President Donald Trump issued a posthumous pardon Thursday to boxer Jack Johnson, the sport’s first African-American heavyweight champion.
“We have done something today that was very important, because we righted a wrong,” Trump said. “Jack Johnson was not treated fairly, and we have corrected that, and I’m very honored to have done it.”
“I believe Jack Johnson is a worthy person to receive a pardon, to correct a wrong in our history,” Trump said. “It’s my honor to do it. It’s about time.”
He was convicted in 1913 under the Mann Act for taking his white girlfriend across state lines for “immoral” purposes. The Mann Act was designed to prevent human trafficking for the purpose of prostitution, but in some cases it was used to criminalize black males who were seen traveling with white women.
Johnson, who was convicted by an all-white jury, served 10 months in prison for the offense. By the time he was released, however, his professional reputation had been destroyed.
He died in a car accident in 1946.
Johnson’s story has been the subject of a number of books, as well as the movie “The Great White Hope” that starred James Earl Jones.
Among those in the Oval Office with the president when he granted the pardon was actor Sylvester Stallone, who rose to fame for his portrayal of the fictional boxer Rocky Balboa. Stallone had contacted the president earlier this year and asked him to consider the pardon, saying Johnson was an “inspirational character.”
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
“It’s incredible that you’ve done this,” Stallone told the president after the pardon was granted.
There have been a number of calls in recent years for Johnson to receive a presidential pardon.
In 2016, Democratic Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada and Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona petitioned the Obama administration to grant a pardon to Johnson in honor of the 70th anniversary of the boxer’s death.
“While it is unfortunate that this unjust conviction was not corrected during the boxer’s lifetime, a posthumous pardon today represents the opportunity to reaffirm Jack Johnson’s substantial contributions to our society and right this historical wrong,” the letter said.
Linda E. Haywood, the great-great niece of the boxer, wanted former President Barack Obama to pardon Johnson, but according to the Associated Press, Justice Department policy says “processing posthumous pardon petitions is grounded in the belief that the time of the officials involved in the clemency process is better spent on the pardon and commutation requests of living persons.”
In March 2017, Democratic Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey joined with McCain to reintroduce a resolution urging Johnson’s pardon.
“Despite this resolution passing both chambers of Congress several times in recent years, no pardon has been issued to date,” McCain said in a statement at the time. “I hope President Trump will seize the opportunity before him to right this historical wrong and restore a great athlete’s legacy.”
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