NFL players have risked their jobs, lost sponsorships and received death threats by using the time when the national anthem is played to raise awareness about police violence and racial inequity, two issues that Trump has never discussed other than to fan their flames.
Johnson was not an outspoken political athlete in the posture of a Colin Kaepernick or Michael Bennett, but he was a figure of profound symbolic and historic importance. As the first black heavyweight champion, he used the ring as his political stage and showed the world that myths about white supremacy were just that. Outside of the ring, Johnson was flashy, unapologetically “a dandy” and openly consorted with white women. He was also never shy about telling those who tried to tear him down that they could kiss his behind. Johnson was a figure of hope and resistance, whose name inspired tall tales and songs from the fields where sharecroppers toiled to choruses of chain gangs. This made him a dangerous man at a time when white supremacist ideas ruled the land and lynchings were a normalized reality. When the powers-that-be tried to humiliate him by bringing “great white hope” former champion Jim Jeffries out of retirement to “humble” Johnson, the Galveston Giant, dashed those racialized dreams with his fists.
In 1913, Johnson was convicted by an all-white jury under the Mann Act on charges of transporting a white woman named Lucille Cameron across state lines “for immoral purposes.” In the ensuing months, Johnson married Cameron, but the case was pursued until Johnson was forced to flee the country to Montreal and then France. He later returned to serve out his sentence. His true crime was not violating the Mann Act, but what W.E.B. Du Bois called his “unforgivable blackness.”
Or as Johnson said, “The search for the ‘white hope’ not having been successful, prejudices were being piled up against me, and certain unfair persons, piqued because I was champion, decided if they could not get me one way they would another.”
It was Johnson’s unforgivable, unapologetic blackness that made him an easy scapegoat for the racist politicians of the day. They painted him as somebody who was ungrateful for all that this country had given him. They said that he did not deserve to make a living. He was told that he should just shut up and go away. Does this sound familiar? There is little doubt that if Trump was alive in Jack Johnson’s day, he would’ve been one of his tormentors, not his savior. That’s what makes this pardon such cheap political theater. This isn’t justice. It’s trolling.
Trump has made it his mission to attack NFL players for being thoughtful, political and outspoken during these perilous times. They are brave in their actions. His response, using the presidential pulpit to bray that they are “sons of bitches,” calling them to be fired and now, even deported, says so much more about his character than his pardon of Johnson does.
Johnson’s pardon is long overdue. But it’s a shame it came from this president — a person who has a demonstrable 40-year record of racist practices, in his professional and now political life, someone who uses political black athletes as punching bags to fire up his base. There is little doubt that if Jack Johnson were alive, he would tell Donald Trump where he could stick his pardon.