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Why a major education bill in Congress calls for a pardon for a long-dead boxer

Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion of the world.
Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion of the world.
(John D. Kisch/Separate Cinema Archive via Getty Images)
Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

Slipped into the major bipartisan education bill that passed the House Wednesday night, the Every Student Succeeds Act, is a provision that doesn't have anything to do with students, or with education at all.

Hidden on page 914, near the end of the bill, is a formal request for a presidential pardon for Jack Johnson, the first black champion of heavyweight boxing, who died in 1946. Johnson was convicted in 1913 under the Mann Act, an anti-prostitution law that was used, essentially, to prosecute him for a consensual interracial relationship.

Efforts to repair Johnson's tarnished legacy snuck into the bill courtesy of an amendment from Sen. John McCain, a boxing fan who has been introducing legislation on the matter since 2004. But a pardon for the boxer has become a bipartisan cause, a way to grapple with the racism of history at a time when Americans are increasingly interested in those questions.

Johnson was a superstar in America's most popular sport

Johnson was a celebrity in his day like none other — an African-American champion who was unapologetic about his greatness, and about his preference for dating white women in the early 1900s, at a time when that was taboo.

At the turn of the 20th century, boxing was a tremendously popular sport, and an increasingly regulated, legitimized one, at a time when sports were becoming more important in American life. And like much of American life at the time, it was segregated; black boxers generally did not fight white ones, and vice versa.

Johnson broke that color barrier. The son of former slaves, born in Galveston, Texas, he fought the reigning heavyweight champion of the world, Tommy Burns, in 1908 — and won.

Burns was white. And Johnson's triumph kicked off a search for a "Great White Hope," a boxer he would be able to beat. In the end, Jim Jeffries, a champion boxer, came out of retirement to fight Johnson two years later. The fight was deemed the "battle of the century" — the first of several boxing matches in the 20th century to get that moniker — and "it was seen by nearly the whole country as a symbolic race war," Gerald Early, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis, wrote.

Johnson won. The aftermath was a surge of bloody, racist violence and a search for another way to bring down Johnson.

A racist conviction for a consensual relationship brought down Johnson

Photo of Jack Johnson
Jack Johnson, around 1910, when he was the world's leading boxer.
(MPI via Getty Images)

Johnson was a braggart. This was standard for most boxing champions, but Johnson was the first African-American boxing champion, and so what was acceptable for a white man was unacceptable for him, as Early wrote:

Johnson did not seem to care what whites thought of him, and this bothered most whites a great deal. He was not humble or diffident with whites. He gloated about his victories and often taunted his opponents in the ring. (This behavior was not unique to him as a champion boxer. Many boxers, notably John L. Sullivan, acted this way. It was unique for a black public figure.)

But the biggest scandal at the time was that Johnson liked to date white women. His first wife was white, and he had dated other white women, including prostitutes.

At the time, the government was trying to fight prostitution, and one of the tools it had to do so was the Mann Act, which made it a crime to transport someone across state lines for the purpose of prostitution. An earlier case against Johnson didn't stick — he married the woman in question — but in 1913 Johnson was charged with a Mann Act violation involving Belle Schneider, a white prostitute with whom he'd had a consensual, off-again, on-again relationship.

He was found guilty and sentenced to a year and a day in jail, which he avoided by fleeing the country. In 1920, he returned and spent nearly a year in federal prison in Leavenworth, Kansas. He died in a car crash in 1946.

A pardon for Johnson has become a bipartisan cause

At the time, Johnson's prosecution was seen as a thinly veiled excuse to punish him for his relationships with white women — even the prosecutor admitted it, according to filmmaker Ken Burns, who made a documentary about Johnson called Unforgivable Blackness in 2004:

After the verdict, the district attorney said that "it was [Johnson's] misfortune to be the foremost example of the evil in permitting the intermarriage of whites and blacks."

After the documentary, Burns filed a petition with the Department of Justice for a formal pardon for Johnson. He's not the only supporter: McCain, as well as Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, are both boxing fans who have long been in favor. McCain has been introducing legislation calling for a pardon since 2004. The education legislation is just the latest attempt to achieve that goal.

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