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On Jack Johnson - The New York Review of Books

On Jack Johnson - The New York Review of Books
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  10/9/2019Why Trump Could Pardon Jack Johnson When Obama Wouldn’t | by Eric Herschthal | NYR Daily | The New York Review of Books  Lass/Getty Images Why Trump Could Pardon Jack Johnson WhenObama Wouldn’t Eric Herschthal  Former world heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson, circa 1930s On May 24, when Donald Trump pardoned Jack Johnson, boxing’s first black heavyweightchampion, for a century-old criminal conviction motivated by racial malice, it was hard totell what gave him more satisfaction: that he could exonerate a once world-famous athlete,or that he could exonerate himself from charges of racism. During the brief Oval Officeceremony, Trump flanked himself with star athletes real and imagined—most notably,Sylvester Stallone, of  Rocky  fame, whose phone call to the president in April put the  10/9/2019Why Trump Could Pardon Jack Johnson When Obama Wouldn’t | by Eric Herschthal | NYR Daily | The New York Review of Books  pardon on Trump’s radar. Two weeks later, on June 8, Trump mused that he might pardonMuhammad Ali, too, for a criminal charge (refusing the Vietnam draft) that the SupremeCourt had already overturned nearly four decades ago. Coming amid the president’s long-running feud with black NFL athletes, it seemed less that Trump had gained a soft spot for  black men undone by racism, and more that he judged the symbolic pardoning of dead black athletes would provide him cover for his seething disdain for living ones. At the Johnson pardoning ceremony, Trump shied away from actually naming the cause of Johnson’s 1913 conviction, racism, telling reporters that Johnson served ten months in prison for “what many view as a racially motivated injustice.” Who today couldlegitimately not   view it that way? Johnson’s crime was to transport his white girlfriend, aone-time prostitute, across state lines, a violation of what was known as the White SlaveTraffic Act. Though nominally intended to cut down on prostitution, the law only appliedto white sex-workers, and, in Johnson’s case, the prosecution was meant to humiliate anathlete who gleefully defied the nation’s racial caste system—especially through his serialmarriages to white women. If some might have excused Trump’s vague description of Johnson’s crime—being black  —as the awkwardness that many white people feel when discussing race, then they weredenied that defense when Trump attacked President Obama for choosing not to pardonJohnson. Not even the Congressional Black Caucus could sway Obama, Trump toldreporters: “They couldn’t get the president to sign it,” he said, clearly reveling in what he,and many of his supporters, took to be a delightful irony. “So I am taking this veryrighteous step.” But as reporters looked into Obama’s decision, one thing became clear:Johnson had a history of beating women, a fact that gave Obama pause. That Trump felt nosuch compunction did not merely reflect his misogyny; what Trump did not seem torealize, as he was basking in his righteousness, was that he, as a white man, had a privilegeObama did not.One of the least discussed facts about Johnson’s life is that black leaders in his own timedisagreed mightily over whether to defend Johnson. There was never any question thatracism drove Johnson’s conviction. Nor was there ever any doubt that many black Americans adored him. The problem was that Johnson acted as if his actions would haveno bearing on the rest of his race. Johnson flaunted his affairs with white women, heflashed his wealth, he hired white servants, he talked back to white police—all at a timewhen thousands of black people were lynched for less. It would be easy to dismissJohnson’s black critics at the time as simply caving to “respectability politics,” but thatwas only part of it. The larger issue was that anytime Johnson defied the racial order, black Americans suffered the consequences, sometimes with lost jobs, often with violence.When he defeated a white challenger for the heavyweight title in 1910, white mobsattacked celebrating black Americans around the country, killing more than a dozen. After Johnson married a white woman one year later, “many colored waiters, porters… and  10/9/2019Why Trump Could Pardon Jack Johnson When Obama Wouldn’t | by Eric Herschthal | NYR Daily | The New York Review of Books  PA Images via Getty Images colored men employed in various capacities” were fired, wrote The Broad Ax , a black newspaper in Chicago.To make matters worse, Johnson refused to play the part of black activist. He rejectedracial consciousness in favor of color-blindness, believing his celebrity would help himtranscend discrimination. “There ain’t gonna be but one Jack Johnson,” he said at the peak of his fame, writing later in his memoir: “I found no better way of avoiding race prejudicethan to act with people of other races as if race did not exist.”In the 1970s, when Johnson briefly came back in vogue, his defiance of white supremacywas cast as proto-black radicalism. Muhammad Ali himself would watch Johnson’s films before fights, seeing a semblance of himself in what he took to be another outspoken, proudly black athlete. More recently, Ken Burns’s 2004 PBS documentary Unforgivable Blackness  —the film that spearheaded the pardon cause—cheered Johnson’s defiance of racial expectations, black and white, seeing it as a symbol of the true independentAmerican spirit: “He embodied American individualism in its purest form,” wroteGeoffrey Ward, in the companion book to the film. In truth, neither was right. Jack Johnson didn’t believe in black militancy, in black uplift, in black anything. The story of Jack Johnson isn’t the story of Colin Kaepernick; it’s the story of O.J.  