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Why Trump Could Pardon Jack Johnson When Obama Wouldn’t

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Former world heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson, circa 1930s

On May 24, when Donald Trump pardoned Jack Johnson, boxing’s first black heavyweight champion, for a century-old criminal conviction motivated by racial malice, it was hard to tell what gave him more satisfaction: that he could exonerate a once world-famous athlete, or that he could exonerate himself from charges of racism. During the brief Oval Office ceremony, Trump flanked himself with star athletes real and imagined—most notably, Sylvester Stallone, of Rocky fame, whose phone call to the president in April put the pardon on Trump’s radar. Two weeks later, on June 8, Trump mused that he might pardon Muhammad Ali, too, for a criminal charge (refusing the Vietnam draft) that the Supreme Court had already overturned nearly four decades ago. Coming amid the president’s long-running feud with black NFL athletes, it seemed less that Trump had gained a soft spot for black men undone by racism, and more that he judged the symbolic pardoning of dead black athletes would provide him cover for his seething disdain for living ones.  

At the Johnson pardoning ceremony, Trump shied away from actually naming the cause of Johnson’s 1913 conviction, racism, telling reporters that Johnson served ten months in prison for “what many view as a racially motivated injustice.” Who today could legitimately not view it that way? Johnson’s crime was to transport his white girlfriend, a one-time prostitute, across state lines, a violation of what was known as the White Slave Traffic Act. Though nominally intended to cut down on prostitution, the law only applied to white sex-workers, and, in Johnson’s case, the prosecution was meant to humiliate an athlete who gleefully defied the nation’s racial caste system—especially through his serial marriages to white women. 

If some might have excused Trump’s vague description of Johnson’s crime—being black—as the awkwardness that many white people feel when discussing race, then they were denied that defense when Trump attacked President Obama for choosing not to pardon Johnson. Not even the Congressional Black Caucus could sway Obama, Trump told reporters: “They couldn’t get the president to sign it,” he said, clearly reveling in what he, and many of his supporters, took to be a delightful irony. “So I am taking this very righteous step.” But as reporters looked into Obama’s decision, one thing became clear: Johnson had a history of beating women, a fact that gave Obama pause. That Trump felt no such compunction did not merely reflect his misogyny; what Trump did not seem to realize, as he was basking in his righteousness, was that he, as a white man, had a privilege Obama did not.

One of the least discussed facts about Johnson’s life is that black leaders in his own time disagreed mightily over whether to defend Johnson. There was never any question that racism drove Johnson’s conviction. Nor was there ever any doubt that many black Americans adored him. The problem was that Johnson acted as if his actions would have no bearing on the rest of his race. Johnson flaunted his affairs with white women, he flashed his wealth, he hired white servants, he talked back to white police—all at a time when thousands of black people were lynched for less. It would be easy to dismiss Johnson’s black critics at the time as simply caving to “respectability politics,” but that was only part of it. The larger issue was that anytime Johnson defied the racial order, black Americans suffered the consequences, sometimes with lost jobs, often with violence. When he defeated a white challenger for the heavyweight title in 1910, white mobs attacked celebrating black Americans around the country, killing more than a dozen. After Johnson married a white woman one year later, “many colored waiters, porters… and colored men employed in various capacities” were fired, wrote The Broad Ax, a black newspaper in Chicago.

To make matters worse, Johnson refused to play the part of black activist. He rejected racial consciousness in favor of color-blindness, believing his celebrity would help him transcend discrimination. “There ain’t gonna be but one Jack Johnson,” he said at the peak of his fame, writing later in his memoir: “I found no better way of avoiding race prejudice than to act with people of other races as if race did not exist.”

In the 1970s, when Johnson briefly came back in vogue, his defiance of white supremacy was cast as proto-black radicalism. Muhammad Ali himself would watch Johnson’s films before fights, seeing a semblance of himself in what he took to be another outspoken, proudly black athlete. More recently, Ken Burns’s 2004 PBS documentary Unforgivable Blackness—the film that spearheaded the pardon cause—cheered Johnson’s defiance of racial expectations, black and white, seeing it as a symbol of the true independent American spirit: “He embodied American individualism in its purest form,” wrote Geoffrey Ward, in the companion book to the film. In truth, neither was right. Jack Johnson didn’t believe in black militancy, in black uplift, in black anything. The story of Jack Johnson isn’t the story of Colin Kaepernick; it’s the story of O.J.         

