Dave Zirin of The Nation magazine, is apparently furious that “racist” President Donald Trump is preparing to issue a posthumous pardon for Jack Johnson, America’s first black heavyweight boxing champion.
Johnson, who died in 1946, was sentenced to ten months in prison in 1912 on a charge that was filed only because he was a black man. Therefore, a pardon makes sense, but strangely, even our first black president Barack Obama refused to right this century-old wrong.
Trump was approached with the idea of a pardon for Johnson by Hollywood action picture star Sylvester Stallone. Trump himself made a note of this in an April 21 tweet.
“Sylvester Stallone called me with the story of heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson,” Trump wrote. “His trials and tribulations were great, his life complex and controversial. Others have looked at this over the years, most thought it would be done, but yes, I am considering a Full Pardon!”
Sylvester Stallone called me with the story of heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson. His trials and tribulations were great, his life complex and controversial. Others have looked at this over the years, most thought it would be done, but yes, I am considering a Full Pardon!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 21, 2018
But after the news broke, The Nation’s sports editor Dave Zirin erupted in a furor that Trump was going to be the president to pardon Johnson after both W. Bush and even Barack Obama ignored the pleas to come to the boxer’s aide.
Donald Trump is a racist and a bigot. He has a fifty-year history that demonstrates this time and time again. I could write — as so many have — yet another scroll-length listing of the man’s racial perversions, from housing discrimination to his promotion of the racist birther theory to his equivocation on condemning the Klan in Charlottesville to his reference just this week to ‘breeding’ when discussing immigration.
We are a country that just used the political tool of 18th and 19th century slaveholders — the Electoral College — to elect a white-supremacy sympathizer even though he received three million fewer votes than his opponent. This is a sick system, and it lacks the moral authority to pardon Jack Johnson for any reason other than its own public relations. It’s not for us to forgive Jack Johnson. The opposite is the case.
Zirin went on to exclaim that it is “repellant” that Trump would pardon Johnson because Trump “lacks the credibility to either pardon or exonerate” the boxer.
Then Zirin got out his crystal ball to divine how Trump would have felt about the world class boxer if he were around during Johnson’s heyday. “Donald Trump would have despised Jack Johnson, and the feeling would have been very mutual,” the soothsaying Zirin insisted:
100 plus years ago, Trump would have hated Jack Johnson. He’d hate him for his independence. His very existence challenged what white men like Trump believed. Trump would be just like those other politicians, scheming ways to go after Johnson. In Johnson’s day, the same white politicians that tried to stop him from fighting, also turned a blind eye to lynchings. They are the same politicians, like Trump, who demanded that black men die, for supposed crimes, even if they were innocent.
Considering that until he became president, there is little history of people calling Donald Trump a racist, this proclamation by Zirin seems based only on his hate for his presidency as opposed to any logical prediction of Trump’s predilections.
Naturally, Zirin ignores the fact that America’s first black president, Barack Obama, was asked — not once but twice — to pardon the boxer. Senators Cory Booker and John McCain both sent letters to Obama to pardon Jonson, yet Obama ignored the requests.
Jack Johnson did, indeed, face “trials and tribulations,” as the president noted in his tweet, but it was mostly due to the racist “law” he was subjected to. He went from being celebrated across the land as a champion athlete to being pursued and treated like a subhuman due to a Jim Crow-inspired federal law called the Mann Act.
The Mann Act was ostensibly about ending “white slavery” and was supposed to put a crimp in women — especially European immigrants — from being lured into prostitution. But it was often a racially motivated charge and was used to slap down certain members of society that the establishment didn’t like. (In fact, the law was used against such “subversives” as Charlie Chaplin and even rock-n-roller Chuck Berry.)
Johnson was accused of transporting his own wife across state lines for “immoral purposes.” How did the accusers come to this claim? As it happened Johnson’s wife was a white woman in a day when Jim Crow was at the height of its influence and authorities didn’t much like the fact that Johnson married white women. Authorities claimed that the boxer’s wife, Lucille Cameron, was a “prostitute.”
Still, the case of transporting Lucille Cameron fell apart. Despite this Johnson was charged again a month later when he was caught driving a white woman named Belle Schreiber across state lines. The charges stuck in the second case, and Johnson was sentenced to a ten-month prison sentence.
But the only reason he was targeted and convicted is because he was a famous black man flaunting his wealth and position in the age of Jim Crow. If anyone deserves a pardon, it is this man. Sadly, he passed away decades ago, but at least a pardon would officially clear his name and right a wrong. So, why would it matter who issued a pardon?
Follow Warner Todd Huston on Twitter @warnerthuston.