- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 29, 2005

A bipartisan group of legislators sent a strong letter to President Bush yesterday, urging him to grant a posthumous pardon to Jack Johnson — the first black heavyweight boxing champion, who was convicted in 1913 of violating the Mann Act.

The lawmakers, who passed a unanimous Senate bill in October 2004 to support the pardon, said in their letter that the conviction was motivated “by nothing more than the color of his skin. As such, it injured not only Johnson, but also our nation as a whole.”

Johnson led a freewheeling lifestyle and was famous for his diamonds, fast cars and even faster women. His romances with white women — all three of his wives were white — outraged public opinion at a time when such relationships were outlawed in many states.

Convicted under the federal anti-prostitution law that forbids transporting women across state lines for an immoral purpose, Johnson fled to Paris after his trial and lived in exile for seven years. He returned to America in 1920 and served one year in Leavenworth prison.

The letter calling for Johnson’s pardon was signed by Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona, Orrin G. Hatch of Utah and Ted Stevens of Alaska and Democratic Sens. Harry Reid of Nevada and Edward M. Kennedy and John Kerry of Massachusetts.

Tomorrow is the the 127th anniversary of Johnson’s birthday. While governor of Texas, Mr. Bush signed a “Jack Johnson Day” proclamation to honor the son of former slaves, who was born in 1878 in Galveston, Texas.

White House officials had no comment on the request for pardon. One official told The Washington Times that the petition had been received and that a decision was “pending.”

Mr. Bush has used his pardon power sparingly. The Justice Department pardon attorney’s office said he has issued just 37 pardons, none posthumous.

Johnson’s first wife committed suicide in 1912. He was first arrested on Mann Act charges in October 1912 over his relationship with Lucille Cameron, a white woman whose mother claimed Johnson had kidnapped her daughter. Lucille Cameron refused to cooperate with authorities, and Johnson married her. They divorced in 1924.

His conviction involved a white prostitute named Belle Schreiber. She agreed to testify that Johnson had transported her across state lines for “prostitution and debauchery,” when authorities failed to convict Johnson over Mrs. Cameron.

Johnson’s life was recently the subject of a widely praised PBS documentary “Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson,” by filmmaker Ken Burns.

Johnson’s Mann Act conviction “was just a travesty of justice,” Mr. Burns said yesterday. In researching his film, Mr. Burns said he “was stunned by the reaction to Johnson’s success. The Los Angeles Times actually told blacks not to rejoice in his winning the title.”

His victory over “the great white hope,” Jim Jeffries, in 1910 incited race riots. In 1946, while en route to see heavyweight champion Joe Louis in a boxing match, he died in a car accident near Raleigh, N.C.

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