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Push to pardon Jack Johnson weighted by poetic justice, irony

Like an embattled boxer returning to the ring, the question of whether the nation’s first black biracial president will pardon the first black heavyweight champion for the crime of interracial dating is back for another round.
 TaRessa Stovall

Like an embattled boxer returning to the ring, the question of whether the nation’s first black biracial president will pardon the first black heavyweight champion for the crime of interracial dating is back for another round.

Media outlets from ABC News to ESPN to the Taiwan News are speculating about the continuing quest of two Republican boxing enthusiasts – New York Rep. Peter King and Arizona Sen. John McCain – and their supporters to reintroduce a congressional resolution urging a pardon for Jack Johnson, who held the heavyweight champion title from 1908 to 1915.

The resolution was first introduced in April, 2009.   Two months later, after gaining Senate approval, the Congress sent the President a formal request to pardon a man who is a powerful and still-controversial symbol of the clash of racial, sexual, athletic and political dynamics that permeate America as deeply today as they did in Johnson’s heyday.

Three years after beating a white boxer in the “Fight of the Century,” on July 4, 1910, Johnson was convicted under the Mann Act, which made it illegal to transport women across state lines for “immoral” purposes, but was often used to punish interracial couples.

As Lee A. Daniels wrote for TheDefendersOnline “once Jack Johnson won the heavyweight title, he was persecuted by no less than the Justice Department for his “unforgivable” relationships with white women until he was falsely charged and convicted of luring white women into prostitution, and stripped of his title.” Johnson left the country for several years, returning seven years after the conviction to serve a year and a day in the federal penitentiary at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.

While the Republican senators have recently taken up the cause, some of Johnson’s descendants have sought the presidential pardon for more than a decade. It has been written that the 2005 Ken Burns documentary, “Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson,” is credited with bringing Johnson’s tale – and this cause – to public attention.

President Bush twice refused to act on similar Congressional resolutions.

“It’s an injustice that shouldn’t fall through the cracks, and it looks like that’s exactly what happened here,” Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., told ESPN.Go.Com.

Rangel said he plans to discuss the pardon with William Daley, Obama’s chief of staff, and Attorney General Eric Holder.

Opinions are peppering the blogosphere. “The pardon seems safe and innocuous enough, at least on the surface,” writes Earl Ofari Hutchinson on TheGrio.com.

“But there’s no mystery as to why Obama remains cautious about Johnson.  It’s an old racial wrong that was marred with controversy.  And, that’s always fraught with risk for a president that has had to walk a fine line on racial matters in the White House.”

Tim Dahlberg of The Associated Press opined that, “President Barack Obama had the perfect chance to give Johnson a posthumous pardon last July 4, 100 years to the date after his win over Jim Jeffries … Why Obama didn’t act last year is unclear, particularly since there seems to be little political risk associated with a posthumous pardon. Johnson was a victim of his times, and clearing his name in the history books isn’t a notion that is terribly controversial. It’s nearly 100 years late.”

Joe Markman wrote in the Los Angeles Times during the 2009 pardoning round that, “The president has largely sought to avoid directly addressing racial issues.  And critics add that posthumous pardons – used only twice in presidential history – consume precious time and resources from the president and Justice Department that could instead be focused on wading through thousands of clemency requests for people still living.”

What all this macho speculation seems to miss is the poetic justice of a man with a black father and white mother – whose union would have been illegal in some of these United States not so long before his birth – being pressured to “forgive” a high-profile black athlete for liking white women.

Nor has anyone mentioned the irony of one uppity black man being lobbied to grant a pardon to another uppity black man, one whose achievement was as historic and significant as Obama’s own, and who was just as impervious to criticism and other people’s rules as the man who currently rules the land.

They miss the most crucial point: the truly urgent matters facing black Americans right now – from escalating poverty and joblessness to the cradle-to-prison pipeline, to continuing inequities in everything from education to health care to you-name-it. Are those lobbying for Johnson’s pardon thinking that it would have the symbolic weight of somehow lessening these injustices or the endless string of suffering they cause?

I believe most of us would much rather have the president focused on these urgent, tangible matters affecting millions of lives and devastating not just black communities, but our entire nation.

Have they considered that pardoning Jack Johnson for interracial relationships is validating the notion that such unions are inherently so problematic that they require a presidential policy to undo?  Are they expressing remorse and shame for the Mann Act?

Perhaps the greatest irony of all is that the two senators pressuring and criticizing President Obama on this matter have yet to forgive him for having been elected. Their move to force his hand is no less racist than the Mann Act itself.

(Special to the NNPA from thedefendersonline.com, where TaRessa Stovall is Managing Editor.)

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