Jack Johnson was once the most despised man in Jim Crow-era America after becoming the first African-American boxing heavyweight champion of the world, the most coveted athletic title of the time. (Feb. 8)
WASHINGTON — President Trump granted a rare and historic posthumous pardon to Jack Johnson 72 years after death Thursday, clearing the first African-American heavyweight boxing champion of racially motivated charges resulting from his relationships with white women in 1912.
Advocates for Johnson — including boxers, historians, academics and senators — had been pushing for a pardon for 14 years through the George W. Bush and Barack Obama presidencies.
But it appears to have taken a phone call from actor Sylvester Stallone to Trump to make it happen.
Stallone, best known for his portrayal of the boxer Rocky Balboa, was among the celebrities and family members in the Oval Office for the surprise ceremony. Also present: Former champion Lennox Lewis and World Boxing Council President Mauricio Sulaiman.
“He was treated so unfairly, his prime was taken away, but somehow he managed to keep his pride,” Stallone said.
Johnson’s is just the third posthumous pardon granted in the history of the presidency.
Johnson, who with Joe Lewis and Muhammad Ali is widely considered to be in the pantheon of the greatest boxers of all time, broke the color barrier in boxing in a 1908 in a 1908 fight with Tommy Burns. But it was his 1910 title defense against former champion Jim Jeffries that sparked racial unrest that resulted in perhaps hundreds of deaths around the country.
Johnson openly dated white women — and married three of them. The mother of his second wife, Lucille Cameron, alleged that Johnson had abducted her, leading to federal charges in Chicago. Those fell through when Cameron refused to press charges, but Johnson was then convicted of sexual debauchery charges against an alleged prostitute, Belle Schreiber.
He was convicted of violating the Mann Act, which passed Congress two years earlier to combat human trafficking but was never intended to criminalize consensual relationships.
But Johnson — with perhaps a wink and nudge from officials from the judge on down — was able to slip out of the country before being sentenced. He served seven years in exile in Canada, Europe and Mexico during World War I before returning to serve his year-long sentence at Leavenworth prison in Kansas.
While banished from the United States, Johnson lost his heavyweight title to Jess Willard in Cuba. With his federal conviction, he was denied licenses to fight in many states, and ended his career as a vaudeville performer and coach before dying in an automobile accident in 1946.
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