President Donald Trump on Thursday granted a posthumous pardon to boxer Jack Johnson on the advice of actor Sylvester Stallone.
“Today I’ve issued an executive grant of clemency, a full pardon, posthumously, to John Arthur ‘Jack’ Johnson … The first African-American heavyweight champion of the world, a truly great fighter. Had a tough life,” Trump said.
Trump was joined in the Oval Office by Stallone, current heavyweight champion Deontay Wilder, and Johnson’s great-great niece Linda Bell Haywood, among others.
“We have done something today that was very important, because we righted a wrong,” Trump said. “Jack Johnson was not treated fairly, and we have corrected that, and I’m very honored to have done it.”
Last month, Trump said he was considering the pardon.
“Sylvester Stallone called me with the story of heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson. His trials and tribulations were great, his life complex and controversial,” Trump tweeted. “Others have looked at this over the years, most thought it would be done, but yes, I am considering a Full Pardon!”
Johnson, the first African-American world heavyweight boxing champion, was convicted in 1913 under the Mann Act for taking his white girlfriend across state lines for “immoral” purposes. The Mann Act purported to prevent human trafficking for the purpose of prostitution, but critics have argued it was applied inconsistently to criminalize African Americans and those with dissenting political views.
Johnson was convicted by an all-white jury in less than two hours and was imprisoned for a year. The sentence and imprisonment destroyed the boxing career of the “Galveston Giant.” He died in 1946.
Stallone called Johnson an “inspirational character.”
“It’s incredible that you’ve done this,” the “Rocky” star told the President.
“It’s an honor to take a fictional character like Rocky and do something in the world of reality,” Stallone said, thanking Johnson’s niece.
The pardon was originally proposed in 2004 by a group that included filmmaker Ken Burns, boxer Sugar Ray Leonard, Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Massachusetts, and artists Chuck D and Wynton Marsalis.
“It is the right thing to do. I’m just so happy that Sen. John McCain, who has led our efforts to achieve a posthumous pardon for Jack Johnson, has lived to witness this moment,” Burns said in a statement.
“The pardon announced today helps correct an injustice experienced by Jack Johnson. But it also reminds us of a racist past and how even today racist remarks and coded words are used to imperil African-Americans, especially black men, and to advance an un-American agenda,” he added.
In 2016, then-Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nevada, and McCain, along with Reps. Peter King, R-New York, and Gregory Meeks, D-New York, petitioned the Obama administration to grant a pardon to Johnson. The bipartisan group of lawmakers sent a letter to the White House asking that the pardon be given in honor of the 70th anniversary of the boxer’s death.
“While it is unfortunate that this unjust conviction was not corrected during the boxer’s lifetime, a posthumous pardon today represents the opportunity to reaffirm Jack Johnson’s substantial contributions to our society and right this historical wrong,” the letter said.
In March 2017, Sen. Cory Booker, D-New Jersey, joined with McCain, King and Meeks to reintroduce a resolution urging Johnson’s pardon.
“Despite this resolution passing both chambers of Congress several times in recent years, no pardon has been issued to date,” McCain said in a statement at the time. “I hope President Trump will seize the opportunity before him to right this historical wrong and restore a great athlete’s legacy.”