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. On Tuesday, civil
rights leaders and Sens. John McCain and Orrin Hatch joined him to
announce the filing of legal papers with the Justice Department.
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, unfairly
punished him 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," said
McCain, R-Ariz. "Pardoning Jack Johnson will serve as a historic
testament of America's resolve to live up to its noble ideals of
justice and equality."
Hatch, R-Utah, said: "This man was flamboyant. But there was a
reason for the flamboyancy: He was taking on the world and fighting
to give African-Americans a chance."
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 try to beat the black man.
Johnson's victory, in an era when Jim Crow laws and segregation
ruled, sparked race riots in parts of the country.
In a 1983 biography of Johnson, Randy Roberts wrote that the
boxer was proud of his conquests among white women. Prosecutors
moved against him in 1912 by arresting Johnson on the charge of
abducting Lucille Cameron.
Johnson 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, and
he served a 10-month sentence.
The petition filed Tuesday contends the conviction was legally
unfounded, invoking the Mann Act to invade the privacy of
McCain and Hatch said they plan to ask other senators to join in
a resolution urging that Johnson be pardoned. Other supporters
include Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass.; Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr.,
D-Ill.; boxers Sugar Ray Leonard and Vernon Forrest and actor
Samuel L. Jackson.
Burns' documentary on Johnson, titled "Unforgivable Blackness:
The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson," will air on PBS in January.