Several current and former heavyweight boxing champions were gathering at the White House on Thursday for what is expected to be a private ceremony in which President Trump announces his intention to pardon Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion, who was convicted in 1913 of transporting a white woman across state lines.
The World Boxing Council, one of boxing’s sanctioning bodies, had invited the current and former champions, including the American Deontay Wilder and Lennox Lewis of Britain, to the ceremony, according to Tim Smith, the vice president of communications for Haymon Boxing.
Decades after Johnson was convicted under the Mann Act, his case drew significant attention as a gross miscarriage of justice and a symbol of the depths of racism in the American justice system.
Johnson was convicted in 1913 of violating the Mann Act on charges that he transported a white woman across state lines “for immoral purposes.” The woman Johnson transported, Belle Schreiber, worked as a prostitute and had been in a steady relationship with the heavyweight champion.
Johnson was sentenced to a year in prison, but he fled the country for several years, returning in 1920 to serve his sentence.
Not only was Johnson the first black man to win the heavyweight world championship, but he also was the rare black man of his era who was brash, ostentatious and unapologetic about his wealth and success. He taunted his opponents in the ring and dated white women, which was taboo at the time.
Johnson’s persona and race led to harsh coverage from newspapers over the years, which only served to further a negative image of the fighter.
“Jack Johnson lived in the lap of luxury, abused the fame and fortune that came to him, and died bereft of riches,” read an Associated Press article that ran in The New York Times after he died in 1946.
But in the decades after Johnson died, as society became more enlightened, his conviction came to be seen as a miscarriage of justice. Politicians and celebrities including John McCain, Sylvester Stallone and the filmmaker Ken Burns advocated for his pardon.
The Obama administration passed on pardoning Johnson, citing in part allegations of domestic violence against women.
But last month, President Trump tweeted that he was considering pardoning Johnson after Stallone had told him about the boxer’s story.
Johnson’s 1910 fight against James J. Jeffries inspired the 1967 play and 1970 movie “The Great White Hope.”
After Johnson had won the heavyweight title in 1908, many in white society advocated for a white fighter to step up and win the title back. Jeffries, a former champion who had been in retirement, took up that challenge. But Johnson decimated Jeffries, a victory that sparked violent white backlash in the form or riots across the country.