Pardoning Jack Johnson: The whitewashing of America’s long history of criminalizing blackness 

by Kelly Macias

Donald Trump made quite the show this week of posthumously pardoning boxer Jack Johnson, the country’s first black heavyweight champion. In 1913, Johnson was convicted by an all-white jury of violating the Mann Act, otherwise known as the White-Slave Traffic Act, because he crossed state lines with a white woman named Lucille Cameron. The law made it a crime to travel from state to state with (white) women for “immoral purposes.” Johnson eventually married Cameron. But in a racist society that had anti-miscegenation laws on the books until 1967, the fact that Johnson married the woman who was his paramour mattered little. If anything, it only stoked more anger and resentment on the part of racist whites.

Johnson was sentenced to a year and day in prison for his alleged crime. He died in 1946. For years, there have been proposals to issue Johnson a presidential pardon. It was long past due, coming nearly 72 years after his death. But the context in which the pardon was issued is even more intriguing. It was Trump, a known racist and supporter of “very fine” white supremacists, who issued the pardon after being convinced to do so by actor Sylvester Stallone. In 2018, Johnson would have been the kind of black athlete, like protesting NFL players, that Trump treats with disdain and regularly torments.

Trump is also a known misogynist who’s been married three times. Johnson was also married three times—all to white women, after swearing off “colored” women because of a series of bad relationships. He allegedly beat one of his wives so badly she was hospitalized. She eventually committed suicide. Another wife, the very one he was convicted for traveling across state lines with, divorced Johnson for infidelity. Concern about his treatment of women, in part, was a reason that Barack Obama failed to pardon Johnson during his presidency. 

These things don’t mean that Johnson should not have been pardoned for the crime he was convicted of. It’s quite clear that case was about racism and outrage over a black man who dared have and openly flaunt a relationship with a white woman. But it does establish a pattern of abusive, demeaning behavior toward women—one that Trump is also known for. Trump doesn’t read and doesn’t know history, and therefore likely doesn’t know this information. Yet there is a strange synergy and coincidence about the fact that Trump made the effort to clear the reputation of a black man who was also an alleged abuser, given that he cares nothing about black people and even though the black man was convicted more than a century ago. 

The pardon also came a day after the NFL issued a new policy which will allow the organization to penalize players and teams if players refuse to stand for the national anthem. Trump doesn’t respect these players nor the fact that they are trying to bring attention to police violence and brutality in America. In fact, for much of last fall and winter, he used NFL player protests as a political talking point, calling the mostly black players who chose to kneel “sons of bitches.” And he actually thinks the penalty for not standing during the anthem should be way more than a fine. He thinks players who don’t stand for the anthem shouldn’t be in the country at all. According to CNN, during an interview with Fox News, Trump wasn’t shy about sharing his views on the topic:

President Donald Trump praised NFL team owners for doing the “right thing” in requiring NFL players to stand during the National Anthem this season, and suggested those who don’t stand maybe “shouldn’t be in the country.”

“You have to stand proudly for the National Anthem and the NFL owners did the right thing if that’s what they’ve done,” Trump said in an interview with Fox News that aired Thursday morning.
Trump, who had been speaking at a roundtable on immigration when the policy was announced Wednesday, was informed of the new rule by “Fox & Friends” co-host Brian Kilmeade.
“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,” Trump said.

Sounds completely nonsensical and utterly racist, doesn’t it? It also sounds like a violation of our right to free speech and under the Constitution. But Trump is not at all original in his thinking. The very thing he is doing—positioning black Americans as unpatriotic and suggesting we should leave if we complain, while at the same time treating us like non-humans just because we are black so that we have grievances to complain about—is something that America does all the time. In other words, we are always forced to fight the notion that holding America accountable for its promises to all its people is wrong and criminal. We are also made to answer the argument that anything we do in that vein is wrong and criminal. Actually, anything we do in our black bodies at all is seen as wrong and criminal. 

But demonizing and criminalizing black people for centuries seems not to be enough. Years later, in the name of progress, society decides to gaslight and psychologically manipulate us by saying that what we did a long time ago wasn’t really wrong in the first place.

