WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump on Thursday granted a rare posthumous pardon to boxing’s first black heavyweight champion, clearing Jack Johnson’s name more than 100 years after what many see as the Chicagoan’s racially-charged conviction.
“It’s my honor to do it. It’s about time,” Trump said during an Oval Office ceremony, where he was joined by the boxer’s great-great niece Linda Haywood of Chicago, as well as boxer Lennox Lewis and actor Sylvester Stallone, who has drawn awareness to Johnson’s cause.
“I’m delighted. I’m just over the moon,” Haywood told the Sun-Times.
Trump said Johnson had served 10 months in prison for what many view as a racially-motivated injustice and described his decision as an effort “to correct a wrong in our history.”
“He represented something that was both very beautiful and very terrible at the same time,” Trump said.
“It was surreal,” Haywood said from her Washington hotel room shortly after the ceremony. “He said my uncle was treated unfairly, and it was a long time coming.”
After Trump signed the pardon, he gave her the pen.
Haywood said she got a telephone call from Stallone about a month ago to let her know it was going to happen.
“He just told me the pardon was going to be done. He’d spoken to Trump, and it was a done deal.”
That was actually before she spoke to the Sun-Times in early May about the possibility of a pardon — but Johnson said she had been sworn to secrecy. In that earlier interview, all she could do was wink and hint that she had some inside information.
Two weeks ago, she said, two plane tickets to Washington were emailed to her from the World Boxing Congress.
Johnson was convicted in 1913 by an all-white jury for violating the Mann Act, which made it illegal to transport women across state lines for “immoral” purposes, for traveling with his white girlfriend.
Trump had said previously that Stallone had brought Johnson’s story to his attention in a phone call.
“His trials and tribulations were great, his life complex and controversial,” Trump tweeted in April. “Others have looked at this over the years, most thought it would be done, but yes, I am considering a Full Pardon!”
Johnson is a legendary figure in boxing and crossed over into popular culture decades ago with biographies, dramas and documentaries following the civil rights era.
Born in Galveston, Texas, Johnson settled in Chicago early on in his fighting career in 1904, as described in Ken Burns’ 2004 documentary “Unforgivable Blackness.”
Johnson’s outsized personality was on display near nightly — with white women on his arm — on Chicago’s club scene, including at his own Cafe de Champion near 31st Street and Wells. It was a draw for black and white revelers alike, and Johnson was known to work the room like a pro, sometimes taking the stage during jazz sets with his “bull fiddle” bass viola.
When he was charged with violating the Mann Act in 1912, the Daily News reported that Johnson strolled through an angry crowd into Chicago’s Municipal Court Building, “half an hour late carrying a long black cigar in his mouth and smiling at every step.”
He was briefly held at the Cook County Jail before posting $30,000 bond, and then he fled to France when he was hit with additional Mann Act charges. Eventually he returned and was convicted, coming back to Chicago in 1921 after doing time in Leavenworth, Kansas.
Johnson was returning to Chicago from a trip to Texas when he died in a car crash in 1946. He was buried at Graceland Cemetery.
His great-great niece has pressed Trump for a posthumous pardon, and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., have been pushing Johnson’s case for years.
The son of former slaves, Johnson defeated Tommy Burns for the heavyweight title in 1908 at a time when blacks and whites rarely entered the same ring. He then mowed down a series of “great white hopes,” culminating in 1910 with the undefeated former champion, James J. Jeffries.
McCain previously told The Associated Press that Johnson “was a boxing legend and pioneer whose career and reputation were ruined by a racially charged conviction more than a century ago.”
Posthumous pardons are rare, but not unprecedented. President Bill Clinton pardoned Henry O. Flipper, the first African-American officer to lead the Buffalo Soldiers of the 10th Cavalry Regiment during the Civil War, and Bush pardoned Charles Winters, an American volunteer in the Arab-Israeli War convicted of violating the U.S. Neutrality Acts in 1949.
Haywood, the great-great niece, wanted Barack Obama, the nation’s first black president, to pardon Johnson, but Justice Department policy says “processing posthumous pardon petitions is grounded in the belief that the time of the officials involved in the clemency process is better spent on the pardon and commutation requests of living persons.”
When Haywood returns to Chicago, she plans to meet with the Rev. Jesse Jackson, then head to her great-great-uncle’s grave.
There, she’ll tell him: “We have obtained the victory for you, Uncle Jack.”
Contributing: Stefano Esposito, Mitchell Armentrout