Trump Pardons Jack Johnson, Heavyweight Boxing ChampionNews
WASHINGTON — For more than 100 years, Jack Johnson’s legend as the first black heavyweight boxing champion has been undisputed, but his legacy had been tarnished by a racially tainted criminal conviction.
His battles against white opponents, in the ring and outside of it, gave rise to “The Great White Hope” play and movie and he came to be lionized as a barrier breaker.
But the criminal conviction from 1913 that most would find abhorrent today — for transporting a white woman across state lines — haunted Johnson well after his death in 1946 and motivated politicians and celebrities for years to advocate for a pardon, however symbolic.
On Thursday in the Oval Office, Johnson posthumously found an unexpected champion: President Trump.
Although his own record on civil rights has come under question, often harshly, Mr. Trump, flanked by boxing champions and Sylvester Stallone, the actor who brought the case to his attention, signed an order pardoning Johnson.
The president called Johnson “a truly great fighter” who “had a tough life” but served 10 months in federal prison “for what many view as a racially motivated injustice.” Mr. Trump said the conviction took place during a “period of tremendous racial tension in the United States.”
Mr. Trump has often found himself in the center of fiery debates over race and sports, and civil rights in general, repeatedly admonishing N.F.L. players, a majority of them black, who have knelt during the national anthem at games to protest racism and police brutality.
Hours before he announced the pardon, he told Fox News that he agreed with the N.F.L.’s new policy requiring players to stand for the national anthem or remain in the locker room before games, saying of those who did not stand, “maybe you shouldn’t be in the country.”
The president also came under sustained criticism several months ago after making remarks sympathetic to white supremacists after a deadly rally by them in Charlottesville, Va.
“This, isolated, is a good gesture to right a miscarriage of justice,” said Stefanie Brown James, a Democratic political consultant. “However, there are a lot of current, modern-day issues that he could address as the living president that he chooses not to. I’m just personally tired of symbolism.”
Still, in Johnson, Mr. Trump found a way in one swoop of the pen to stake a claim on civil rights and rebuke his predecessor, Barack Obama, for not taking action on an issue that seemed in line with the principles of fighting injustice that he had championed.
Though other presidents passed up the chance to pardon him, Mr. Trump noted that the last resolution in Congress calling for the pardon was while Mr. Obama was in office, in 2015.
“They couldn’t get the president to sign it,” Mr. Trump said.
A spokesman for Mr. Obama declined to comment Thursday. But in late 2009, Robert Gibbs, the president’s press secretary, told reporters that the Justice Department had recommended against a pardon.
A former Obama administration official said Thursday that the Justice Department made that recommendation because it was their policy to focus on grants of clemency that could still have a positive effect on people who are still living.
In a television interview, Mr. Obama’s attorney general, Eric H. Holder Jr., had also raised the fact there was a history of domestic violence accusations against Johnson.
Johnson’s cause had attracted a range of supporters, including Senator John McCain and the filmmaker Ken Burns, who made a documentary about the case in 2005 called “Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson.” Linda Haywood, a woman in Chicago who traces her lineage to Johnson, also has campaigned for him for years and attended the Oval Office ceremony.
Johnson, who won the heavyweight title in 1908 and was ostentatious and outspoken in a way black celebrities rarely were at the time, was convicted in 1913 of violating the Mann Act on charges that he had transported a white woman across state lines “for immoral purposes.” The woman Johnson transported, Belle Schreiber, worked as a prostitute and had been one of the heavyweight champion’s many lovers.
Johnson was sentenced to a year in prison, but he fled the country for several years, returning in 1920 to serve a 10-month sentence.
Decades after Johnson was convicted under the Mann Act, his case drew significant attention as a gross miscarriage of justice.
When reporters were let into the Oval Office on Thursday, Mr. Trump was sitting with a large, ornate title belt from the World Boxing Council propped up in front of him.
Mauricio Sulaiman Saldivar, the president of the W.B.C., thanked Mr. Trump for taking what he called a “huge step” and declared Thursday a great day for the sport and the world.
Mr. Trump turned to Mr. Stallone and joked that he was not sure whether his best look was Rambo or Rocky. The president kidded Mr. Stallone, who through a representative declined an interview request, about not wanting reporters called into the Oval Office.
“I have stage fright,” Mr. Stallone said.
Ms. Haywood thanked the president as well, saying the pardon was a long time coming.
“I am overwhelmed,” she said, adding that her family had been “deeply shamed that my uncle went to prison” and regretted that older relatives had not lived to see this day.
“I appreciate you rewriting history,” Ms. Haywood said. “My family can go forward knowing the pain and the shame has been replaced.”
The W.B.C., one of boxing’s sanctioning bodies, invited luminaries of the sport, including the current champion Deontay Wilder and a retired one, Lennox Lewis, to the ceremony, according to Tim Smith, the vice president for communications at Haymon Boxing.
Wilder said that when he and others met privately with the president, Mr. Trump talked about Mr. Lewis’s past fights and marveled at Mr. Wilder’s perfect 40-0 record. The president also spoke about what a privilege it was to sign the pardon for Johnson when his predecessors had not, Mr. Wilder said.
Although he did not vote for Mr. Trump and said the president had not done enough to improve the lives of black people, Mr. Wilder said Thursday’s events improved his perception of the president.
“This is a big step forward, especially for the black community for the simple fact he didn’t have to do it,” Mr. Wilder said. “Hopefully, this ain’t one thing — you do one great deed, then that’s it.”
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 and unapologetic about his wealth and success. He taunted his opponents in the ring and dated white women, which was taboo, and in some places illegal, at the time.
After Johnson had won the heavyweight title, many in white society advocated for a white fighter — “the great white hope” — to step up and win the title back. James J. Jeffries, a former champion who had been in retirement, took up that challenge. But Johnson decimated Jeffries, a victory that sparked violent white backlash in the form of riots across the country.
That fight would later serve to secure Johnson’s place in the history books as it inspired the 1967 play “The Great White Hope” and the 1970 movie of the same name.
“Johnson was one of the few people in sports who transcended sports,” said Mike Silver, a boxing historian. “He transcended the athletic world to become really part of the culture and the racial history of the country.”
A version of this article appears in print on , on Page A1 of the New York edition with the headline: Boxer’s Conviction, Driven by Racism, Is Wiped From the Books