Trying to right a 'grave injustice'

Senators push president to overturn Johnson's conviction

Staff WriterJune 10, 2011 

Although 65 years have passed since Jack Johnson died in a Raleigh hospital, the best boxer of his time remains a person of much social and political dialogue.

The first African-American heavyweight world champion was 68 when he was pronounced dead in St. Agnes Hospital on June 10, 1946, following a car crash on U.S. 1 about 20 miles north of Raleigh.

Johnson died an ex-convict - the result of a 1913 conviction in Chicago of having violated the Mann Act, a federal law that prohibits the interstate transportation of people for the purposes of prostitution and/or immoral sexual activity.

In a courtroom supervised by judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis - who would later become baseball commissioner after a betting scandal rocked the 1919 World Series - Johnson was found guilty and sentenced to 366 days in prison in a case decided by an all-white jury.

The trial involved an alleged prostitute with whom Johnson was said to have had a relationship in 1909 and early 1910 - before the Mann Act was passed on June 25, 1910.

Johnson almost immediately skipped bail but eventually surrendered and was imprisoned at the federal penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kan., from September 1920 until July 1921.

Numerous requests to the Justice Department for a pardon over the years have failed. But in July 2009, Congress passed a resolution that requested President Barack Obama issue an executive pardon.

Thus far, Obama hasn't acted on the request or even mentioned it in any public forum, but Sen. John McCain of Arizona and Rep. Pete King of New York (an amateur boxer) are again pressing Obama for action.

King has called the conviction a "grave injustice."

On May 24, the two Republican lawmakers reintroduced the resolution and urged the president to act immediately.

The original resolution was handed from Obama's office to the Justice Department. According to Associated Press reports, the Justice Department informed the two lawmakers that its general policy is to deny posthumous pardon requests.

Family waits

Johnson's great-great niece, Linda E. Haywood of Chicago, believes Obama may respond favorably.

"That's most definitely our hope, and I really think it will happen," Haywood said in a telephone interview.

Haywood, in her "mid 50s," says Johnson, who was born and spent his early years in Galveston, Texas, has several living relatives but never had children of his own. Most of the family lives in Chicago. "There's a large extended family that would love to see his name finally get cleared," Haywood said.

Obama spent much of his life in the Chicago area, where Johnson was buried after the wreck near Franklinton.

Samuel Collins, a member of the Texas Historical Commission and long an advocate of a pardon, says Obama has an important decision to make.

"Jack Johnson wouldn't be my choice as a husband for my daughter, but he died having been convicted of a blatant ongoing injustice. That's one wrong that can be corrected, certainly to some degree as these things go, even at this late date," Collins said.

At just over 6 feet and weighing about 190 pounds in his boxing prime, Johnson wouldn't be considered an unusually large athlete by today's standards. But he was larger than life during and after his run as champion from 1908 to 1915.

"He had a big influence on Muhammad Ali," Haywood said. "And when I met Eddie Mustafa Muhammad [light heavyweight champion in the early 1980s] once in New York, he said he considered Jack Johnson to be the best ever."

A 2005 Public Broadcasting Service television documentary - "Unforgivable Blackness" by film producer Ken Burns - detailed the impact of Johnson's career on young boxers throughout much of the entire century, and the attention he drew for marrying three white women and leading a free-spirited life.

Before his death in 1981, one-time heavyweight champion Joe Louis referred to Johnson as "the king of all black athletes in the United States."

From the 1920s until the time of his death, Johnson was an international celebrity whose flair and flamboyance became as much of his persona as a famous July 4, 1910, "Fight of the Century," a win over former champ James J. Jeffries in Reno, Nev. Johnson won the bout and collected a purse of $65,000. That year, baseball player Ty Cobb was paid $11,000 for the season by the Detroit Tigers.

While there is no officially documented account of exactly how many bouts Johnson actually fought, the International Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota, N.Y., puts Johnson's record at 77 wins, 13 losses and 14 draws.

Noted author Wayne Rozen, whose book "America On The Ropes" deals with Johnson's life and times, thinks Johnson's ability and cutting-edge tactics in the ring would have made him a factor during any of the sport's eras.

"He was almost impossible to hit," Rozen said. "... He was a big man for his time, but Johnson was not a stalker in the ring. He was really a marvel, and a lot of people don't understand that Johnson fought all comers, including a lot of guys that many of the other top boxers of the time dodged."

Last trip

Johnson also was a man of movement outside a boxing ring.

In the 1920s, he opened a night spot in Harlem that eventually became The Cotton Club.

"His interests were as varied as his boxing techniques," Rozen said. "From his earliest years, one of his loves was driving fast cars. Promoters would go to great lengths to try to keep him from driving fast during pre-bout camps. He wanted to be a race car driver but finally gave up on the idea."

On the afternoon of June 10, 1946, Johnson had taken over driving duties from traveling companion Fred L. Scott when they were en route from Texas to New York for the second bout between Louis and Billy Conn in Yankee Stadium. Scott, a New York resident, told police following the wreck that Johnson lost control of a 1939 Lincoln Zephyr and collided with a tree. The state highway patrol estimated the speed at 80 miles per hour on the two-lane road at approximately 3:30 p.m.

Scott escaped with minor injuries, and Johnson was admitted to St. Agnes Hospital , which was located on the St. Augustine's College campus in Raleigh, at 4:25 p.m. At 6:10 p.m., Johnson was pronounced dead as the result of internal bleeding and injuries. The body was sent to Haywood Funeral Home in Raleigh, where hundreds of mourners showed up on June 11.

Johnson was buried in Chicago's Graceland Cemetery next to the grave of his former wife, Etta Terry Duryea Johnson.

People still visit

Johnson's grave, Haywood said, attracts many visitors.

"Something interesting that none of those folks know is that his name at birth was Arthur John Johnson but he turned it around to John Arthur Johnson," she said.

Over the years, it has been speculated that Johnson was upset at the time of the crash after having been denied service at a diner at an unidentified location in the Raleigh-Durham area.

Rozen said those reports have never been substantiated.

"That may have happened, but to my knowledge there's no evidence," Rozen said.

To an extent, maybe it's fitting that the final day of Johnson's life - and the days since - have been the subject of debate and speculation.

"One day," Rozen said, "I honestly believe his name will be cleared over the conviction. It was a sham of a case, which is obvious to anyone who studies the facts.

"There may not be a pardon from this administration, but there'll be one eventually. It'll happen, but I doubt he'll ever be really forgotten."

Staff researcher Teresa Leonard contributed to this article.

caulton.tudor@newsobserver.com or 919-829-8946

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service