Saunders

Johnson deserves a pardon

Staff WriterApril 7, 2009 

William Faulkner, the South's best writer, said it best: "The past isn't dead. It isn't even past."

More than 60 years after former heavyweight boxing champ Jack Johnson was pronounced dead at St. Agnes Hospital in Raleigh after a car crash, he and it are back in the news. Sen. John McCain and Rep. Peter King of New York introduced a bill last week seeking a presidential pardon of Johnson's conviction under the Mann Act, a nonsensical law passed because of him to prohibit men -- OK, him -- from traveling across state lines to have sex with women. The pardon would begin to rehabilitate the image of one of the most fascinating, reviled Americans to ever live and a hero of mine.

St. Agnes Hospital, reportedly the only hospital that would treat Johnson, is on the verge -- one hopes -- of its own rehabilitation. After it has sat on the edge of the St. Augustine's College campus for decades, like a stone carcass that's been picked bare, efforts are under way, yet again, to breathe life into the building. For decades, everybody who was anybody in black Raleigh was born there, as was anybody who was nobody.

The hospital is most renowned, though, for the man who died there. I've spent hours over the years parked in front of the building, gazing at it in an attempt to get inspiration for a Jack Johnson play I'm writing.

Johnson died June 10, 1946, after a car crash on Old U.S. 1 in Franklinton. He had, reportedly, just been denied service at a whites-only restaurant there and angrily sped away. It's never been determined whether he was denied admittance to other hospitals because of his race, but by the time he reached St. Agnes, he was too far gone. The next day, The News & Observer reported, the attending physician said Johnson, 68, died of "internal injuries and shock."

That's ironic, because Johnson spent much of his life shocking the country.

The stories of Jack Johnson and St. Agnes, inextricably linked as they are, illustrate not how bad this nation was, but how far it has come and how good it is. It's unlikely that either McCain or the conservative King are fans of Johnson's lifestyle, which leaned heavily toward prostitutes, Baccha nalias and white women. OK, they and he have that last one in common. Like most Americans, however, they respect someone who stood up for himself and who got a raw deal.

King said, "It certainly would be a moment in history to have the first African-American president grant a pardon to the first African-American heavyweight champion, who was not allowed to enjoy the privilege of being heavyweight champion."

If the history of America shows nothing else, it's that if you stand up for your beliefs, even if those beliefs are to cavort with women and live uncompromisingly, people will come around and eventually the heavens -- and your enemies -- will salute you. Sure, it might take 60 years, as in Johnson's case, or a debilitating disease, as in Muhammad Ali's case, but you'll be exonerated in the court of public opinion.

In the N&O story about his death, Johnson's traveling companion, Fred Scott, said Johnson told him as they entered St. Agnes, "That finishes me. ... I am finished."

He was right, in regard to his life.

He was wrong, if McCain and King's bill succeeds, in regard to his legacy.

barry.saunders@newsobserver.com or 919-836-2811

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