Donald Trump corrected a misuse of justice when he issued a posthumous presidential pardon to Jack Johnson on May 24, 2018. But his pardon of Jack Johnson, which came 105 years too late, is not enough to address the scourge of racially motivated policing, or the entanglements of white supremacy and sexual regulation.
Over a century ago, in May 1913, an Illinois jury found the world-famous heavyweight champion guilty of violating the White Slave Traffic Act, popularly known as the Mann Act. Responding to public outcry against the prevalence of prostitution and stories of sexual slavery, Congress in 1910 criminalized the facilitating or persuading a woman to travel over state lines for the purpose of prostitution, debauchery, or “any other immoral purpose”—a broad and vague phrase that offered prosecutors a powerful tool to regulate fornication, seduction, or adultery. As lawyer Henry Dannenbaum argued, “Private use or public exploitation are both immoral, both are denounced by the state laws and moral sentiment, and they differ only in the degree of immorality.” Jack Johnson provided a tantalizing opportunity to test the relatively new law and, in the process, take down a defiant black man.
Boxing’s 1908 heavyweight champion, Johnson was an anathema to everything Jim Crow America represented. He was black, strong, fierce, a champion, and most dangerous of all, unapologetic about his sexual relations with white women. Known as much for his bravado and racial pride outside the ring as his skill within it, he soon became a flashpoint for the racial antagonisms that characterized an era of disenfranchisement, legal segregation, and white-on-black violence, in which the presumed rape of Southern white women by black men justified lynching. After he successfully defended his heavyweight championship in 1910 against white boxer Jim Jeffries in “The Fight of the Century,” cities around the nation erupted, with angry white mobs marching on black neighborhoods.