First Black Heavyweight Champ’s Family Wants Pardon
By Ramit Plushnick-Masti
HOUSTON — Relatives and hometown supporters of the nation’s first black heavyweight boxing champion are turning to YouTube to convince President Barack Obama to posthumously pardon him of a 1913 conviction for accompanying a white woman across state lines.
Jack Johnson, nicknamed the ”Galveston Giant” after his Texas hometown, was at the center of racial tensions after winning the title in 1908. When he defended his title by defeating white boxer Jim Jeffries in 1910, dubbed the ”Fight of the Century,” the victory sparked deadly race riots across the county.
Three years later, Johnson was convicted by an all-white jury for violating a Jim Crow-era law that made it illegal to transport white women across state lines for ”immoral purposes.” He was sentenced to a year in prison.
His family and other supporters say he did nothing wrong and that the century-old conviction continues to tarnish Johnson’s image. Lawmakers have asked for a pardon three times in the past decade, most recently in March, though none has been successful. The Justice Department has said its general policy is not to process posthumous pardon requests, and the White House declined to comment on the most recent congressional resolution.
To mark what would have been Johnson’s 135th birthday, his relatives and supporters gathered in Galveston to honor him and record a video to go straight to Obama.
Authorities first targeted Johnson’s relationship with Lucille Cameron, who later became his wife, but she refused to cooperate. They then turned to his former mistress, a prostitute named Belle Schreiber, to testify that Johnson had paid her train fare from Pittsburgh to Chicago, for immoral purposes.
Johnson skipped bail and fled the country following his conviction, but in 1920 he agreed to return and serve his sentence.