Congressional Heavy Hitters Fight to Clear Boxer's Name

McCain, Reid, Cowan, and King want Jack Johnson's name cleared of a 'racially motivated crime.'

Boxer Jack Johnson, one-time holder of the World Heavyweight Boxing crown, strikes a pose, May 18, 1931.
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Lawmakers ask Obama for support to restore the legacy of boxing great Jack Johnson

Bipartisanship isn't dead when it comes to restoring the reputation of a sports legend in Congress.

Congress ran out the clock on sequestration, is dragging its feet on gun control, and has yet to introduce comprehensive immigration legislation, but when it comes to posthumously pardoning a boxer that was wronged, bipartisanship abounds.

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A group of lawmakers is working overtime to pardon Jack Johnson, the first black boxer to be named heavyweight world champion. Johnson conquered the title in 1908 and defended it until 1915. Because of his athletic prowess and high-profile relationships with white women, he was targeted by individuals looking to throw a wrench in his career, legislators say. Lawmakers say that Johnson's legacy was "unjustly tarnished" when he was convicted under the Mann Act for bringing a white women he was dating from Pittsburgh to Chicago.

The Mann Act was put in place to stop the transfer of women across state lines who might be subjected to prostitution. However, the law was also used to curb interracial dating. Johnson served a year in prison for violating the law and historians point to the conviction in 1913 as the reason his boxing career deteriorated.

Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid, a boxer himself, Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, Massachusetts Democratic Rep. William Cowan, and New York Rep. Peter King are moving on a bill that would pardon Johnson of the "racially motivated conviction."

It's not the first time Congress has acted on Johnson's behalf.

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"Since 2004, Congressman King and I have fought for a posthumous pardon of Jack Johnson," McCain said in a statement. "In past years, both chambers of Congress unanimously passed this resolution, but unfortunately, it still awaits executive action and no pardon has been issued. We can never completely right the wrong perpetrated against Jack Johnson during his lifetime, but this pardon is a small, meaningful step toward acknowledging his mistreatment before the law and celebrating his legacy of athletic greatness and historical significance."

Congress passed the resolution clearing Johnson's name on multiple occasions including in 2009 and 2011, but the president has not acted.

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