Unforgivable Blackness: Jack Johnson and the Mann Act

March 26, 2013

On March 5, 2013 lawmakers reintroduced a resolution (2013 CONG US SCON 5) seeking a posthumous pardon from President Obama on behalf of former boxing champion Jack Johnson. For those unfamiliar with Johnson, he became boxing’s first African-American heavyweight champion after defeating Tommy Burns in 1908. However, it wasn’t until Johnson retained his title by defeating all-time great Jim Jeffries in 1910 that he truly drew the ire of white society. The defeat of Jeffries led to race riots nationwide in which numerous blacks were murdered.

In 1912, while married to a white woman named Lucille Cameron, Johnson was arrested by federal marshals and charged with violating the Mann Act (18 U.S.C. 2421) for crossing state lines with Belle Schreiber for immoral purposes. Johnson was convicted and sentenced to a year and a day in prison. Initially, Johnson fled the country to avoid prison. However, he later returned and completed his sentence at Leavenworth Penitentiary.

Passed in 1910, the Mann Act (also known as the White Slave Traffic Act) intended to prevent women from being lured into prostitution. However, the language in the Act, which made it illegal to transport any woman or girl across state lines for immoral purposes, provided an avenue to make even some consensual sex illegal. Many believe Johnson’s arrest and subsequent conviction were racially motivated. Furthermore, law enforcement conveniently ignored the fact that Johnson and Schreiber engaged in their acts prior to the passing of the Act. (For authority on ex post facto laws see Calder v. Bull at 3 U.S. 386.)

Jack Johnson died in a car crash in North Carolina in 1946. In my opinion his pardon is long overdue. It’s never too late to right a past wrong.

RESEARCH REFERENCES:

To locate prior resolutions submitted to congress regarding Jack Johnson, you can run the following:

“John Arthur Jack Johnson” (10)
Search Type: Plain Language
Content: Congressional Bills – Proposed & Enacted Legislation

For additional information on the topics discussed in this article, the following queries may be run on WestlawNext:

Posthumous Pardon

“posthumous pardon” (80)
Search Type: Plain Language
Content: Secondary Sources
Jurisdiction: All State & Federal

adv: grant! +s “posthumous pardon” (9)
Search Type: Boolean T&C
Content: Overview
Jurisdiction: All State & Federal

Ex Post Facto Laws

adv: TI(“ex post facto” /5 law /s constitution!) (27)
Search Type: Boolean T&C
Content: Secondary Sources
Jurisdiction: All State & Federal

adv: SY,DI(“ex post facto” /5 law /5 prohibit! /5 constitution!) (72)
Search Type: Boolean T&C
Content: U.S. Supreme Court Cases
Jurisdiction: U.S. Supreme Court

Mann Act

adv: TI(“mann act”) (15)
Search Type: Boolean T&C
Content: Secondary Sources
Jurisdiction: All State & Federal