Las Vegas Sun

September 24, 2023

Harry Reid wants pardon for first black heavyweight boxing champ

Jack Johnson


Jack Johnson, born in Galveston,Texas, seen in this undated photo became the first black to win the heavyweight boxing title. He had approximately 113 bouts, losing only six. Johnson was inducted into the Boxing Hall of Fame in 1954.

Nevada Sen. Harry Reid, a boxer in his time, is joining several other lawmakers to push President Barack Obama to pardon the world’s first black heavyweight boxing champion.

Reid and Sen. Mo Cowan of Massachusetts announced Tuesday that they are joining Sen. John McCain and Rep. Peter King in trying to get Jack Johnson a posthumous pardon.

Johnson won the world heavyweight boxing championship in 1908 and held the title until 1915. But his career was compromised after he was convicted in 1913 for what many have since argued were racially trumped-up charges, inspired by the fact that Johnson, a charismatic black superstar, was involved with white women.

Johnson was charged under the Mann Act, a law Congress passed in 1910 to prevent prostitution, human trafficking and “immorality” — a definition that was sometimes exploited to intimidate interracial couples.

According to various reports and documentaries about Johnson, the Department of Justice began investing him almost as soon as the law was passed. Authorities first attempted in 1912 to charge him with kidnapping his white girlfriend, Lucille Cameron, who had allegedly worked as a prostitute before she met Johnson and whom Johnson would later marry.

Cameron did not cooperate with the investigation and when those charges fell apart, federal agents launched a search for a better witness to testify against Johnson, which they found in Belle Schreiber.

Schreiber was an alleged prostitute in Washington, D.C., who accused Johnson of transporting her across state lines from Pittsburgh to Chicago. Johnson was charged with several violations of the Mann Act and was convicted in 1913.

Johnson fled the country for several years with Cameron, his wife, taking fights internationally before returning to the U.S. to serve out a year-long prison sentence in 1920.

“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 joint statement.

Cowan called Johnson “one of the great African-American athletes. His skill and perseverance to get back up every time he was knocked down made him a champion in the eyes of the sports world and for those who, like him, pursued their dreams despite racial intolerance.”

King said Johnson was a “trailblazer and a legend, whose boxing career was cut short due to unjust laws and racial persecution. I urge the Congress and the president to do the right thing and take the final step and grant his pardon.”

McCain said that the wrong perpetrated against Johnson can never completely be made right, but “this pardon is a small, meaningful step toward acknowledging his mistreatment before the law and celebrating his legacy of athletic greatness and historical significance.”

The House and Senate have previously passed resolutions to issue a posthumous pardon for Johnson, who died in 1946, but no president has granted the pardon.

McCain and King first introduced the Johnson pardon resolution in 2004.

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