WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump on Thursday granted a rare posthumous pardon to boxing’s first black heavyweight champion, clearing Jack Johnson’s name more than 100 years after what many see as his racially charged conviction.
“It’s my honor to do it. It’s about time,” Trump said during an Oval Office ceremony, where he was joined by boxer Lennox Lewis and actor Sylvester Stallone, who has drawn awareness to Johnson’s cause.
Trump said Johnson served 10 months in prison for what many view as a racially motivated injustice, and described his decision as an effort “to correct a wrong in our history.”
“He represented something that was both very beautiful and very terrible at the same time,” Trump said.
Johnson was convicted in 1913 by an all-white jury for violating the Mann Act, which made it illegal to transport women across state lines for “immoral” purposes, for traveling with his white girlfriend.
The pardon by Trump is “great news,” said Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford), who had campaigned with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and others to clear Johnson’s name.
“He saw this as being an injustice,” King said of Trump, who, King said, is a boxing fan. “It’s a very good signal. It even goes beyond Jack Johnson. It’s trying to compensate for an entire era of injustice.”
Trump suggested in a tweet in April that he might pardon Johnson, saying Stallone, creator of the “Rocky” movies, told him the story of Johnson. “Others have looked at this over the years, most thought it would be done,” Trump tweeted, “but yes, I am considering a Full Pardon!”
In 2004, political and civil rights leaders, boxing experts and artists, including documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, petitioned the Justice Department for a presidential pardon for Johnson.
A legendary figure in boxing, Johnson crossed over into popular culture decades ago with biographies, dramas and documentaries following the civil rights era.
He died in 1946. His great-great niece had pressed Trump for a posthumous pardon.
The son of former slaves, Johnson defeated Tommy Burns for the heavyweight title in 1908 at a time when blacks and whites rarely entered the same ring. He then mowed down a series of “great white hopes,” culminating in 1910 with the undefeated former champion, James J. Jeffries.
McCain previously told The Associated Press that Johnson “was a boxing legend and pioneer whose career and reputation were ruined by a racially charged conviction more than a century ago.”
“Johnson’s imprisonment forced him into the shadows of bigotry and prejudice, and continues to stand as a stain on our national honor,” McCain has said.
Posthumous pardons are rare, but not unprecedented. President Bill Clinton pardoned Henry O. Flipper, the first African-American officer to lead the Buffalo Soldiers of the 10th Cavalry Regiment during the Civil War, and President George W. Bush pardoned Charles Winters, an American volunteer in the Arab-Israeli War convicted of violating the U.S. Neutrality Acts in 1949.
Linda E. Haywood, Johnson’s great-great niece, wanted Barack Obama, the nation’s first black president, to pardon Johnson, but Justice Department policy says “processing posthumous pardon petitions is grounded in the belief that the time of the officials involved in the clemency process is better spent on the pardon and commutation requests of living persons.”
The Justice Department makes decisions on potential pardons through an application process and typically makes recommendations to the president. The general DOJ policy is to not accept applications for posthumous pardons for federal convictions, according to the department’s website. But Trump has shown a willingness to work around the DOJ process in the past.