In 1913, heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson was convicted of transporting a white woman across state lines. Johnson had broken records as the first black heavyweight champ, but his celebrity could not escape the sickening grip of racism in his time.
Johnson was convicted in 1913 of violating the Mann Act on charges that he transported a white woman across state lines “for immoral purposes.” The woman Johnson transported, Belle Schreiber, worked as a prostitute and had been in a steady relationship with the heavyweight champion.
Johnson was sentenced to a year in prison, but he fled the country for several years, returning in 1920 to serve his sentence.
Not only was Johnson the first black man to win the heavyweight world championship, but he also was the rare black man of his era who was brash, ostentatious and unapologetic about his wealth and success. He taunted his opponents in the ring and dated white women, which was taboo at the time.
Johnson’s persona and race led to harsh coverage from newspapers over the years, which only served to further a negative image of the fighter.
“Jack Johnson lived in the lap of luxury, abused the fame and fortune that came to him, and died bereft of riches,” read an Associated Press article that ran in The New York Times after he died in 1946.
Now comes word that President Trump may be pardoning him in a private White House ceremony. On Thursday, recent and past boxing champions gathered at the White House to honor the ground-breaking boxer. They were even joined by the celebrity who made his name playing a heavyweight of his own making – Sly Stallone.
— Lennox Lewis, CBE, CM (@LennoxLewis) May 24, 2018
The move by President Trump serves to illustrate that while America has had a shameful past to deal with and even deals with shame in our current time, ultimately it is a nation that has never stopped growing and progressing. Despite our sins, we have always endeavored to right our wrongs, seal our wounds, and progress together. The work continues, as evidenced by the President’s actions to honor an American hero so wrongly defamed for so many years.