Johnson victorious when James Jeffries went down in the fifteenth round of their title fight, 1910  10/9/2019Why Trump Could Pardon Jack Johnson When Obama Wouldn’t | by Eric Herschthal | NYR Daily | The New York Review of Books Jack Johnson rose to fame at a time when black Americans needed a hero like him morethan ever. In 1908, during the heyday of Jim Crow, Johnson became the first black boxer towin the world heavyweight title. Segregation had been confirmed as constitutional justtwelve years earlier, with the Supreme Court’s  Plessy v.  Ferguson decision; lynchings werea fact of American life. Johnson’s 1908 victory so incensed white Americans that it became a national pastime to cast about for a “Great White Hope” to take back the title.They found their white knight in Jim Jeffries, a former heavyweight champion who agreedto come out of retirement to put Johnson in his place—and by extension, all black Americans in theirs.The “Fight of the Century,” as it was called, was set for July 4, 1910, in the swelteringReno, Nevada, sun. Twenty thousand people trekked to the desert, but millions more acrossthe country followed live telegraph reporting. Given the fight’s explicit racial framing, itwas no surprise that many black Americans greeted Johnson’s victory with euphoria.“There would be something wrong with us if we felt otherwise,” wrote The New York Age ,one of the city’s black papers. In small towns and large cities everywhere, black Americans publicly celebrated, toasted each other, riffed on ancient hymns. “Amaze an’ Grace, howsweet it sounds / Jack Johnson knocked Jim Jeffries down,” went one ballad heard in NorthCarolina. As Al-Tony Gilmore put it in his 1975 biography of Johnson, “Blacks foundmore reason to celebrate than at any other time since the issuing of the EmancipationProclamation.”The white response was its mirror opposite. Immediately after the fight, white mobsattacked black men and women throughout the country. In New York City, near TimesSquare, a mob of white people three thousand strong beat senseless black passersby atrandom. The New York Herald reported a police officer rescuing “one negro… who had arope around his neck.” The Times quoted a white man yelling, “Let’s lynch the first nigger we meet!” Nationwide, at least eighteen people were killed in post-fight riots, andhundreds more were injured.Johnson, however, was just getting started. Part of what made him a hero to many black Americans was his refusal to submit to white racial codes. And there was no code he lovedto violate more than the one against black men dating white women. Johnson had severalwhite lovers, some at the same time, many of them prostitutes. As the relationships became public—he didn’t hide them, often having himself photographed for newspapers with thewomen—black leaders struggled with how to respond. According to the scholar CarrieTeresa, many black editors were willing to defend his interracial relationships, despite therisks, so long as the women were respectable—in other words, not prostitutes—and solong as he did not abuse them. His marriage to Etta Duryea, a wealthy white socialite, onJanuary 18, 1911, seemed to fit that bill. The Cleveland Gazette , for instance, covered thewedding respectfully, calling Duryea “a tall handsome young white woman” from a goodfamily.  10/9/2019Why Trump Could Pardon Jack Johnson When Obama Wouldn’t | by Eric Herschthal | NYR Daily | The New York Review of Books Topical Press Agency/Getty Images  Johnson with his second wife, Lucille Cameron,1924 The problems started when reports of domestic abuse began to surface the following year.Johnson grew suspicious that Duryea was cheating on him with his white chauffeur; he,meanwhile, was cheating on her with several women, most notably a white, eighteen-year-old former prostitute named Lucille Cameron. Duryea grew more and more isolated—fromher white family, which disowned her, and from Johnson, who abused her and cheated onher—and, on September 11, 1912, she shot herself. A few weeks later, Cameron’s mother  pressed charges against Johnson for allegedly kidnapping her daughter. “I would rather seemy daughter spend the rest of her life in an insane asylum than see her the plaything of anigger,” Cameron’s mother fumed to reporters. On October 18, Johnson was arrested for violating the White Slave Traffic Act, but Cameron refused to cooperate and the casecollapsed. But the FBI soon found another former lover, also a white prostitute, whoagreed to testify against Johnson, and, on November 7, the agency had him arrested againon the same charge. On December 4, 1912, Johnson and Cameron married. Black leaders were furious—and not just at theracism that drove Johnson’s arrest. Many werefurious that Johnson refused to feign even modestcontrition for the sake of winning the trial, and more broadly, for the sake of saving black lives from whiteretribution. “It shows the folly of those who think that they alone will be held responsible for the evilthey do,” Booker T. Washington said in a statement.But Washington, whose willingness to accommodatesegregation won him many white supporters, was notthe only one flabbergasted. Nearly a hundred black leaders in Chicago—businessmen, reverends, civilrights leaders—pleaded with Johnson to at leastapologize for the comments he was alleged to havemade, about his ability to have any white woman hewanted. He refused. “I am not a slave,” he toldreporters. “I have the right to choose who my mateshall be without the dictation of any man.”
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