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Every Student Succeeds Act

Why the ESEA Bill Seeks a Pardon for Heavyweight Black Boxer Jack Johnson

By Andrew Ujifusa — December 03, 2015 3 min read
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Buried in the 1,061-page Every Student Succeeds Act, the bill to reauthorize federal education law, is this seemingly incongruous item: A bid for a posthumous pardon for Jack Johnson, the world heavyweight champion boxer from just over a century ago.

So who was Johnson, what does he need be pardoned for, and what’s this request doing in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act reauthorization bill?

The long answers can be found in Geoffrey C. Ward’s comprehensive biography of Johnson, “Unforgivable Blackness.” But the short answer goes like this: Johnson grew up poor in the segregated South as the son of former slaves, but rose to become the world heavyweight boxing champion in 1908.

He was the first black man to achieve that distinction, and was likely the most famous African-American in the world at the time. Here is a film clip of Johnson in the ring:

Johnson was a controversial figure, and not just for his success. As Ward and others describe him, he was an individualist who did not feel constrained by the social barriers of his time, particularly with respect to race.

“He was scandal, he was gossip, he was a public menace for many, a public hero for some, admired and demonized, feared, misunderstood, and ridiculed,” Gerald Early, a historian, wrote about Johnson.

His relationships with white women, at a time when so-called miscegenation was illegal in much of the nation and considered by many to be morally abhorrent, proved to be his downfall. He was targeted by the government and ultimately, after several twists and turns, found guilty in 1913 of violating the Mann Act, a federal law focusing on prostitution.

Today, Johnson’s conviction under the Mann Act is widely seen as a blatant racial injustice. He died in 1946, just one year before Jackie Robinson played for the Brooklyn Dodgers and broke baseball’s color barrier.

You can compare Johnson’s fate with that of one of his successors in “the sweet science,” Muhammad Ali, who served jail time for resisting the draft during the Vietnam War. Ali’s conviction was later overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court.

For many years, members of Congress, including current Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. (both boxing fans), have been in Johnson’s corner—specifically, they have sought a posthumous pardon for Johnson. But President Barack Obama has declined to do so.

Politico’s Maggie Severns reported that the portion of the ESSA seeking a pardon for Johnson was requested by McCain and adopted unanimously by his Senate colleagues.

(Side note: That video above is from one of Johnson’s most high-profile victories over a boxer named Jim Jeffries. Who’s the spokesman on the Senate education committee for its chairman, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn. and a key architect of ESSA? Jim Jeffries. Jeffries the spokesman tells us that to his knowledge, he’s not related to Jeffries the boxer, and Jeffries the spokesman told us that he actually “can’t stand” boxing.)

Keep in mind that the Constitution grants only the president, not Congress, the power to grant pardons. So McCain’s push for one isn’t legally binding. But it’s possible that as he enters the last year of his presidency, Obama is motivated by the legislation and decides to let Johnson off the hook.

It could be argued that using the ESSA to create momentum for Johnson’s posthumous pardon is out of place. But maybe it isn’t. After all, the ESSA is the latest version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which was conceived and passed in 1965 as a piece of civil rights legislation. A pardon for Johnson could be seen as a promotion of civil rights, even though its direct beneficiary is no longer present to appreciate it himself.

Photo: Jack Johnson, the first black world heavyweight champion, works out in a New York City gym in 1932 at the age of 54. AP-File

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