Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.) and boxer Vernon Forrest were among a group on Capitol Hill yesterday seeking a posthumous presidential pardon for Jack Johnson, the first black U.S. heavyweight champion of the world.
The group filed a petition with the Department of Justice seeking the pardon for Johnson, who was convicted of violating a vice law in 1913. The petition details how Johnson's indictment and conviction were racially motivated.
"It's not going to help him, but it will restore his good name, and it reminds us, as Senator McCain and Representative Jackson said, that by helping to correct stuff in the past we actually help our present and our future," Burns said.
John Siegal of the law firm Proskauer Rose LLP prepared the petition at the request of Burns, who became angered by the apparent circumstances surrounding Johnson's conviction while working on his documentary, "Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson." The documentary will air on PBS in January.
"As we worked on [the film], the more and more outraged we became by the injustice of it, and we realized the film wasn't really enough, that we had to do something," Burns said.
Johnson was convicted in1913 of violating The Mann Act, which outlawed the transportation of women "for the purpose of prostitution, debauchery, or for any other immoral purpose."
According to the group, Johnson's prosecution was instead persecution -- the result of Johnson's victories in the ring and his relationships with white women.
"The only crime he committed was falling in love with someone that wasn't his same color," Forrest said.
The committee said it was optimistic yesterday of its chances. If granted, Johnson's would be just the second posthumous presidential pardon in U.S. history. The first came when President Clinton pardoned former slave and first black army officer Henry O. Flipper in 1999.
"I think not only is this good for boxing, I think it's good for America," Forrest said. "There are a lot of injustices that we need to go back and research and make those wrongs right."
-- Jake Schaller