April 3, 2009

Pardoning a Legend?

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I’ve been looking forward to the Final Four and National Championship games all week (read: for the past year), but one of the most interesting pieces of information to appear on SI.com’s newsfeed this week has nothing to do with basketball: Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) presented a resolution on Wednesday calling for a presidential pardon for legendary heavyweight Jack Johnson.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with this man’s place in history — 100 years before Barack Obama was sworn into office as America’s first African-American president, Johnson became the first-ever black heavyweight champion. On Dec. 26, 1908, he beat Canadian champion Tommy Burns in Australia in a fight that went 14 rounds before being stopped by police. Johnson had as many haters as he had fans.
When Johnson won the title, the call went out for a “great white hope” to enter the ring and prove that Johnson was not a true champion. Former undefeated heavyweight champ Jim Jeffries came out of retirement to fight Johnson in 1910. It was the “Fight of the Century” on a Fourth of July in Reno, and riots broke out when the “great white hope” lost.
This was an important event in American history, but why is it being brought up again a century later? On the surface, there is not much that I could possibly have in common with a 250-pound human wrecking machine like Johnson, so how could I hope to understand his struggles?
Then one day early last March in my Anthropology of Sport class, I sat down to watch a documentary called Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson. This 2005 Ken Burns documentary instantly caught my attention, not just with dramatic production but with the simple fact that Johnson was born March 31, 1878 — exactly 110 years before I came into the world.
(Speaking of which, thanks everyone for the 21st birthday wishes this week!)
And now, back to something relevant to the topic of this column …
Sharing a birthday made me feel an immediate kinship with this giant of a man who could easily crush me like a bug. Everything was larger than life with Johnson. His victories, his trash talk and his style (tailored suits and gold caps) — it all drew attention, but also enemies. But his desires were decidedly normal: success and love.
The fact that he kept company with white women became his downfall.
“I would definitely support a presidential pardon for Jack Johnson,” said Prof. Margaret Washington, history, who will be teaching next semester’s HIST 2510: Race and Popular Culture. “In a climate of intense racial hostility, as the first black heavyweight champion, he was convicted of rape on a trumped-up charge. He was proud, flamboyant and had a well-publicized love life with a white woman. But he raped no one.”
Married three times, each time to a white woman, Johnson made the white establishment nervous — he offended their sense of right and wrong by daring to stand out and be seen with white women.
In 1913, he was the first person convicted for violation of the Mann Act of 1910, which made it illegal to transport women across state lines for “immoral purposes.” Meant to apply to prostitution and human trafficking of white people, the language was normal legalese at best, dangerous ambiguity at worst. The worst being the way it was used to run Johnson out of the boxing ring.
“He fled rather than serve the one year sentence,” Washington said. “But white society got what it wanted, which was to take Johnson out of boxing circulation. Anyone who knows the story understands that Johnson was being targeted because of his color, his greatness and his penchant for white women, who returned his affections in full measure.”
McCain, known for his love of boxing, may have the purest of motives for proposing this resolution. He may really want to recognize a legend of the sport and put right a great American injustice, but that might not be good enough.
Prof. Grant Farred, English and Africana studies, studies the philosophy of sports and has a different take on the issue: There is a distinction between issuing a pardon and offering an apology. Both of them recognize Johnson’s suffering, but a pardon also makes it seems that everything is okay — now that the injustice has been acknowledged, there is no more need to examine what went wrong and how to make sure it never happens again.
People think of Johnson as “the oppositional figure,” according to Farred, “[who] reminds us what was profoundly wrong and unjust and racist with this country [at that time]. That’s what Jack Johnson should stand for.”
Even Johnson’s death highlights his status as a symbol of injustice — after angrily driving away from a bar that turned him away due to the color of his skin, he died in a car crash at the age of 68.
A couple of years ago, I saw James Earl Jones as “Jack Jefferson” (a.k.a. Johnson) in the 1970 film The Great White Hope for the first time, and what I loved most about the film (besides being blown away by Jones’s acting ability) was how raw it was — honestly portraying the virtues and flaws of both “Jefferson” and his white detractors. (The scene near the movie’s end when Johnson is living in exile in Mexico is one of the roughest things I’ve ever experienced.)
Johnson is an example of an important historical figure that became an equally important symbol, and it is not easy to separate the man from the symbol. Presidents rarely issue pardons to the dead, so it is most likely that this presidential pardon is just another symbol … How much effect does it really have? Does it change the way the public thinks, reflect the liberal guilt, or is it just going through the motions for the press in an election year rife with symbolism?
To the best of my knowledge, President Obama has yet to comment on the senator’s proposal. Most of the time, I think politicians should butt out of the sports world — but maybe this one deserves some discussion, if only to ask some of the questions I have brought up.
I definitely care more about what type of response Obama gives to this issue than I care about his Final Four picks or what he thinks about steroids. Even the best politician in the world doesn’t have a chance with those problems.