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