One of the stranger stories of Saturday was President Trump’s declaration that he is now taking advice from actor Sylvester Stallone.
“Sylvester Stallone called me with the story of heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson,” Trump tweeted earlier today. “His trials and tribulations were great, his life complex and controversial. Others have looked at this over the years, most thought it would be done, but yes, I am considering a Full Pardon!”
Johnson was the first black heavyweight world champion, winning the title in 1908. Rather than being lionized, the attitudes of the day saw race riots break out when, in a 1910 fight in Reno, he severely beat white fighter Jim Jefferies.
Johnson’s defiance of the conventions of the day – he lived lavishly and dated outside of his race in a time when whites often killed blacks without fear of legal repercussions – saw him arrested in 1913 and charged with transporting a prostitute across state lines, a violation of the Mann Act. He was convicted, and said, “They crucified Christ. Why not me?” He then skipped bail and went to Europe. He returned to the US in 1920 and served almost a year in jail.
Johnson died in 1946 at age 68, and his legend has since grown. A 2004 Ken Burns documentary, Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson, was acclaimed. There was also The Great White Hope, a film which was based on Johnson’s story and starred James Earl Jones. There was also a Miles Davis album tribute to Johnson.
Calls for a Johnson pardon have frequently been issued. Supporters have included Arizona Senator John McCain and former Democratic Senate leader Harry Reid; however, Barack Obama, the first black president, did not act on it. A Johnson pardon bill that was passed by the House of Representatives in 2008 failed in the Senate, but other proposals have been approved, most recently in 2015. Still, the formal pardon has not gone through.
Stallone, of course, is famous as a one-time champion in his Rocky roles, and in real life has been a supporter and guest at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort. His influence and Trump’s love of celebrity may finally see Johnson issued a pardon.
Trump has issued three pardons: To Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio, convicted of racial profiling of Latinos in his districts; to Kristian Saucier, convicted of taking photos in a nuclear submarine, thus violating secrecy; and recently for Lewis “Scooter” Libby, who was convicted for leaking the name of CIA agent Valerie Plame.