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Johnson victorious when James Jeffries went down in the fifteenth round of their title fight, 1910

Jack Johnson rose to fame at a time when black Americans needed a hero like him more than ever. In 1908, during the heyday of Jim Crow, Johnson became the first black boxer to win the world heavyweight title. Segregation had been confirmed as constitutional just twelve years earlier, with the Supreme Court’s Plessy v. Ferguson decision; lynchings were a fact of American life. Johnson’s 1908 victory so incensed white Americans that it became a national pastime to cast about for a “Great White Hope” to take back the title. They found their white knight in Jim Jeffries, a former heavyweight champion who agreed to come out of retirement to put Johnson in his place—and by extension, all black Americans in theirs.

The “Fight of the Century,” as it was called, was set for July 4, 1910, in the sweltering Reno, Nevada, sun. Twenty thousand people trekked to the desert, but millions more across the country followed live telegraph reporting. Given the fight’s explicit racial framing, it was no surprise that many black Americans greeted Johnson’s victory with euphoria. “There would be something wrong with us if we felt otherwise,” wrote The New York Age, one of the city’s black papers. In small towns and large cities everywhere, black Americans publicly celebrated, toasted each other, riffed on ancient hymns. “Amaze an’ Grace, how sweet it sounds / Jack Johnson knocked Jim Jeffries down,” went one ballad heard in North Carolina. As Al-Tony Gilmore put it in his 1975 biography of Johnson, “Blacks found more reason to celebrate than at any other time since the issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation.”

The white response was its mirror opposite. Immediately after the fight, white mobs attacked black men and women throughout the country. In New York City, near Times Square, a mob of white people three thousand strong beat senseless black passersby at random. The New York Herald reported a police officer rescuing “one negro… who had a rope around his neck.” The Times quoted a white man yelling, “Let’s lynch the first nigger we meet!” Nationwide, at least eighteen people were killed in post-fight riots, and hundreds more were injured.

Johnson, however, was just getting started. Part of what made him a hero to many black Americans was his refusal to submit to white racial codes. And there was no code he loved to violate more than the one against black men dating white women. Johnson had several white lovers, some at the same time, many of them prostitutes. As the relationships became public—he didn’t hide them, often having himself photographed for newspapers with the women—black leaders struggled with how to respond. According to the scholar Carrie Teresa, many black editors were willing to defend his interracial relationships, despite the risks, so long as the women were respectable—in other words, not prostitutes—and so long as he did not abuse them. His marriage to Etta Duryea, a wealthy white socialite, on January 18, 1911, seemed to fit that bill. The Cleveland Gazette, for instance, covered the wedding respectfully, calling Duryea “a tall handsome young white woman” from a good family.

The problems started when reports of domestic abuse began to surface the following year. Johnson grew suspicious that Duryea was cheating on him with his white chauffeur; he, meanwhile, was cheating on her with several women, most notably a white, eighteen-year-old former prostitute named Lucille Cameron. Duryea grew more and more isolated—from her white family, which disowned her, and from Johnson, who abused her and cheated on her—and, on September 11, 1912, she shot herself. A few weeks later, Cameron’s mother pressed charges against Johnson for allegedly kidnapping her daughter. “I would rather see my daughter spend the rest of her life in an insane asylum than see her the plaything of a nigger,” Cameron’s mother fumed to reporters. On October 18, Johnson was arrested for violating the White Slave Traffic Act, but Cameron refused to cooperate and the case collapsed. But the FBI soon found another former lover, also a white prostitute, who agreed to testify against Johnson, and, on November 7, the agency had him arrested again on the same charge. On December 4, 1912, Johnson and Cameron married. 

