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Obama urged to issue black boxer Jack Johnson a posthumous pardon

October 20, 2009 | 12:01 pm

Jack Johnson, first black heavyweight champion

Jack Johnson was the most famous African American of his day, the first black heavyweight boxing champion. In 1910, he gave a black community with little to cheer about a stunning lift by defeating white champion Jim Jeffries in Reno, a historical first that led to race riots by the white audience.

So lasting was Johnson's achievement that years later, in 1970, Howard Sackler made a movie -- "The Great White Hope" -- based on his play. Filmmaker Ken Burns was also drawn to the story, crafting a documentary called "Unforgivable Blackness."

In 1913, Johnson's relationship with a white woman led to his conviction for violating the Mann Act, which prohibited the transportation of women across state lines for "immoral" purposes. At a time when blacks in the South were lynched for even looking at a white woman, he served 10 months in jail.

Now, two Republican boxing enthusiasts -- Arizona Sen. John McCain and New York Rep. Peter King -- are waging a campaign to get President Obama to pardon the boxer posthumously.

"It is our hope that you will be eager to agree to right this wrong and erase an act of racism that sent an American citizen to prison," the two Republicans said in the letter sent Friday. The charges, they added, were clearly intended "to keep him away from the boxing ring, where he continued to defeat his white opponents."

During the summer both the House and Senate passed resolutions unanimously urging Obama to grant a pardon. As McCain put it at the time, "Rectifying this injustice is long overdue. [The resolution recognizes] the unjustness of what transpired, and sheds light on the achievements of an athlete who was forced into the shadows of bigotry and prejudice."

President George W. Bush failed to act on appeals during his presidency to pardon the heavyweight champ.

No word from the White House yet about what Obama will do, but as the first African American president -- a child of a white mother and a black father -- it's hard to imagine he would resist history's call. Or Congress' for that matter.

[For the record: A previous version of this post incorrectly reported that writer Howard Sackler based his movie “The Great White Hope” on “his story.” Actually, “The Great White Hope” was originally a Pulitzer Prize-winning play.]

-- Johanna Neuman

Photo: Associated Press file photo

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