WASHINGTON (AP) – The Senate has voted to urge President Barack Obama to pardon the first black heavyweight boxing champion, Jack Johnson, who was convicted a century ago of accompanying a white woman across state lines.
Johnson won the title in 1908 and two years later defended it against a white man, Jim Jeffries, sparking race riots. In 1913, an all-white jury convicted Johnson of crossing state lines with a white woman for “immoral purposes.” He was sentenced to a year in prison.
Relatives and supporters have long campaigned for his exoneration.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and Arizona Republican John McCain say that a pardon would restore Johnson’s name and correct a historical wrong.
Nicknamed the “Galveston Giant” after his Texas hometown, Johnson was at the center of racial tensions after winning the title. He retained his crown when he defeated Jeffries in 1910 in what was dubbed the “Fight of the Century,” the victory sparked deadly race riots across the county.
His family and other supporters say he did nothing wrong and that the century-old conviction continues to tarnish Johnson’s image. Lawmakers have asked for a pardon three times in the past decade, most recently in March, though none has been successful. The Justice Department has said its general policy is not to process posthumous pardon requests and the White House declined to comment on the most recent congressional resolution.
So on March 31, to mark what would have been Johnson’s 135th birthday, his relatives and supporters gathered in Galveston to honor him and record a video to go straight to Obama.
Their efforts found support among several Washington leaders and a former heavyweight boxing champion. Mike Tyson joined with Reid, McCain, Sen. Mo Cowan, D-Mass., and Rep. Pete King, R-N.Y.
Tyson and Reid met April 2 and teamed up with Change.org to start a petition asking for Johnson’s pardon.
“Let’s show President Obama and the White House that we too care about Jack Johnson’s legacy by signing this petition. In doing so, we are also righting the legacy of our great country,” Tyson wrote on Change.org.
Reid, a former amateur boxer, and Cowan joined the effort last month. McCain and King have been trying for years to get a pardon for Johnson. They petitioned former President George W. Bush starting in 2004. In 2011, Rep. Charlie Rangel, D-N.Y., joined the effort.
Leon Phillips, president of the Galveston County Coalition for Justice, which helped spearhead the effort, told The Associated Press the video added another layer of support.
“Not only is it coming from Congress but it will be coming from the citizens of the United States if we can just get everyone to click on that like button,” he said. “President Obama’s father could have been convicted of the same thing because he was married to a white woman and they traveled all over the world and from state to state.”
Johnson’s great-great niece Linda Haywood said Johnson was “railroaded” by authorities.
“I didn’t know the man was my uncle until I was 12 years old, that’s how ashamed my family was of the fact that he went to prison. A pardon would erase the shame and the stigma and allow us to hold our heads up high because we know what a great man he was,” Haywood said in the video.
“I’m asking President Obama as the first black, African-American,
president to give my uncle a pardon,” she said. “A lot of times when he would come to his sister’s house or his mother’s house he had to sneak at night with his white girlfriend or his wife because of the times that they lived in.”
Authorities first targeted Johnson’s relationship with Lucille Cameron, who later became his wife, but she refused to cooperate. They then turned to his former mistress, a prostitute named Belle Schreiber, to testify that Johnson had paid her train fare from Pittsburgh to Chicago for immoral purposes.
Johnson skipped bail and fled the country following his conviction but in 1920 he agreed to return and serve his sentence.
Haywood and other relatives are determined to get a pardon to clear Johnson’s name.
“The color of your skin should not determine who you, or how you, love,” Haywood said in the