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Johnson with his second wife, Lucille Cameron, 1924

Black leaders were furious—and not just at the racism that drove Johnson’s arrest. Many were furious that Johnson refused to feign even modest contrition for the sake of winning the trial, and more broadly, for the sake of saving black lives from white retribution. “It shows the folly of those who think that they alone will be held responsible for the evil they do,” Booker T. Washington said in a statement. But Washington, whose willingness to accommodate segregation won him many white supporters, was not the only one flabbergasted. Nearly a hundred black leaders in Chicago—businessmen, reverends, civil rights leaders—pleaded with Johnson to at least apologize for the comments he was alleged to have made, about his ability to have any white woman he wanted. He refused. “I am not a slave,” he told reporters. “I have the right to choose who my mate shall be without the dictation of any man.”

Historians sometimes depict the militant Chicago Defender and its unbridled defense of Johnson as representative of black opinion. But responses were far more diverse. Upon Johnson’s arrest, the Texas Freeman wrote: “We, in this country, would be better off if Jack Johnson would quit the United States, burning the bridges as he left.” The Birmingham Exchange wrote that if the trial was fair, and the allegations true, then “we hope he will get everything that is coming to him as far as the law is concerned.” The New York Age noted: “As a black champion, [Jack Johnson] has given the Negro more trouble by his scandals than he did in twenty years as a black tramp.” The perspectives of black women are most difficult to discern. But the Texas Freeman hinted at one likely perception when it reported that “most people” viewed his marriages to white women as “apparently meaning the inferiority [he felt toward] his own race’s women.”

It was only during the trial itself that most black leaders and newspapers defended Johnson’s case, if not the man himself. It was abundantly clear that Johnson’s trial was going to center on one fact—his blackness—and not on the finer points of federal law. When an all-white jury found him guilty in the summer of 1913, almost no black newspaper cheered. Shortly after the verdict, Johnson fled the country, together with Lucille, returning seven years later to serve his ten-month sentence. Upon his release, in 1921, many black Americans again treated him as a hero. Harlem residents held a ticker-tape parade, Johnson beaming as he rolled down 125th Street, a cigar hanging from lips curled in an irrepressible smile. He looked “more like a man of twenty-five than forty-two,” wrote the historian Randy Roberts. Though Johnson had lost the heavyweight title six years earlier in a fight abroad, many black Americans still saw him as a symbol of black defiance, his conviction the embodiment of racial injustice.

Johnson loved the adulation black Americans gave him, but he did not give much back. Instead, he retreated into an almost exclusively white world and took on European affectations—a English accent, a French beret. He even tried to undermine boxers who were now fighting to reclaim the heavyweight title for black America. When, in 1929, he was asked if another black boxer would ever replace him, he dismissed the idea, saying that too many of them suffered from an “inferiority complex.” “They grew up with the thought implanted in their minds, through generations of tradition,” he said in a series of “as told to” newspaper articles, “that the COLORED is not equal to the WHITE.” In the 1930s, as Joe Louis emerged as his clear successor, Johnson quietly solicited white opponents to defeat him. Johnson’s negative views of black women, once only speculated about, now became clear. “I could love a colored woman. But they never give me anything,” he said. “Colored women just won’t play up to a man the way white girls do… They don’t try to make him feel like he’s somebody.”

When Trump pardoned him, the president seemed to be buying into the very strategy Johnson long felt would exonerate him: that his celebrity would help white Americans see him not as a black man, but as Jack Johnson, a champion who transcended race. In the Oval Office ceremony, Trump focused only on Johnson’s athletic prowess and individualism—“one of the greatest that ever lived,” a “very independent spirit.” This was not only the view that Johnson took of himself, but also the view that Ken Burns took. To Burns, Johnson’s story wasn’t a black story, at least not primarily: it was an American story and, in his telling, a largely race-less one. “The story of Jack Johnson is more the story of hubris more than race or anything else,” says James Earl Jones in the film’s opening minutes. “Forget about race. That was the color of the system, but it was about power.” There is some truth in that, but how do you speak about power if you refuse to give it a name?


An earlier version of this article misstated the nature of the live national coverage of the Johnson-Jeffries fight; it was via the medium of telegraphy, not radio.