Jack Johnson and the modern ‘White Slavery’ panic

After signing into law the keystone legislation of the moral panic over sex trafficking, President Trump considers a posthumous pardon for Jack Johnson, the first victim of the White Slavery panic from which modern anti-sex campaigns all take their cue.

History is more of a tragedy than it is a morality tale. — Christopher Hitchens


Jack Johnson was boxing’s first African-American heavyweight champion. 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 battles 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 has been raised 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. (For the curious, here is a list of those Mr. Obama did feel worthy of executive clemency.)

It was a repubIican actor, Sylvester Stallone, who suggested a pardon for Johnson to President Trump.

“His trials and tribulations were great, his life complex and controversial,” Trump tweeted. “Others have looked at this over the years, most thought it would be done, but yes, I am considering a Full Pardon!”

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


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 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.

That Donald Trump should look to a pardon for Johnson in the same month he signed the FOSTA anti-trafficking legislation into law, is bitterly ironic.

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.”

Whilst a pardon for Jack Johnson is both just and long overdue, so is a critical look at the dark undercurrents of “sex trafficking” paranoia that have wrought bipartisan support for almost unfathomably bad laws such as FOSTA.


243960cookie-checkJack Johnson and the modern ‘White Slavery’ panic

Jack Johnson and the modern ‘White Slavery’ panic

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5 Responses

  1. I love the story of Jack Johnson. He was one of those rare stories about racism where he just did what he wanted, damn the consequences. That said, in case you read Obama’s refusal to grant a pardon in the story as being a negative thing, it is important to remember that Jack Johnson was not a good man. He was the victim of racism, but his list of vices and sins is very long and his pardon woudln’t have done anything real, and Obama tended to focus on non-violent folks who had been over-sentenced. Jack Johnson was the victim of racial injustice, but he also lived a life that didn’t necessarily deserve any special breaks. Jackie Robinson he was not. Nor was he Satchel Paige or Josh Gibson. He wasn’t Jim Brown. He was no Joe Louis, or Mohammed Ali, or Foreman or Frazier. Shoot, even Mike Tyson has probably engendered more goodwill.

  2. I see your point, but I would counter by saying that even the worst of us are owed due process by right, and that none of us should be persecuted by our own government in the way Johnson was.

  3. Absolutely. And, in retrospect, it also still can send a conciliatory message to the people of today, so I take your point and back off a bit from the tone of my post.

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