NEW YORK (PIX11)—Nearly 100 years to the day that Jack Johnson became the first black Heavyweight Champion of the World, his name still commands the respect of world champions, boxing writers, and even politicians.
During his career, however, he was increasingly persecuted by white society and lawmakers of his time as he rose to the top, knocking out white fighters and unapologetically sleeping with white women, including prostitutes. His personal relationships offended many, and ended up sparking new legislation that soon landed Johnson in jail.
"Jack Johnson was one hell of a champion," said Floyd Mayweather Jr., the man considered by many as one of the best pound-for-pound fighters in the world. Tim Smith of the New York Daily News agrees, "If you can think of Mike Tyson in his heyday times ten. This guy was the biggest, baddest man on the planet."
For Peter King, a Long Island Congressman and fight aficionado, "Jack Johnson stood alone, he was Superman."
Yet for others like Congressman Charles Rangel, the story of Johnson's triumph is also one of disappointment, "What happened to Jack Johnson is so un-American."
The American tragedy known as Jack Johnson begins nearly 150 years ago in Galveston, Texas. Born to former slaves in 1878, the future champ laced up the gloves for his first fight at the age of 15. He's been fighting ever since. For Smith, who has covered boxing since Evander Holyfield's Olympic days, Johnson's treatment is somewhat of a federal hypocrisy, "He is being treated worst than your worst criminal, because he cannot get a pardon in a country that is supposed to be blind when it comes to justice. "
Johnson was truly the world's first superpower. He was 6'1 and all hurt. On July 4, 1910, he inflicted that hurt on "The Great White Hope" Jim Jeffries over 15 savage rounds. When Jeffries's corner threw in the towel, America had its first black heavyweight champion. White America felt cheated, "People couldn't stand the fact that this guy was physically superior to white boxers at the time" said Wally Matthews of ESPN.com, who added, "The real crime is that he beat a white heavyweight champion in Tommy Burns and then he beat Jim Jeffries a former white heavyweight champion."
Society viewed Johnson as a black sheep, he viewed society as a corrupted flock. The champ let them know it by dating white women including white prostitutes, "He wore their bigotry on his sleeve. He just poked their finger in their eyes," said Congressman Rangel. Ultimately the man considered by some as the first civil rights leader of the 20th century had two white wives by his 35th birthday.
In the midst of his championship prime in 1912, the government stepped in with a conniving political TKO, the Mann Act. A new law aimed directly at Johnson that made it illegal to transport women across state lines for "immoral purposes." The Mann act was invented for Jack Johnson," said Mike Tyson in an exclusive interview with PIX 11. The former champ added, "It's really called the Jack Johnson law, but they didn't want it to be so bias."
Johnson fled the country and in 1915 he lost his title to Jess Willard in Cuba. Five years later he returned to the states. The U.S. welcomed him home with an 11-month stay at the Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary in Kansas. Now, some 65 years after his death in the political ring of D.C., two Republicans, Senator John McCain along with Congressman Peter King, are leading the fight for an icon they never knew. In their corner are Democratic Congressman Charles Rangel and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. All feel that the proper resolution to right this historical travesty is honor Johnson with a full pardon, "This is an American issue number one, to show that America can correct what it's done wrong and also acknowledge what a great American Jack Johnson was," said King.
There are many in the sport of boxing as well as politicos in Washington D.C. that will do anything to see Jack Johnson get a pardon. However there is one man that has failed to take action, President Barack Obama. The failure is surprising for many because of the unique opportunity for the first black heavyweight champion to get his name cleared by the first black President of the United States. However, when the legislation for Johnson's pardon passed both houses in the last U.S. Congress, President Obama decided to kick it to the Department of Justice. They responded by saying that they were not going to invest manpower for the pardon of a dead person -- however, if President Obama would like to do so, then he can pardon him.
To this day Johnson is still down for the count. For Congressman King, it's more than frustrating, "It's ironic and really disappointing to me its such a golden opportunity for the President." Congressman Rangel adds, "It's not for him, he won't know one pardon from another. This is a good a positive move. The President should really say, 'Thank you for reminding me.' End of story."
President Obama has pardoned 17 people since taking office, yet there appears to be no clear-cut policy by the President on pardons. The Constitution states that the, "President's authority to grant pardons is essentially unfettered." President Obama has executed pardons for those convicted of offenses including drug dealing, peddling alligator hides, stealing cable television and mutilating American currency. When contacted by PIX 11 on June 30th, the White House refused to comment on all inquiries related to the bi-partisan effort to pardon Johnson. For Matthews, who has seen greats like Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson, there is no time limit on rectifying the travesty of Johnson's life, "Some people say it was just too long ago. It's never too late to right a wrong."
The squared circle has been described as the theatre of the unexpected, but for the unexpected --- which in this case would be a full pardon --- it will take a man who built his presidency on a foundation of "hope" and "change" to provide a dead man his greatest hope at changing history.
For Jack Johnson, his final victory would arguably be his greatest.