A day after her great-great uncle Jack Johnson was pardoned, Linda Haywood, returned to his gravesite Friday with her daughter and the Rev. Jesse Jackson to mark the end of a decades-long journey to clear the legendary boxer’s name.
“I know and believe in my heart that you are proud of me,” Haywood said looking at Johnson’s grave marker at Graceland Cemetery on the North Side. “Your place in history gets to be restored. We have walked the last mile and you are the victor.”
Born in Galveston, TX., Johnson, the son of ex-slaves, was crowned the first black heavyweight champion of the world in 1908 when he beat Tommy Burns. He defended the title in a 1910 match that sparked race riots nationwide when he beat Jim Jeffries.
It was his out-in-the-open taste for white women during the Jim Crow era that led to his imprisonment for violating an act that outlawed the transport of women over state borders for “immoral” purposes.
His conviction by an all-white jury marked the end of his fighting career. On Thursday, President Donald Trump pardoned the fighter.
Jackson said the pardon was the righting of one of the “great injustices.”
“They lynched his character and reputation,” Jackson said. “His story says a lot about American history and black history in this country and he paid a price for his blackness.”
Since the 1960s, Haywood has led the effort to get Johnson pardoned and after Thursday’s decision by President Donald Trump, she said she could let go of the shame the family has carried for so long.
“I’m amazed and astonished by this decision,” Haywood said. “We knew the circumstances were wrong.”
Chianti Tolbert, Haywood’s daughter, said that although it’s “amazing” her great-great-great uncle has been cleared, the family’s work isn’t over.
“We hear about the greats, like Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, but we hear very little about him,” Tolbert said. “So while the pardon is good, it would mean more for everyone to know about him and the essence of who he was as a person and why he matters.”