WASHINGTON — Two lawmakers are appealing to President Barack Obama to pardon renowned black boxer Jack Johnson, imprisoned a century ago because of his romantic link to a white woman.
Sen. John McCain of Arizona and Rep. Peter King of New York, both Republicans, were sending a new letter to the president Wednesday, after receiving their first response from the Obama administration last week. In that response, the Justice Department's pardon attorney, Ronald L. Rodgers told them the department, as a policy, does not process pardons for dead people.
"We were sorely disappointed" by Rodgers' position, the lawmakers wrote in the letter, which was obtained by The Associated Press. They asked Obama to "disagree with Mr. Rodgers' assessment, concur with Congress and swiftly issue a posthumous pardon for Mr. Johnson."
Both houses of Congress passed resolutions this year urging a presidential pardon for Johnson, who became the first black heavyweight champion in 1908 – 100 years before Obama was elected the first black president.
Johnson's victory led to a search for a "Great White Hope" who could beat him. Two years later, Jim Jeffries, the American world titleholder Johnson had tried for years to fight, came out of retirement but lost in a match called "The Battle of the Century," resulting in deadly riots.
Rodgers wrote that notwithstanding the department policy, Obama still has the authority to pardon whomever he wishes, "guided when he sees fit by the advice of the pardon attorney." The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday.
"A posthumous pardon would represent a final vindication to Mr. Johnson's family and to the ignominious stain on our nation's history," McCain and King wrote, "and highlight the achievements of an athlete who was forced into the shadows of bigotry and prejudice."
In 2004, the Committee to Pardon Jack Johnson, which filmmaker Ken Burns helped form, filed a petition with the Justice Department that was never acted on during the Bush administration. Burns' 2005 documentary, "Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson," explored the case against the boxer and the sentencing judge's acknowledged desire to "send a message" to black men about relationships with white women.
In 1913, Johnson was convicted of violating the Mann Act, which made it illegal to transport women across state lines for immoral purposes. After his conviction, he fled the country, but agreed years later to return and serve a 10-month jail sentence.
"Mr. Johnson's conviction was motivated by nothing more than the color of his skin," McCain and King wrote. "As such, it not only injured his family, but also our nation as a whole."
When he unveiled the resolution in April, McCain said he was sure that Obama "will be more than eager" to issue the pardon.