WASHINGTON -- The Senate urged President Barack Obama
Wednesday 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
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has not been repealed.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 Wednesday night. "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
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 Wednesday 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.