President Trump stepped-up on this week to do what every American president has failed to do for over 100 years: Erase a racist stain from the past by pardoning black heavyweight champion Jack Johnson.
On Thursday’s edition of Breitbart News Tonight, Breitbart Senior Editors-at-Large Rebecca Mansour and Joel Pollak welcomed former New York State Boxing Commissioner Randy Gordon to the show. In addition to having served as a commissioner, Gordon hosts At The Fights on SiriusXM 93.
Mansour began the discussion by asking Gordon to give a background and history of Jack Johnson, and to try and put into focus how the rise of such a talented fighter could have caused so much controversy.
I mean, this is a very big slice of American history. Jack Johnson was born in Galveston, Texas, in 1878. So, slavery had just recently ended. They called him the “Galveston Giant,” he was big for that day, he was just a little under 6’1 and by today’s standards in the heavyweight ranks that’s not really big at all. The fact is that he was born in Galveston and he started to box when he was just ten, twelve years old. And he turned professional at 19 when he realized he had the skills to make some money doing this, make a career out of it.
The only thing is, when he turned professional in 1897, and he started beating one white guy after another. White America was not ready for a guy like Jack Johnson. The way I can best describe him, he was the Muhammad Ali of his day. And when Ali was around years ago, even then white America had trouble embracing him until long after his retirement.
But with Jack Johnson it was just not accepted at all, and when he won the heavyweight championship in 1908, toying with the heavyweight champion who came from Canada, by the name of Tommy Burns. It upset white America to no end, and that’s where the expression came in, ‘The Great White Hope.’ Because boxing enthusiasts and promoters began looking for someone to beat, this brash heavyweight champion named Jack Johnson.
While Johnson’s meteoric rise as a black fighter during a period of overt racism in American history certainly explains the angst that “White America” felt towards him. It doesn’t explain how Johnson found himself in jail and needing to be pardoned.
Which led Pollak to ask Gordon what exactly had this great black heavyweight done wrong?
Well, quite frankly he did nothing wrong. But again, and I keep getting back to this, white America wanted him out of the sport, they wanted him out of their lives, they didn’t want to hear about him anymore. So there was a federal law that was actually signed into law in June of 1910. And it was called the Mann Act, and it became a federal law. And a republican legislator, his name was James Robert Mann, it was his act, and this law was to regulate interstate commerce of women across state lines for what he said was “immoral purposes.” It was a trafficking kind of law.
Well, once that act became law, it was proposed in December of 1909, and then about 6 months later President William Howard Taft signed into federal law. And it was basically the government’s way of restricting and scaring all these people from crossing state lines with women for immoral purposes. And what they did, white America said, ‘Here’s what we’re going to do. we’re going to get Jack Johnson, we’re going to nail him on the Mann Act. Because here’s a man of color bringing a white woman across state lines for immoral purposes.’ But guess what? The woman he happened to be traveling with at that time, was his white wife.
After establishing the purely racist motive in charging Johnson with having violated a law designed to stop prostitution. It became clear how the racial tendencies of early 20th century America conspired to ensnare and scandalize this great champion. What was less clear, however, is why it took so long for a president to pardon Johnson.
After Randy Gordon lamented that former President Obama didn’t take the opportunity to pardon Johnson during his years in office, Rebecca Mansour offered a surprising defense of the former commander-in-chief.
“You know Randy I totally agree with you,” Mansour said. “I’m glad that this happened, and this is going to shock our listeners, but I want to offer a bit of a defense of President Obama, or give a little bit of the mitigating circumstances on this, because one of the things that President Obama did cite as a reason why he turned down the pardon, just to be perfectly honest, is that Johnson had a history in the past of domestic violence with a few of his ex-wives. So that did happen.”
“So, that did happen,” Mansour continued. “But, at the same time, the reason why he was being asked for a pardon was because of something that he totally did not do. So, that’s why I think this was justice served — because the charge that they were asking for a pardon for was completely unjustified. It was a racist thing from our past that we should be making amends for. So I totally celebrate with you this reestablishing of the reputation of this man who … was targeted because he was so successful, because he was such a great athlete.”
Gordon agreed that the historical record isn’t all good on Johnson, but the Mann Act charge was the issue at hand.
“Rebecca, you made a great point,” Gordon said. “Jack Johnson was no choir boy, and he did things. No man should ever touch a woman, beat a woman, slap a woman around in any way. He was so incredibly frustrated that unfortunately those around him had to take the brunt of his anger, because he’s saying, ‘Why am I being treated like this? Why am I being run out of the country? Why am I being charged with this Mann Act? Why am I going to go to jail if I go back to my country? Why can’t I go home?’ And as the women around him, and there were women around him, he was married several times, yes, they very unfortunately took the brunt of it, and I’m glad you brought that up because, yes, he did these things. He was not a choir boy.”
While a pardon doesn’t excuse all the mistakes Jack Johnson made in life, President Trump’s action does remove the stain of a great racial injustice — perpetrated by our government — against one of the greatest fighters who ever lived.
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