Justice Dept nixes Jack Johnson pardon bid

The U.S. Justice Department is refusing to back a posthumous

pardon for Jack Johnson, the black heavyweight boxing champion who

was imprisoned nearly a century ago because of his romantic ties

with a white woman.

In a letter obtained on Thursday by The Associated Press, the

department’s pardon attorney, Ronald L. Rodgers, told Congressman

Peter King that the Justice Department’s general policy is not to

process posthumous pardon requests. In cases like Johnson’s, given

the time that has passed and the historical record that would need

to be scoured, the department’s resources for pardon requests are

best used on behalf of people “who can truly benefit” from them,

Rodgers wrote.

The letter was in response to one that King and Senator John

McCain sent to President Barack Obama in October urging a pardon.

In that letter, the two lawmakers noted that both houses of

Congress passed a resolution calling for a presidential pardon and

said they hoped the president would be eager to “right this wrong

and erase an act of racism that sent an American citizen to

prison.”

Rodgers wrote that notwithstanding the department policy, Obama

still has the authority to pardon whomever he wishes, “guided when

he sees fit by the advice of the pardon attorney.”

And he did cite two cases of posthumous pardons: President Bill

Clinton’s 1999 pardon of Lt. Henry O. Flipper, the Army’s first

black commissioned officer, who was drummed out of the military in

1882 after white officers accused him of embezzling $3,800 in

commissary funds; and President George W. Bush’s 2008 pardon of

Charles Winters, who was convicted of violating the Neutrality Act

when he conspired in 1948 to export aircraft to a foreign country

in aid of Israel.

In Winters’ case, Rodgers said, the pardon request was not

processed by Justice’s Office of the Pardon Attorney, due to the

department’s posthumous pardon policy.

King said in a telephone interview that he and McCain probably

will continue to urge Obama to issue the pardon.

“What they’re doing here is bucking it back to President

Obama,” King said. “So I would respectfully urge him to grant the

pardon. This is the president’s call.”

The White House had no immediate comment on whether Obama would

consider the request.

Johnson became the first black heavyweight champion on Dec. 26,

1908, after police in Australia stopped his 14-round bout against

the severely battered Canadian world champion, Tommy Burns.

That victory led to a search for a “Great White Hope” who

could beat Johnson. Two years later, Jim Jeffries, the American

world titleholder Johnson had tried for years to fight, came out of

retirement but lost in a match called “The Battle of the

Century,” resulting in deadly riots.

In 1913, Johnson was convicted of violating the Mann Act, which

made it illegal to transport women across state lines for immoral

purposes. The sentencing judge acknowledged a desire to “send a

message” to black men about relationships with white women. After

Johnson’s conviction, he fled the country, but agreed years later

to return and serve a 10-month jail sentence.