Saturday 26 May 2018

Pardoning Jack Johnson

Jack Johnson behind the wheel of his 90 horsepower Thomas Flyer race car

Originally the prerogative right of the English sovereign, the issuing of pardons by those who wield executive power in countries to which Britain bequeathed its political and legal culture represents the state-sanctioned ‘forgiveness’ of a criminal act.

It does not amount to exoneration.

The Mann Act made it a serious criminal offence to engage in interstate or foreign commerce transport of “any woman or girl for the purpose of prostitution or debauchery, or for any other immoral purpose”.

While it is true that Jack Johnson was specifically targeted by the authorities of the day who disapproved of his dalliances with white women, Johnson was guilty according to both the letter and the spirit of the Act.

The world of the boxer and the prostitute frequently melded together in the turn of the 20th century America. Constantly moving in search of money, both tended to lead peripatetic lives and to live on the margins of what could be termed ‘respectable society’.

Johnson may not have been a ‘pimp’, but he did avail himself of the services of prostitutes, some of whom he knew for a while and who often travelled with him. Those who travelled across state lines with a woman to whom they were not married technically fell afoul of the law because they were engaging in ‘sinful’, or in the words of the Act “immoral” behaviour. For instance, a man who took his secretary to another state for a weekend jaunt would have been going against the law.

Context is important.

The Mann Act was passed during what is referred to as “the Progressive Era”. This was a period during which many Christian leaders called for greater moral decorum. It was a time of widespread evangelism replete with influential preachers whose fists thudded on their pulpits as they railed against what they saw as the social ills which were becoming more pervasive in a rapidly modernising society.

These 'ills' included the consumption of alcohol, out-of-wedlock couplings and the sport of boxing.

Johnson was guilty as charged, but his prosecution was motivated by the idea of cutting down to size a figure who was seen as a threat to the social order.

The idea of a pardon for Jack Johnson began to be actively pursued from around the 1960s when the social climate changed to one that was favourable to racial integration. The Great White Hope, a Broadway play based on his life, had a successful run and a film version was later released.

But pardoning Jack Johnson was always going to be a controversial decision. Johnson, after all, was not the only person convicted under the Act. A not too unreasonable argument proffered was that a pardon for Johnson should also warrant a pardon for those who, not being involved in the sex industry or otherwise exploiting another, were convicted purely for having out-of-marriage sex.

Jack Johnson was a free-spirited man who did not believe in being constrained by the social and legal boundaries of the day. In fact, he was in many ways an unruly person and a supreme egotist who was prone to ride roughshod over many moral and legal rules. The litany of speeding tickets that he accumulated in his life time provides one example of this trait.

And if he is to be the sole beneficiary of a pardon, that would suit ‘Papa Jack’ just fine.

© Adeyinka Makinde (2018)

Adeyinka Makinde is a writer based in London, England. He is the author of Dick Tiger: The Life and Times of a Boxing Immortal.

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