Photo Credit: Doug Mills
The Mann Act was named after James Robert Mann, congressman of Illinois and was passed in June 1910. The legislation made it a felony to transport across state lines or into foreign territory any woman or girl for the purpose of prostitution or debauchery, or for any other immoral purpose. The spirit of the law, one was lead to believe was to curb prostitution and white slavery.
The legal definition of debauchery, however, was narrowly defined by design. The notion of legislating morality in this country is not a new one and the tension that is created plays itself out on a routine basis even today. Whether or not people of the same sex have the right to full marriage equality or women have the right to control their own bodies, these controversial subjects remain hotly contested in American life and forces of social conservatism and liberalism remain at loggerheads.
Jack Johnson, the arrogant, bombastic unapologetic black fighter with a taste for white women - often more than one at a time was just the type of character the Mann Act was aimed at. Johnson had been stirring the pot for years and the antipathy that white America felt towards Johnson reached a crescendo when he toyed with Jim Jefferies for 15 rounds before his corner finally threw in the towel sparing Jefferies the indignity of a knockout. Jefferies Had retired as champion six years before and now that Johnson had defended his title against the former undisputed champion - like it or not Jack Johnson was the man.
The Mann act was passed less than a month before The Fight of The Century between Johnson & Jefferies and through the Mann Act white America weaponized it’s bigotry and set to chasing after Johnson, since no white boxer was anywhere near Johnson’s level, if his title and money and status could not be wrested from him in a boxing ring, Johnson’s enemy would find another way.
Johnson said this of the ordeal:
The search for the "white hope" not having been successful, prejudices were being piled up against me, and certain unfair persons, piqued because I was champion, decided if they could not get me one way they would another.
Johnson thumbed his nose at authorities for more than two years following his win over Jefferies, however he was finally arrested in October of 1912 for violating the Mann Act due to his relationship with Lucille Cameron, a white woman with whom Johnson had a consensual relationship with on and off for several years and the events that were alleged occurred several years before the law was enacted.
Nevertheless, Jack Johnson was convicted by an all-white jury in June 1913.
Johnson fled to Europe where he lived in exile for some seven years, he continued to fight and defend his title throughout the period. Johnson ultimately returned to the U.S. in July 1920 and was formally sentenced that September. He served less than a year in prison at the notorious Federal Prison at Leavenworth in Kansas.
Johnson is a controversial and polarizing figure even today. He was a womanizer and scoundrel, arrogant and a spendthrift. He caroused and drank and would have been considered an obnoxious lout regardless of his skin color even today.
However, Johnson was also a cultural touchstone
In the stunning 2004, Ken Burns documentary Unforgivable Blackness the life and impact of Jack Johnson is explored at length and I urge everyone - whether they are fans of boxing or not to watch it.
Jackie Robinson, Hank Aaron, athletes who first broke through the colour barrier in Baseball to Joe Louis and Muhammad Ali owe a debt of gratitude to the quiet articulate defiance of Jack Johnson.
He fought for and won in his own way true freedom, he beat literally the white establishment with his own hands earning a victory far more tangible than hitting a high fly ball to left field.
A Brunette In A Blond Town
I won’t pretend I’m not conflicted about today’s announcement. The exoneration of Jack Johnson is a net positive no matter who authored his pardon.
America continues to reckon with its past haltingly and imperfectly. These politicians, these smiling old white men congratulate themselves on the occasion that they “righted a wrong,” one that never should have happened and comes more than a century late, William Gladstone said famously Justice delayed is justice denied.
Meanwhile, public schools in inner cities and rural communities where poor populations of colour make up the majority of the student body struggle to get basic necessities, cities like Flint Michigan that are home to mostly poor minorities are nearly unlivable and an obvious imbalance still exists in the criminal justice system. The pardon of Jack Johnson feels like to hollow a gesture.
Then there is the man we have to thank for today’s announcement. President Donald Trump has been a wildly divisive character in American public life, his connection to white nationalism and white supremacy as well as his comments about immigrants are a stain on the office.
When players in the NFL led by former San Francisco 49er Colin Kaepernick began kneeling during the national anthem as a form of nonviolent protest against the killing of young men of colour by law enforcement Trump was outraged.
In fact, just today, on the same day he issued a pardon for Jack Johnson President Trump was quoted on Fox & Friends stating:
You have to stand proudly for the national anthem or you shouldn’t be playing, you shouldn’t be there. Maybe you shouldn’t be in the country.
The nuances of race and injustice and constitutionally protected free speech clearly lost on the man.
Or maybe the message is clear, as the American Muslim activist Qasim Rashid opined:
Jack Johnson is a reminder that Black athletes are free to protest racial injustices in America as long as they've already died.