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Republican lawmakers have tried and failed for years to urge presidents to pardon legendary boxer Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion who was convicted on charges his judge has since declared a racially inspired "message." Today it looks like some key Democrats might help nudge President Obama once again.

Sen. John McCain and Sen. Peter King led the charge for George W. Bush to pardon Johnson's violation of the Mann Act. They tried again in 2009 to the same result. Things looked good in 2011 when a resolution sponsored by McCain, King, and New York Democratic Representative Charlie Rangel passed both the Senate and the House. But, alas, a resolution is not a law, and President Obama denied 1,019 of 1,041 pardon applications in his first term leading up to his pardoning of 17 more convicted felons last Friday.

Perhaps seizing upon Obama's fourth move toward clemency, McCain and King have found two new Democratic resolution co-sponsors on the left to right this centuries-old wrong: Harry Reid, along with new — and, importantly, temporary — Massachusetts Democratic Senator William "Mo" Cowan. "Johnson's memory was unjustly tarnished by a racially-motivated criminal conviction, and it is now time to recast his legacy," Reid said in a statement. "I am pleased to work with my colleagues in both the Senate and House to formally restore Johnson’s name to the full stature and dignity he deserves."

Johnson first won the world heavyweight championship in December 1908, which infuriated the white boxing establishment, which spent the next two years searching for a "Great White Hope" to defeat him. In 1910, Johnson would defeat said white hope, Jim Jefferies, in a scheduled 45-round fight in Reno, Nevada. Johnson was declared the victor in round 14 after Jeffries corner mercifully threw in the towel. Race riots ensued, and black spectators who cheered on their champion were beaten for their enthusiasm. 

In 1913, Johnson was convicted of violating the Mann Act, which made it illegal to transport women across state lines for "immoral purposes." The intent of the bill was to prevent prostitution. In Johnson's case, it was a way for a white judge to ruin the career and reputation of the black heavyweight champion. Johnson went to jail for eight months after fleeing the country for seven years. 

Johnson's story was immortalized for a new generation in a 2005 PBS documentary from Ken Burns, Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson. In the film, the sentencing judge admitted his desire to "send a message" to black men who fooled around with white women. The push to have Johnson pardoned has also received support from Samuel L. Jackson, outspoken Public Enemy frontman Chuck D, and former world champion "Sugar" Ray Leonard. 

But it's the power team of McCain and Reid who may ultimately attempt to push this latest resolution through both houses once more. Whether or not the first black president will listen to the two leaders remains to be seen, and he may have enough battles on his hands: The White House did not formally urge the Supreme Court to uphold the Voting Rights Act last week, even as it pushed for gay rights in the justices' hearing of the Defense of Marriage Act and Proposition 8.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.

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