WASHINGTON—He was the first African American world heavyweight boxing champion, nicknamed the “Galveston Giant” after his hometown in Texas. But even John Arthur “Jack” Johnson could not fight against the racism of his time when in 1913, he was wrongly convicted on charges of human trafficking for bringing his girlfriend, who was white, across state lines.
On Tuesday a bipartisan coalition of congressmen, including Senator William “Mo” Cowan of Massachusetts, introduced a resolution calling upon President Obama to posthumously pardon Johnson.
“Jack Johnson was one of the great African-American athletes. His skill and perseverance to get back up every time he was knocked down made him a champion in the eyes of the sports world and for those who, like him, pursued their dreams despite racial intolerance,” said Senator Cowan in a written statement.
Johnson, the subject of the 1970 film “The Great White Hope” in which James Earl Jones plays Johnson’s character, earned his heavyweight title in 1908. His boxing success, and defeat of white opponents, sparked race riots.
The son of former slaves, Johnson distained racist rules, openly flaunting his wealth and dating white women. He was convicted of violating the Mann Act, enacted to prevent prostitution across state lines, for his travels with a former girlfriend. Sentenced to a year in prison, Johnson skipped bail and fled to Europe, then Cuba, where he lost his title in 1915. He returned to the U.S. in 1920 and served his sentence, his career and reputation in tatters. He died in a car crash in 1946 at age 68.
Cowan, Massachusetts’ first black Democratic senator who was appointed by Governor Deval Patrick to fill the seat vacated by Secretary of State John Kerry, signed onto the resolution with Senators John McCain, an Arizona Republican, Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, and U.S. Representative Peter King, a New York Republican. McCain and King, both life-long boxing fans, have introduced legislation to pardon Johnson since 2004.
“In past years, both chambers of Congress unanimously passed this resolution, but unfortunately, it still awaits executive action and no pardon has been issued,” McCain said in a written statement. “We can never completely right the wrong perpetrated against Jack Johnson during his lifetime, but this pardon is a small, meaningful step toward acknowledging his mistreatment before the law and celebrating his legacy of athletic greatness and historical significance.”
The White House has not responded to the resolution.