The latest campaign to secure a posthumous pardon for Jack Johnson is the most vigorous yet, suggesting that his exoneration is imminent. Only the president can make the call, but if it were put up to a vote, my vote would be "no."
Johnson served 10 months in the federal prison at Leavenworth for violating the Mann Act; it prohibited the transportation of women across state lines for immoral purposes. An article published last week typifies the conventional wisdom. "Jack Johnson," says the writer, "was targeted under Jim Crow laws for traveling with ... Lucille Cameron, a white woman who would later become his wife."
This is wrong on several counts. The Mann Act wasn't a Jim Crow law. It fed off prejudice against foreigners, particularly immigrants from China and Russia, who were accused in the scandal sheets of being the main procurers of "talent" for brothels. (Running a successful whorehouse required a steady stream of fresh faces.)
It's true that the feds began their investigation of Johnson after he began cohabitating with Lucille Cameron. However, the evidence mustered against him had nothing to do with her.
The smoking gun was Belle Schreiber, a woman that Johnson met at the Everleigh Club, Chicago's most opulent brothel. Schreiber testified that she accompanied Johnson on some of his travels and that he rented and furnished an apartment for her in a building known to the Chicago police as a "disorderly house." Moreover, she had documentation to prove it.
The Mann Act (which is still in effect) has been used to persecute people with unconventional lifestyles. However, the prosecution of Jack Johnson was congruent with the spirit of the law which was to clamp down on those involved in sex trafficking.
If Jack Johnson were alive today, the skin color of his lady friends would be largely a non-issue. But it's a fair guess that he would make the news for domestic abuse, an issue largely ignored by reform groups in his day. His wife Etta Duryea Johnson was purportedly hospitalized after one of their spats turned violent. She committed suicide, by which time -- by all indications -- Johnson was already dallying with his next wife Lucille, a 19-year-old ex-prostitute that he introduced as his stenographer.
Jack Johnson was in many ways a heroic figure. Aside from a few self-serving politicians, those fighting for him are good people guided by high ideals, but let's not fudge his life story with a presidential pardon that would scrub away his dark side.
Can't get Jack pardoned a hundred years later but we got holidays, street names, memorials named after racist bigot slave owner presidents of the same yesteryear . Swirl that around your head, my friends....
What da double fudge! My old-arse uncle, who as a child was waterboy and messenger for "Unforgivable Blackness," say stop the "muthapuckin' bullsyet and pardon Mr. Jack. He just got on his Mack!" Hehehe! Holla!