President Donald J. Trump cleansed a small but important slice of American history when he pardoned African-American boxer Jack Johnson.
Johnson ruled the boxing world from 1903-1915, and his mastery at beating the heaven out of white men enraged the bigots of his day, a time of lynchings,“separate but equal” and government-sanctioned racism.
He was convicted in 1913 on a trumped-up charge of violating the 1910 Mann Act, which criminalized transporting underage women for unseemly reasons across state lines. The Mann Act long served as convenient punishment for American rebels/libertines, including genius architect Frank Lloyd Wright and rock star Chuck Berry.
Johnson’s real crime, in the eyes of America in 1913?
Let’s turn to Assistant U.S. District Attorney Harry A. Parkin, the lead prosecutor in 1913. Parkin realized Johnson’s prosecution would be seen as unfair, mainly because it was unfair.
Parkin offered a troubling explanation:
“This Negro, in the eyes of many, has been persecuted,” Parkin said of Johnson. “Perhaps as an individual he was. But it was his misfortune to be the foremost example of the evil in permitting the intermarriage of whites and blacks.”
Over a century later, it remains hard to believe, but Parkin spoke the truth: Johnson was prosecuted, and persecuted, for marrying two white women.
Trump’s decision was long overdue. George W. Bush and Barack Obama fumbled their chance to deliver tardy justice to Johnson. Trump, to his credit, declined to pass the task to the next president.
Even John McCain, who has emerged in the final stretch of his life as Trump’s valiant archnemesis, offered applause.
“This action,” McCain said Thursday in a tweet, “finally rights a historical wrong, restores a great athlete's legacy & closes a shameful chapter in our history.”
Let’s be clear: Johnson was no saint. Like many rebels, he didn’t know when to stop rebelling.
He was an American dreamer with no use for limits. He refused to allow white America to define or limit him. This noble insubordination defined the admirable side of the man, and his defiance left a powerful, lingering example. You can sense Johnson’s courage in the lives and careers of Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and, yes, Colin Kaepernick.
But he was a scoundrel, too. Johnson had little use for the boundaries of marriage, which he tried three times. He roamed freely, often with prostitutes. His stormy relationship with one of those prostitutes, Belle Schreiber, led to his Mann Act downfall. She served as lead witness in his trial.
Ken Burns, America’s documentarian, examined Johnson’s fabulous and tempestuous life in “Unforgivable Blackness.” A few days before the 2005 documentary aired on PBS, I talked with Burns about Johnson.
Johnson was deeply flawed, Burns said, and lacked the wisdom to temper his vast indulgences. But, Burns said, there was “heroism in his insistence on living as he pleased."
He was, no doubt, a hero in the ring. In 1910, Johnson ruled boxing, which inspired retired champion Jim Jeffries to return to battle. Jeffries wanted to, in his words, “reclaim the heavyweight championship for the white race.” Novelist Jack London embraced the same racist idea. “It’s up to you,” London wrote to Jeffries. “The White Man must be rescued.”
Yes, you heard them right.
On July 4, 1910, Johnson destroyed Jeffries in a 15-round battle in Reno, Nev. On that blazing day, Johnson announced his supremacy while annihilating the myth of white supremacy. But menace was looming even over his greatest hour. In victory, he created a legion of enemies and set the stage for his 1913 conviction.
Stanley Crouch, the profound and funny social critic, offered a superb analysis of the complicated life of Jack Johnson.
“See,” Crouch said, “Johnson was a pure individual. He did everything exactly the way he wanted to. I don't think it ever crossed his mind that he should be anybody else's version of Jack Johnson.”
On Thursday, Trump erased a conviction that never should have been and transported the story of a blemished but mighty American sports hero from the past to the present.