By Leonard Pitts Jr.
Jack Johnson was a black man who often spent his days beating up white men and his nights making love to white women. This, in the first years of the last century.
So you can understand why he was a polarizing figure, why newspapers inveighed against him and the government conspired to bring him down.
Of course, chances are good that you’ve never even heard of John Arthur Johnson. As filmmaker Ken Burns pointed out to me in a telephone interview, we are a nation of great historical illiteracy. Ask most people what they know about even so towering a figure as George Washington and you’re likely to hear only myths about cherry trees and wooden teeth.
“If George Washington can get lost,” said Burns, “then Jack Johnson can get lost.”
On Monday and Tuesday, Burns set out to find him. The result was a two-part biography on PBS: “Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson,” that offered a compelling exploration of a singular life.
Johnson was a fighter. He became the first black heavyweight champion in 1908 with an easy knockout of Tommy Burns. The win was all the more impressive because Burns’ manager was the referee, a stipulation Johnson had been forced to accept in order for the fight to proceed.
This was at a time when the physical superiority of white men over black ones was widely regarded as self-evident truth, so Johnson’s victory was an electric shock to the American psyche. And he kept winning, each victory another poke in the eye for the lie of white supremacy. Former champion Jim Jeffries — five years retired and many pounds overweight — was called upon as the “great white hope” who would put Johnson back in his place. Johnson toyed with him for 15 rounds, then decked him.
No black man with any sense dared look too pleased. As it was, angry whites rioted across the country. Eight people died.
What made matters worse is that Johnson was, as Burns puts it, “the original gangsta,” living a bling-bling lifestyle 90 years before that term was coined. In an era that required black men to be circumspect, he was a brash fellow who didn’t mind flaunting his wealth. He lived high, drove fast. And if he was attracted to a white woman and she to him, he saw no reason they should not be together. Indeed, he had a bad habit of marrying them.
It all came to a head in 1913, when Johnson was convicted of violating the Mann Act, which made it a federal crime to transport a woman across state lines for illegal purposes. Johnson’s “illegal purpose” was to have sex with a white woman.
Not that the government bothered to hide the racism of its motive. As the prosecutor said after the verdict, “This Negro, in the eyes of many, has been persecuted. Perhaps as an individual he was. But it was his misfortune to be the foremost example of the evil in permitting the intermarriage of whites and blacks.”
Burns, aided by Sens. John McCain and Edward Kennedy, is petitioning the president for a posthumous pardon on Johnson’s behalf. Consider this column my way of adding my name to the list.
Still, I have issues with that word, “pardon,” which suggests Johnson requires forgiveness for doing something wrong. His only mistake, if you want to call it that, was in believing that he was a man free like other men, to define himself as he saw fit, live his life on his own terms.
You hear echoes of his story in the stories of O.J. Simpson, Terrell Owens and in a hundred stories that have nothing to do with white women and sex and everything to do with the simple freedom to be.
“Jack Johnson decided to live his life nothing short of a free man,” says Burns. “And this is a story of how this country went after him for doing what the Constitution said he had the right to do.”
That’s why I think we need to be straight about this. It would be good to see Johnson’s name cleared. But it’s America that should be asking for a pardon.
Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org