Trump posthumously pardons Jack Johnson, first victim of the Mann Act

In a move that should be celebrated by civil libertians, sex workers and hobbyists, President Donald Trump corrected a historic wrong by posthumously pardoning Jack Johnson, the first African American heavyweight boxing champion. Convicted under the Mann Act, Johnson was the first victim of the White Slavery panic from which modern anti-sex campaigns descend.

 

For more than a century, Jack Johnson’s legendary boxing career had been undisputed, but his incredible legacy had been tarnished by a racially-tainted criminal conviction under a so-called moral purity law, the Mann Act.

Trump posthumously pardons Jack Johnson, first victim of the Mann Act
President Trump, with Sylvester Stallone and former and current boxers in attendance, signed a posthumous pardon for Jack Johnson on Thursday. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)

“I’ve issued an executive grant of clemency, a full pardon posthumously to Jack Johnson, the first African American heavyweight champion of the world,” Trump said.

“Congress has supported numerous resolutions calling for Johnson’s pardon … No President ever signed it, surprisingly. They thought it was going to be signed in the last administration and that didn’t happen. So that was very disappointing for a lot of people.”

The president called Johnson “a truly great fighter” who “had a tough life” but served 10 months in federal prison “for what many view as a racially motivated injustice.” President Trump noted that Johnson’s conviction took place during a “period of tremendous racial tension in the United States.”

Linda Bell Haywood, the maternal great-great niece of Jack Johnson, was present at the ceremony, as was current heavyweight champion Deontay Wilder and boxer Lennox Lewis.

During the announcement, Johnson advocate Sylvester Stallone, who famously portrayed a boxer in the 1977 film “Rocky“, lifted his head upwards and said. “Keep punching, Jack.”

 

Placed into a political context: President Trump just pardoned a black hobbyist who frequented brothels.

Perhaps Trump can relate to Johnson: the victim of a political witch hunt who just wanted to have sex and live in peace.

The fighter

Born in Galveston, Texas less than one generation after the end of the U.S. Civil War, Johnson became the first black heavyweight boxing champion after defeating Tommy Burns in Sydney, Australia in 1908.

Two years later, he defended his title against boxer James J. “Jim” Jeffries, who had been called out of retirement and was referred to as the “great white hope” by racist white fans who wanted him to beat Johnson and take back the heavyweight crown for whites.
Jim Jeffries and Jack Johnson

“I am going into this fight for the sole purpose of proving that a white man is better than a negro,” said Jeffries.

However, Jeffries lost the fight to Johnson by technical knockout.

What racism could not do to Johnson in the boxing ring, it found other ways to accomplish. Johnson was convicted in 1913 of violating the Mann Act by transporting a white woman (his girlfriend) across state lines for “immoral purposes.”  The Justice Department at the time argued that Johnson’s relationship with a white woman was a “crime against nature.”

The issue of a pardon for Johnson had been raised many times before. Most recently, on March 5, 2013 the U.S. Congress reintroduced a resolution seeking a posthumous pardon from President Obama on behalf of Johnson.

No such pardon would be forthcoming from Obama.

“Could you imagine what would happen, given the racial dimension of this, if a black president and a black attorney general had suggested a posthumous pardon for Jack Johnson?” Filmmaker Ken Burns told USA Today.

That black attorney general, Eric Holder, sympathized. There was “no question” that Johnson’s conviction was a historical injustice, Holder told a New York television station in 2016. However, he said, there were “countervailing concerns about the way he treated women.”

So, public relations took a back seat to justice — and that’s coming from the attorney general; one who forgot more than once that the content of a defendant’s character is not a legitimate concern for the criminal justice system.

(For the curious, here is a list of those Mr. Obama did feel worthy of executive clemency.)

It was a white republican, Stallone, who suggested the historic pardon for Johnson to President Trump.

Unforgivable blackness

The criminalization of sex work in the US is rooted in racism, and modern campaigns do little to mask that lineage.

American campaigns to end prostitution and sex trafficking have universally employed morally charged rhetoric and analogies to transatlantic slavery. However, as Karen E. Bravo wrote,

[S]ince the victimization of whites alone was targeted, leaving unchallenged the exploitation of white women, the racialized character of the fight against the eighteenth and early nineteenth century traffic helped undermine the effectiveness of the international instruments adopted to combat the trade by targeting only the sexual exploitation of a single racial group.

The “white slavery” campaign of the early 1900’s — aimed at the purported “business” of securing white women and girls and of selling them outright, or of exploiting them for immoral purposes — led directly to the enactment of the federal Mann Act, (a.k.a. the White Slave Traffic Act), in 1910.

Then as now, prohibitionist forces employed various media to promote their campaign. Propaganda films such as Traffic in Souls and White Slave Traffic were produced to help manipulate the masses.

On its face, the Mann Act sought to give women “a fair chance” to become “good wives and mothers and useful citizens”, instead of being “lured” into illegal sex work. However, as Cheryl Nelson Butler wrote in the UCLA Law Review, the language in the Act, which made it illegal to transport any woman or girl across state lines for immoral purposes, provided an avenue to make even some consensual sex illegal.

“[O]nce prohibition of sex work was in place,” writer Maggie McNeill has noted, “it was enforced disproportionately against poor people and ethnic minorities, especially black people, just as all prohibitionist laws are.”

Jack Johnson
Jack Johnson was the world heavyweight title holder from 1908 until 1915

 

As Andrew Glass wrote for Politico, the first person prosecuted under the Mann Act, in 1912, was Jack Johnson.

Johnson had an affair with a white prostitute named Lucille Cameron. The case fell apart when she refused to testify, and she later became Johnson’s second wife.

But another prostitute, Belle Schreiber, with whom he was involved in 1909 and 1910, did testify against him. He was convicted in 1913, though the events occurred before the law’s passage.

It took less than two hours for the all-white jury to find him guilty, and there remains little doubt that Johnson’s arrest and subsequent conviction were racially motivated.

Johnson skipped bail and fled the country to avoid prison. After seven years in exile, during which time he lost his title in a 26-round(!) match in Havana, Cuba, Johnson surrendered into U.S. custody at the Mexican border and completed his sentence (the maximum sentence of a year and a day) at Leavenworth Penitentiary in Kansas.

Johnson and his wife in 1924

Keep punching, Jack

As Cheryl Nelson Butler wrote, “Historically, the anti-trafficking movement has ignored or otherwise failed to address the racial disproportionality of domestic sex trafficking.  [T]he efforts to portray sex trafficking as only involving white women has worked to further victimize people of color who are trafficking victims or at risk of being trafficked.”

The modern recycling of “white slavery” hysteria, McNeill commented, is today’s “sex trafficking” panic, and “has spawned a whole host of laws which are disproportionately employed against young black and Latino men, especially those belonging to what the ‘authorities’ label ‘gangs’.  And just as in the past, interracial relationships are an especial target of busybodies looking for ‘signs of sex trafficking’ or even just plain prostitution.”

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