He was the ultimate answer to the idea of White Supremacy. His victories in the ring set off lynchings in the streets. His unforgivable blackness wrote a very predictable end to an otherwise unpredictable life. But Jack Johnson lived in the cross hairs of white male ego fragility for most of his life. When he violated the unspoken rule of sleeping with white women in early 20th century America, he assured himself a prison cell in the abyss of the prison industrial complex.
Jack Johnson possessed an unabashedly confident swagger during an era where the meek, head bowed, shoulder shrugging, non threatening demeanor was the rule. Whenever he was fined $50.00 (in 1912 money) for speeding, or more specifically, the earliest 20th century version of driving while black, Johnson would reach into his pocket and hand the officer a $100.00 dollar bill and state: “keep that because i’ll be driving back the same way I came.” This type of machismo elicited the time honored prejorative of uppity nigga. To put it simply, Johnson was a Nigga With an Attitude. Thus his demise was as imminent as tomorrow.
Johnson could afford such actions because at the time he was the First Black World Heavyweight Boxing Champion. Defeating Jim Jeffries in “The Fight Of The Century,” Johnson became a magnet for white fury by refusing to live in accordance with the informal customs of Jim Crow. It is during his reign that white people sought a great white hope to wipe that insufferable smirk of black dominance from his face.
In 1912, he opened a lavishly successful, integrated restaurant and nightclub, which was partly operated by his white wife. In early 20th century America, to be black, successful, have white women and insubordinate was a recipe for destruction. Thus, Johnson’s subsequent arrest and conviction for violating the Mann Act—forbidding one to transport a woman across state lines for “immoral purposes,” was tailor made for taking him off of the streets. The fact that Johnson was charged and convicted before the law was passed is of no real consequence. American racism has shown an uncanny ability to arbitrarily create rules to restrict black ambitions where none previously existed. He became the proxy for a collective warning to black men against lascivious behavior with white women.
Johnson would later flee to Europe, South America and Mexico to escape prosecution. But running just wasn’t his style. In July 1920, he surrendered himself to authorities and began serving his 10 month sentence at Levenworth Penitentiary. Oddly enough, his farcical conviction elicited a passive protest from prison officials at Levenworth. To say his incarceration was unique is an understatement. Prison officials simply let him run the joint. His cell was never locked. He ate, showered, and walked the prison at will with virtually no oversight from the warden. And of course, no inmate would dare touch him.
The spectre of another Jack Johnson frightened white America to no end. Therefore it determined that Johnson’s audacious example could never be repeated. The next champion would be a sullen, passive, stone-faced, introverted example of black moral restraint and civility. It got that in Joe Louis. He was constantly warned against acting like Jack Johnson. He was encouraged to be reticent but affable. Despite his acquiescence to this script, he was rewarded with prosecution from the IRS.
As for Jack Johnson, he would later die in 1946 from a car crash in Franklinton, North Carolina. His legacy would resurface again in 1970 with James Earl Jones’ depiction of him in the Great White Hope. And yet again in 2005, when filmmaker Ken Burns produced a two-part documentary about Johnson’s life entitled Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson.
But what of Johnson’s status as a convicted felon? The move toward clemency began in 2008 with a bill requesting a posthumous pardon from President George W. Bush. Bush didn’t move. In April 2009, Senator John McCain, Representative Peter King, film maker Ken Burns, and Johnson’s great-niece, Linda Haywood, requested a presidential pardon for Johnson from the first Black President. The response never came. Despite such luminaries as Mike Tyson, Harry Reid, and Gregory Meeks pleading for absolution from a century old injustice, President Barack Obama, like Bush, did not budge. It was not until May 24, 2018 that President Donald Trump issued a full pardon of Johnson after speaking with actor Sylvester Stallone.
While this pardon may clear the unsavory cloud of criminality from Johnson’s name, it takes its place as another late apology that came after the earthly statute of limitations (death). This is a pernicious pattern of symbolic recognition of wrongs that always come to late for the offenders to suffer any consequences. But this pardon is demonstrative of a hard lesson in the classroom of power. It is not simply a grand indictment of American politics in general. It is a great calumny against the idea of Black political power in particular.
What does it say about the American political system when a 71 year old actor from the 1980s can obtain a posthumous pardon from a century old conviction; of a black boxer whose been dead for over 70 years? When Sylvester Stallone can accomplish more in 30 days from a conversation, than 2 Senators, a Representative, and a Congressman can accomplish in 10 years, it is the clearest indication that democracy has become an exercise in absurdity. The fact that it took over 100 years to posthumously pardon an openly bogus conviction is itself a kind of just injustice.
When the President listens more to Sylvester Stallone than the Congressional Black Caucus, then it is more than reasonable to conclude that Black political power is nothing more than Black political theater. The fact that one actor has more power than a group of black legislators corroborates that constant admonition of white omnipotence whispering inside of the black psyche. It is a powerful illustration that black authority is, in fact, an oxymoron like friendly fire or respectable prostitute.
Jack Johnson’s history is yet another page of injustice archived in a colossal library of 8 million stories. The kind of stories where justice comes too late for too many to remember, or even care. In fact, it will be one more instance where Black Americans will be publicly chastised for living in the past. His family will get a small token of consolation and we will be told to simply get over it. This is the true meaning of the pardon. It’s justice deferred, which means it’s justice denied.
TONY MACEO is a senior blogger at the Negromanosphere. Like, share and subscribe to the You Tube Channel. Also become a Patron @powerofstrategies on Patreon. Till Next time, I’ll holla!!!