Latest effort to get boxer Jack Johnson a posthumous pardon is hitting a wall

03/12/2013 12:00 AM

03/12/2013 8:25 AM

WASHINGTON – For nine years, a pair of Capitol Hill lawmakers have asked the president of the United States to pardon posthumously American boxing legend Jack Johnson.

President George W. Bush did not act, but in 2009 the congressmen thought they might be able to persuade the nation's first African American president to do so on behalf of the world's first African American heavyweight boxing champion. But President Barack Obama hasn't issued a pardon, either, and his administration says it's unlikely he will.

That isn't stopping the lifelong boxing fans from trying again.

Sen. John McCain of Arizona and Rep. Peter King of New York, both Republicans now joined by two Democrats, again introduced a congressional resolution last week calling on Obama to pardon Johnson a century after his racially motivated conviction of taking a woman across state lines for immoral purposes.

"As we look back on our nation's history, the Jack Johnson case is a shameful stain, apparent to all," McCain said recently. "Rectifying this injustice is long overdue."

The Justice Department, however, generally doesn't consider pardons for people after they die, according to department guidelines. Those investigations are lengthy and complex, and the department would rather spend its resources on the pardon and commutation requests of living people.

"It is the department's position that the limited resources which are available to process requests for president clemency – now being submitted in record numbers – are best dedicated to requests submitted by persons who can truly benefit from a grant of the request," pardon attorney Ronald Rodgers wrote to King in December 2009. The pardon attorney at Justice assists the president in the exercise of executive clemency.

Posthumous pardons are extremely rare.

The White House referred questions about Johnson to the Department of Justice. A spokesman didn't comment except to say the department doesn't have a pending application for Johnson.

Johnson, born to former slaves in Texas, was initially denied the right to fight professionally because of his race. When he was finally granted the opportunity, he defeated the titleholder to become the first African American heavyweight champion. He reigned over the boxing world from 1908 to 1915 before losing his heavyweight title to a white fighter – Jess Willard – in Havana, Cuba, in 1915. But he kept his influence over the boxing world, including Muhammad Ali.

Johnson's success in the ring and indulgent lifestyle prompted resentment and a search for a white boxer who could beat him, dubbed the "great white hope." After Johnson defeated a white champion who returned from retirement, riots broke out in several cities.

Soon after, an all-white jury convicted Johnson of transporting a white girlfriend across state lines, under the Mann Act, a law designed to prevent trafficking of women for prostitution. He eventually served 366 days in prison.

Johnson died in a car crash in North Carolina in 1946 at age 68, after being refused service at a diner. His story has been chronicled in many stage and film productions of "The Great White Hope," including a 1970 film starring James Earl Jones, and more recently in "Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson," a PBS documentary.

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