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Justice overdue for legendary boxer

Jack Johnson, the first black boxing heavyweight champion

Jack Johnson, the first black boxing heavyweight champion of the world. Credit: AP

In 1913, boxer Jack Johnson, the first black world heavyweight champion, was essentially convicted of living as an unapologetically free African-American man. Today, it should be clear that’s not a legitimate reason to paint him as a criminal. But efforts to clear Johnson’s name have always failed.

That could change now as President Donald Trump considers a pardon of the long-dead fighter.

Johnson was convicted of two counts of “interstate rail transport of a woman for the purposes of prostitution and debauchery.” The prosecution came under the Mann Act, which was passed in 1910 mostly to stop women from being trafficked. The law was worded loosely enough to make just about any extramarital sexual act that involved people who crossed state lines a crime, but the way the government wielded it against Johnson was unprecedented, more persecution that prosecution.

But everything about Johnson was unprecedented.

Born in Texas in 1878, Jack Johnson was the son of former slaves. By 1903, he was the world colored heavyweight champion. But he could not get a shot at the full championship until five years later, when Johnson beat Tommy Burns to become heavyweight champion of the world.

And it was then that cutting Johnson down to size became a priority to white America.

Beloved former champion Jim Jeffries was lured out of retirement, billed as “the Great White Hope” and made the favorite by whites desperately hoping their man would win.

On July 4, 1910, in Reno, Nevada, Johnson beat Jeffries with relative ease. Jeffries later said even in his prime he never could have beaten Johnson.

The nation erupted in racial violence. Riots in at least 50 cities left as many as 25 black people dead. White mobs stormed black neighborhoods, beating whomever they came upon.

Because a black man defeated a white one. And because Johnson loved white women and showy living and making it clear he was as good as a white man.

So the government tried to prosecute Johnson on the Mann Act once, and failed, because the white woman he was essentially accused of kidnapping was with him by choice and married him after he was accused.

Then the government tried again, with an embittered ex-girlfriend as the witness against Johnson, and won a conviction.

Johnson fled the country, then returned seven years later under an agreement to surrender and serve his sentence.

Today, the accusations against Johnson are laughable. So in 2004, a petition for Johnson’s pardon was filed by a group led by Arizona Sen. John McCain, a boxing fan. Soon thereafter, Long Island’s own pugilistic politician, Rep. Peter King, got in the fight to clear Johnson’s name.

They thought their best chance was in 2009, when our first black president had the power of pardons and McCain and King got resolutions passed in the House and Senate asking for the pardon. But, King said Tuesday, “The Justice Department wasn’t interested in pardons for dead people. It was kind of amazing, McCain, the white man who Obama defeated, offered the bill, and the president wouldn’t act.”

Pardoning Johnson is worthwhile. But if it happens, it will be because he is beloved. A movement to recognize the legal persecution of so many black people in this nation’s history must also happen. The men who passed Jim Crow laws were the criminals, not those convicted of breaking them. The whites who subjugated blacks were the criminals, not the blacks convicted of fighting back.

“It is a place to start, though,” King said of a Johnson pardon. “It is a symbol.”

Lane Filler is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.