In an Oval Office ceremony today in the midst of a busy news cycle, U.S. President Donald Trump issued a full pardon posthumously to world heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson, the first African-American to win the title belt, who served 10 months in jail for what the POTUS deemed “a racially motivated injustice” in the eyes of many.
In signing the executive clemency document, Trump was flanked at the ceremony/celebration by guests such as Rocky actor Sylvester Stallone, former champion Lennox Lewis, current WBC titleholder Deontay Wilder, and Johnson’s great-great niece Linda Bell Haywood. You can watch the entire meeting, including the input of those in attendance along with the president, in the video embedded below.
During his remarks and interaction with the luminaries on hand, Trump described Jack Johnson as a “truly great fighter,” CNN reported.
“We have done something today that was very important, because we righted a wrong. Jack Johnson was not treated fairly, and we have corrected that, and I’m very honored to have done it.”
Trump acknowledged in a tweet last month that Stallone had contacted him about pardoning Johnson, who was champion from 1908 to 1915, and that he was strongly considering it. At today’s event, Stallone revealed that Jack Johnson inspired the Apollo Creed character in the Rocky franchise.
In a TKO over Canadian boxer Tommy Burns in December 1908 in Sydney, Australia, Jack Johnson, then 30, became the first black man to become the world heavyweight champion. In what was called the “fight of the century,” Johnson later successfully defended his belt against former undefeated and unretiring champion James Jeffries in Reno, Nevada, on July 4, 1910, by TKO in the 15th round.
Movie buffs may recall that this epic confrontation was dramatized, with a degree of poetic license, in the 1970 film The Great White Hope starring James Earl Jones (who played a character called Jack Jefferson rather than Jack Johnson).
Jack Johnson’s legal troubles began in 1910, Reuters explained.
“Johnson was convicted under a law that prohibited the transport of women over state lines, called the Mann Act. The law was sometimes employed by racist authorities to punish black men who had relationships with white women; it was later amended to apply only to the transport of women for purposes of prostitution or illegal sex acts…An all-white jury convicted Johnson in 1913 after less than two hours of deliberations, and he was sentenced to a year and a day in prison.”
Johnson, who was also known as the “Galveston Giant,” having been born in that Texas city, fled the U.S. after the case, but returned in 1920 and turned himself in. He died in a North Carolina car accident in 1946.
“To the president, Mr. Stallone said, ‘It’s incredible you’ve done this.’ Sen. John McCain, [the] Arizona Republican, also has been pushing for a pardon for the boxing champion since 2004. He criticized former President Barack Obama for failing to grant one,” the Washington Times recalled.
“Posthumous pardons are rare, but not unprecedented,” AP noted.
Watch President Trump sign the pardon for boxer Jack Johnson in the clip below.