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,
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
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.