Jack Johnson’s pardon is a good example of this. It’s tempting to say that America is a very different place in 2018 than it was in 1913. This is obviously the truth. In our current era, interracial relationships are more common. A black man might not be convicted of the Mann Act for traveling to from state to state with a white woman, though you never know. But it doesn’t mean he wouldn’t face consequences. It doesn’t mean it would arouse suspicion. And in our society where cops are quick to kill unarmed black people in a matter of seconds and for no reason, it could end up in his death. So while society has changed, it hasn’t changed nearly enough. Johnson was convicted for being black. Then he was pardoned because the racist and misogynist president wanted us to think he was doing a noble thing by telling us the world is a better place—even though just 24 hours earlier the NFL, in part fueled by Trump himself, instituted a rule to punish black players for protesting just because they are black. 

Officials in the state of Alabama have also followed this pattern of absolving black people of convictions that were obtained just because they are black. In a letter dated May 10, state schools superintendent Ed Richards expunged the records of 29 black students who participated in a protest against segregation at a lunch counter at the Montgomery County Courthouse in 1960. writes: 

He also expunged all documents pertaining to the termination of four faculty members who were viewed by then-Alabama Gov. John Patterson as “disloyal.”

It was the first time the state, through an official action, admitted to its wrongs during the state’s first lunch counter sit-in protest.

The letter admonished the state’s behavior and apologized to every student and faculty member affected through expulsion, termination or probation: “While no current State Board member or Department employee is responsible for the actions at issue, I regret that it has taken 58 years to correct this injustice. I can only hope that this action will provide a modicum of comfort to the people affected,” Richardson wrote.

Richardson also expunged the records of nine students who participated in the very first sit-in at a Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina. Three of those students are still alive. Two of them were unmoved by the expungement. 

Of the nine students who were expelled, three survive: James McFadden, 78, of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Joseph Peterson, 83, of Birmingham; and St. John Dixon, 80, of Richmond, California.

All three offered different reactions after learning their records had been expunged. McFadden, a life-long civil rights activist, said he had “been expecting” the action and “thought it was time.”

Peterson said he didn’t have a reaction: “After 58 years, it doesn’t matter.”

Dixon said he was “surprised” by Richardson’s actions. “Me, at 80 years old, it won’t make a difference one way or the other.”

The expungement is symbolic and represents an acknowledgment of wrongdoing. It is a step toward accountability. One on hand, it is fully appropriate to take this action. But it still remains hard to see that this is a step toward racial healing and reconciliation when Alabama lawmakers are trying so hard to hold on to the glory days of the Confederacy. Last year, the state’s governor, Kay Ivey, passed a bill which blocked local governments from removing any monuments that have been up for longer than 40 years. It also prevents them from renaming any public schools. A year later, Ivey is still defending the law. As  The Hill noted in an article late last month, Ivey is making this an issue on the campaign trail leading up to the June 5 primary. 

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey (R) on Tuesday released a campaign ad touting an act she signed last year to protect Confederate monuments in the state.

Speaking at a campaign appearance later in the day, Ivey defended the ad, criticizing “folks in Washington” and “out-of-state liberals” for attempting to interfere with the state’s historical monuments. […]

Ivey tears into Washington, saying it’s “politically correct nonsense” to think that they “always know better.”

How do we reconcile these pardons as nothing more than lip service? Black Americans are expected to feel good about symbolic gestures recognizing wrongdoing from decades or centuries ago, when people were punished just for being black. And yet, while we live in a more advanced time, the context hasn’t changed all that much. We are still criminalized for blackness all the time. Racist policies, laws, and behaviors continue to keep us from thriving. America doesn’t want to give up its racist symbols. America doesn’t want us to protest racial injustice. America doesn’t want us here. We may be able to sit in the same sections of restaurants together, but police can, and are, easily called on us once we are there simply because we are there.

America may have decriminalized and pardoned certain acts by black people from 1913 and 1960, but it still hasn’t pardoned us for what it views as the “sin” of being black. Until blackness and black bodies are no longer criminalized and are free to simply be, these pardons are hollow and remain lip service. Yes, it’s important to atone for the past. But atonement without changing the present and future are meaningless.

In other words, America, black people are waiting for you to apologize and come to terms with how you treat black people in the present—in this moment, in this century. Anything less doesn’t benefit us at all. 


  1. maria
    March 26, 2014
  2. Coen Jacobs
    March 26, 2014
  3. Cobus Bester
    March 26, 2014
    • Joseph Scott
      March 26, 2014

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