- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 19, 2005

As the U.S. marks Black History Month, President Bush has a chance to rewrite a dark chapter in the life of one African-American hero — boxing champion Jack Johnson.

While not always touted among others instrumental in the quest for equality for African-Americans, Johnson’s achievements in the ring and to a smaller extent his hubris outside it, merit acclaim for contributing greatly to demolishing stereotypes that were the foundation of discrimination. The only challenge too formidable for Johnson was a racially tinged judicial system intent on finding a way to limit his freedom by misapplying a legal statute.

Jack Johnson was a freedom fighter. His uncanny boxing ability refuted the falsely held notion at the time that African-Americans were mentally and physically inferior and thereby not entitled to the same rights and privileges as other Americans. Johnson was equally adept at dealing with jabs from the media, and the public who showered him with racial slurs and other abuse at every opportunity.

Johnson was not deterred by any of circumstances in his quest to hold the ultimate sports title of that time, the world heavyweight boxing championship. For decades before he won the title Jack Johnson, widely recognized as the most skilled fighter of the time, was denied a chance to contend for the title because he was African-American. The heavyweight title held mythical implications as a symbol of physical and mental prowess and there was a resounding fear that if a Johnson victory would upset the balance of race relations in America and produce a wider call for equality.

However, Johnson believed that, as an American, he should be free compete for the top of his profession. Johnson’s determination to overcome racism and stereotypes made him a symbol among African-Americans who shared his desire for equality.

With vigor and courage, Jack Johnson entered the ring on July Fourth, 1910, and defeated Jim Jeffries to become the first African-American to hold boxing’s heavyweight title.

It is fitting this triumph came on Independence Day because when word traveled Johnson had won, a great ripple of euphoria and joy permeated the hearts of African-Americans nationwide. Johnson in one fell swoop not only knocked out his white opponent but symbolically dealt a blow to stereotypes that obstructed true equality for all Americans.

On the basis of this historic achievement, Johnson’s legacy should have been cemented among the great freedom fighters in American history. However, a miscarriage of justice sentenced Johnson to prison while alive, and to a certain shroud of posthumous infamy.

As Johnson secured equality in the ring, he also sought a freedom outside of the ring which was evidenced in his interracial marriages — which angered those already smoldering as a result of Johnson’s boxing success.

In 1913, Johnson was convicted on violating the Mann Act, a law that banned the interstate transport of white women for purposes of prostitution and debauchery. However, Johnson was guilty of neither offense banned by Mann Act as the women in question were involved in consensual relationships with him, which the Mann Act did not sanction. Nevertheless, he was convicted and sentenced to a year in a federal prison.

This conviction cast a shadow on Johnson’s legacy as a forerunner in the struggle for equality who sought the freedoms afforded other Americans in a time when they were denied African-Americans. The conviction also overshadowed Johnson’s legacy as an athlete above measure, an entrepreneur, and an unlikely symbol of the struggle for freedom in America.

This is why a wide-ranging coalition of politicians, activists, celebrities, boxers and others are calling for President Bush to issue a presidential pardon expunging the charges from Johnson’s record. In doing so, he would follow the lead of the Texas State Senate that in 2001 passed a resolution declaring Johnson’s prosecution was due to a “contrived charge” and the political and racial tensions of his time.

A pardon from President Bush would allow Johnson’s legacy to be intact as someone who sought and worked diligently for the American dream. One doesn’t often have a chance to rewrite history. Let’s hope Mr. Bush takes this opportunity to do so, a fitting tribute to a true freedom fighter.

Alvin Williams is president and chief executive officer of Black America’s Political Action Committee (BAMPAC).

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