- Associated Press - Monday, February 21, 2011

Lawmakers are going another round in their fight to get a posthumous presidential pardon for the world’s first black heavyweight champion, who was imprisoned nearly a century ago because of his romantic ties with a white woman.

New York Rep. Peter T. King and Arizona Sen. John McCain, both Republicans, plan to reintroduce a congressional resolution urging a pardon for boxer Jack Johnson. Another supporter, Rep. Charles B. Rangel, New York Democrat, said he will talk to President Obama’s new chief of staff, William Daley, and Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. about the cause.

“It’s an injustice that shouldn’t fall through the cracks, and it looks like that’s exactly what happened here,” Mr. Rangel said.

Johnson became the first black heavyweight champion a century before Mr. Obama was elected the nation’s first black president. The boxer’s flamboyant lifestyle and his relationships with white women inflamed white sensibilities. Racial resentment boiled over after he defeated a white boxer in the “Fight of the Century” 100 years ago last summer. Three years later, Johnson was convicted of violating the Mann Act, which made it illegal to transport women across state lines for immoral purposes.

One of Johnson’s great-great-nieces, Linda Haywood of Chicago, is writing to Mr. Obama about the case.

“I think having a letter from a family member will help put a face on our plea,” Ms. Haywood said. “Many people didn’t realize he had nieces and nephews. For years, the rest of my family was so ashamed, no one ever spoke of him because of the stigma attached to him being in prison.”

Mr. King said he was surprised that Mr. Obama didn’t act during the last session of Congress, when the House and Senate passed the resolution. But the congressman said he’s still optimistic.

“With last year’s elections, there seems to be a clear intent by the president to try to be more bipartisan,” Mr. King said. “Everything is there to correct a historic wrong and also, in a small way but significant way, help to bring the country together now.”

The White House declined to discuss the request for Johnson, citing a policy of not commenting on how pardon candidates are chosen. Mr. Obama, a former constitutional law professor who once taught a class on racism and the law, has not spoken publicly of the Johnson effort, but the Justice Department has come out against it.

In a letter to Mr. King and Mr. McCain at the end of 2009, the Justice Department attorney who advises on pardons argued that resources for such requests are best used for those still alive “who can truly benefit” from them. That notwithstanding, he noted, Mr. Obama certainly could pardon whomever he wishes.

Rapper Chuck D, a member of the pardon committee organized by Mr. King, Mr. McCain and documentarian Ken Burns, said he feels a presidential pardon is still possible, but unlikely in the short term. “I think President Obama’s pardon for something a hundred years ago will be at the tail end of his presidential run,” said Chuck D, whose real name is Carlton Ridenhour.

Last year, Mr. Obama pardoned nine people convicted of crimes including possessing drugs, counterfeiting and even mutilating coins. None was a well-known figure.

The fact that Johnson wouldn’t personally benefit from the pardon is beside the point, argued another one of the boxer’s great-great-nieces, Constance Hines of Chicago.

“This is about righting a wrong,” she said.

But P.S. Ruckman Jr., a political science professor at Rock Valley College in Rockford, Ill., who writes a blog on pardons, said he agreed with the Justice Department’s position. “There are plenty of living persons with real problems who are deserving of clemency,” he said.

Mr. King and Mr. McCain also plan to send letters to the Obama administration and name a separate boxing reform bill for Johnson.

John McCain and I do feel seriously about it,” said Mr. King, who like Mr. McCain has sparred in the ring. “We want to keep the issue alive, and it also may give more momentum to the boxing reform bill.”

Geoffrey C. Ward, who wrote a major biography on Johnson’s life, boxing career and legal struggles, said he’s still hopeful Mr. Obama will grant the pardon.

“In recent years, we’ve been very good about admitting past wrongs,” said Mr. Ward. “I don’t see what harm it does to do this.”

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