GOP's McCain, King seek pardon for boxing champ

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Sen. John McCain and Rep. Peter King are hoping that they have a fighting chance of persuading the nation's first African-American president to pardon posthumously the world's first African-American heavyweight boxing champion.

McCain, R-Ariz., and King, R-N.Y., were to unveil a congressional resolution Wednesday afternoon calling on President Barack Obama to pardon Jack Johnson, who won the heavyweight title a century before Obama took the oath of office.

Johnson's 1908-1915 reign atop the boxing world was flamboyant and controversial. He was reviled by many whites at the time for his boxing prowess, his wealth, and for openly courting and marrying white women.

Displeasure with Johnson spawned a search for a "great white hope," a white challenger who could knock him to the canvass and take his title. But the law delivered the biggest blow to Johnson in 1913 when he was convicted under the Mann Act for having a consensual relationship with a white woman across state lines.

McCain, King, and historians believe that Johnson’s conviction was racially motivated. Johnson fled the United States to France before he was sentenced. He finally lost his heavyweight title to a white fighter — Jess Willard — in Havana in 1915.

Johnson died in a car crash in North Carolina in 1946. His story has been chronicled in stage and film productions of “The Great White Hope,” and in “Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson,” a PBS documentary by Ken Burns.

This is the latest attempt at a Johnson pardon for McCain and King. A similar resolution didn’t make it through both houses of Congress in 2004. The House of Representatives approved a resolution last year urging then-President George W. Bush to pardon Johnson, who like Bush, grew up in Texas. The Senate failed to approve a similar measure and Bush didn’t pardon Johnson.

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