Boxing: Trying to right an injustice

Published 12:00 am Saturday, June 11, 2011

By Caulton Tudor
Raleigh News and Observer
Although 65 years have passed since Jack Johnson died, the best boxer of his time remains a person of much social and political dialogue.
The first African-American heavyweight world champion was 68 when he was pronounced dead in St. Agnes Hospital on June 10, 1946, following a car crash about 20 miles north of Raleigh.
Johnson died an ex-convict ó the result of a 1913 conviction in Chicago of having violated the Mann Act, a federal law that prohibits the interstate transportation of people for the purposes of prostitution and/or immoral sexual activity.
In a courtroom supervised by judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis ó who would later become baseball commissioner after a betting the 1919 Black Sox scandal ó Johnson was found guilty and sentenced to 366 days in prison in a case decided by an all-white jury.
The trial involved an alleged prostitute with whom Johnson was said to have had a relationship in 1909 and early 1910 ó before the Mann Act was passed on June 25, 1910.
Johnson almost immediately skipped bail but eventually surrendered and was imprisoned at the federal penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kan., from September 1920 until July 1921.
Numerous requests to the Justice Department for a pardon over the years have failed. But in July 2009, Congress passed a resolution that requested President Barack Obama issue an executive pardon.
Thus far, Obama hasnít acted on the request or even mentioned it in any public forum, but Sen. John McCain of Arizona and Rep. Pete King of New York (an amateur boxer) are again pressing Obama for action.
King has called the conviction a ěgrave injustice.î
On May 24, the two Republican lawmakers reintroduced the resolution and urged the president to act immediately.
The original resolution was handed from Obamaís office to the Justice Department. According to Associated Press reports, the Justice Department informed the two lawmakers that its general policy is to deny posthumous pardon requests.
Johnsonís great-great niece, Linda E. Haywood of Chicago, believes Obama may respond favorably.
ěThatís most definitely our hope, and I really think it will happen,î Haywood said in a telephone interview.
Haywood, in her ěmid 50s,î says Johnson, who was born and spent his early years in Galveston, Texas, has several living relatives but never had children of his own. Most of the family lives in Chicago. ěThereís a large extended family that would love to see his name finally get cleared,î Haywood said.
Obama spent much of his life in the Chicago area, where Johnson was buried.
Samuel Collins, a member of the Texas Historical Commission and long an advocate of a pardon, says Obama has an important decision to make.
ěJack Johnson wouldnít be my choice as a husband for my daughter, but he died having been convicted of a blatant ongoing injustice. Thatís one wrong that can be corrected, certainly to some degree as these things go, even at this late date,î Collins said. At just over 6 feet and weighing about 190 pounds in his boxing prime, Johnson wouldnít be considered an unusually large athlete by todayís standards. But he was larger than life during and after his run as champion from 1908 to 1915.
ěHe had a big influence on Muhammad Ali,î Haywood said. ěAnd when I met Eddie Mustafa Muhammad (light heavyweight champion in the early 1980s) once in New York, he said he considered Jack Johnson to be the best ever.î
A 2005 Public Broadcasting Service television documentary ó ěUnforgivable Blacknessî by film producer Ken Burns ó detailed the impact of Johnsonís career on young boxers throughout much of the entire century, and the attention he drew for marrying three white women and leading a free-spirited life.
Before his death in 1981, one-time heavyweight champion Joe Louis referred to Johnson as ěthe king of all black athletes in the United States.î
From the 1920s until the time of his death, Johnson was an international celebrity whose flair and flamboyance became as much of his persona as a famous July 4, 1910, ěFight of the Century,î a win over former champ James J. Jeffries in Reno, Nev. Johnson won the bout and collected a purse of $65,000. That year, baseball player Ty Cobb was paid $11,000 by the Detroit Tigers.
While there is no officially documented account of exactly how many bouts Johnson actually fought, the International Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota, N.Y., puts Johnsonís record at 77 wins, 13 losses and 14 draws.
Johnson also was a man of movement outside a boxing ring.
In the 1920s, he opened a nightspot in Harlem that eventually became The Cotton Club.
ěHis interests were as varied as his boxing techniques,î Rozen said. ěFrom his earliest years, one of his loves was driving fast cars. Promoters would go to great lengths to try to keep him from driving fast during pre-bout camps. He wanted to be a race car driver but finally gave up on the idea.î
On the afternoon of June 10, 1946, Johnson had taken over driving duties from traveling companion Fred L. Scott when they were en route from Texas to New York for the second bout between Louis and Billy Conn in Yankee Stadium. Scott, a New York resident, told police following the wreck that Johnson lost control of a 1939 Lincoln Zephyr and collided with a tree. The state highway patrol estimated the speed at 80 miles per hour on the two-lane road at approximately 3:30 p.m.
Scott escaped with minor injuries, and Johnson was admitted to St. Agnes Hospital , which was located on the St. Augustineís College campus in Raleigh, at 4:25 p.m. He was pronounced dead as the result of internal bleeding and injuries a little over 90 minutes later.
Johnsonís grave, Haywood said, attracts many visitors.
ěOne day,î Rozen said, ěI honestly believe his name will be cleared over the conviction. It was a sham of a case, which is obvious to anyone who studies the facts.
ěThere may not be a pardon from this administration, but thereíll be one eventually. Itíll happen, but I doubt heíll ever be really forgotten.î