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On the Pardon of Jack Johnson


2,375 words

Last month President Trump pardoned Jack Johnson [2], the first Negro heavyweight boxing champion, for his 1912 violation of the Mann Act. This gesture garnered little attention outside of boxing circles, largely because Johnson and his 106-year-old crime now resides mostly among the cobwebs of public memory. Jack Johnson these days is a white pop singer and former surfer from Hawaii. Furthermore, the very idea that a black athlete could be arrested for giving a white woman a ride across state lines for “immoral purposes” would seem ludicrous to the vast majority of people alive today. Yet that’s essentially what happened, and it serves as a reminder of how serious white people once were about the issues of morality and miscegenation.

The Mann Act [3], passed in 1910 as a result of the automobile making it easier to abduct women and girls into prostitution (and to make getaways across state lines), made it a federal crime to transport across state or foreign borders “any woman or girl for the purpose of prostitution or debauchery, or for any other immoral purpose.” This was during the public uproar against the white slave trade, which had become a worldwide problem by that point.[1] [4]

Johnson, who had been champion for four years in 1912, was extremely unpopular among white citizens, mainly due to his brash, arrogant nature and penchant for cavorting with white women. He also proved to be a rather reluctant champion, shying away from the other great Negro fighters of the day while wearing the belt. Despite this, he is rightfully considered a great fighter due to his uncanny defensive skills, powerful counter-punching, and an especially potent uppercut. As the reigning “Negro Heavyweight Champion,” Johnson won the world title in 1908 with a 14th-round knockout of a puffed-up middleweight named Tommy Burns, who gave up twenty pounds to his black challenger. This incensed and humiliated white fight fans everywhere, and the race to find the “Great White Hope” to dethrone Johnson, was on.

The white men came and the white men fell—with the odd exception of one Philadelphia Jack O’Brian, who managed a draw—culminating in Johnson’s defeat of faded former champion Jim Jeffries in 1910. (Author Jack London had helped convince Jeffries [5] to come out of retirement to fight Johnson.) After this, the white public was in no mood to put up with Johnson and the way he disregarded the racial etiquette of the day. Once the authorities had enough evidence to prove that Johnson had paid a prostitute seventy-five dollars to travel from Pittsburgh to Chicago to have sex with him (a clear violation of the Mann Act), they convicted him and sentenced him to one year and a day in prison. Rather than serve time, Johnson skipped bail and took his act to Europe, where he squandered much of his fortune living the high life.

After several title defenses abroad, a 37-year-old Johnson took on the hulking Jess Willard in Havana, Cuba in 1915 and was knocked out in the sweltering sun in the 26th round. Years later he claimed that he had taken a dive, but film evidence proves that Johnson had fought to win and simply began to tire after round 20. In 1920, Johnson turned himself in to the American authorities, and he served his time at Leavenworth prison. After his release, he continued to fight, but his debauched and flamboyant lifestyle served only to alienate both whites and blacks. (As an aside, Joe Louis, the second black heavyweight champion, had nothing but antipathy towards his predecessor. Louis’ trainer once kicked Johnson out of Louis’ camp, calling him a “low-down, no-good nigger [6].”) Johnson loved fast cars and was notorious for his speeding violations. He once even fashioned himself a professional race car driver. His recklessness caught up with him in 1946, however, when, after being denied service at a North Carolina restaurant, he sped off angrily in his car and was killed when he crashed into a light pole. He was 68 years old.

The reasons for his pardon result from a swirl of politically correct historical revisionism converging around a couple of indisputable facts. First, Johnson’s 1912 “violation” of the Mann Act occurred before the law had actually been passed, and therefore can be seen as invalid. Johnson had been arrested for this offense twice, actually, with the first case being tossed out of court when the star witness, prostitute Lucille Cameron, refused to cooperate with the authorities. A month later, however, they nabbed him for violating the Act back in 1909 and 1910, before its passage. That they convicted him ex post facto indicates how badly many whites wanted to see Jack Johnson incarcerated at the time.

Secondly, the verbiage of the Act, especially the phrase “for any other immoral purpose,” was ambiguous enough to allow for a wide range of subjective readings. This opened the door for many to accuse the police and other authorities of using the Act as a weapon against blacks. Certainly, the Act was used to persecute unmarried couples and others living sexually uninhibited lifestyles. But the number of whites prosecuted under Mann [3] (including Charlie Chaplin, Frank Lloyd Wright, and many others) belies this claim. Johnson’s sentence was also relatively light. (In 1911, a New Orleans saloon-keeper named Basile Economodes was sentenced to six years [7] for three counts of violating the Act.) Further, it was not unheard of for blacks to be prosecuted and then acquitted for violating the Mann Act, such as boxer William “Kid” Brown in 1920. Most tellingly, the black American newspaper, The Chicago Defender, as well as Johnson himself, both declared the trial had been fair.

Of course, facts never get in the way of the Leftist obsession with revising history. Thanks to James Earl Jones’ performance in the 1970 film The Great White Hope, as well as the 2005 Ken Burns documentary Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson, Johnson is painted as a heroic figure who fearlessly defied white racism during the era of segregation. His story, when divorced from its uglier aspects, does indeed fit the anti-white Left’s template of what a black man should be: someone who withstands oppression while disregarding white racial interests through integration and miscegenation. The fact that he beat white men up for a living only makes him even more attractive to the Left. Indeed, many consider Johnson to have been ahead of his time. According to boxing historian and Showtime analyst Steve Farhood [2]:

Johnson’s attitude predated that of Muhammad Ali by about 50 years. He demanded that the white public take him for what he was, and not for what they wanted him to be. He was unashamedly bold and outrageous during a time when athletes were supposed to be humble and one-dimensional. The fact that he was all this as a black man set him apart from every champion before him — and virtually all who followed.

While lionizing Johnson in the wake of President Trump’s pardon, the mainstream press has been ignoring one very important fact about Jack Johnson: He was a despicable person. Not only did he habitually visit and travel with prostitutes, he was an overall libertine and, if I may say, sex addict. According to Infogalactic [8]:

Johnson was pompous about his affection for white women, and imperious about his physical prowess, both in and out of the ring. Asked the secret of his staying power by a reporter who had watched a succession of women parade into, and out of, the champion’s hotel room, Johnson supposedly said “Eat jellied eels and think distant thoughts.”

Even worse, however, he was an inveterate woman-beater. Buddy Gibbs of The Grueling Truth [7] has this to say about Johnson’s relationship with his first wife, socialite Etta Duryea:

Johnson and Duryea would eventually marry but it ended tragically. Johnson had been unfaithful to her throughout their relationship and had even beaten her terribly while they were together. One report that was made around Christmas time in 1910 said Duryea arrived alone to the hospital in a taxi cab with “bruises from head to foot” from a physical altercation. She wouldn’t tell anyone of who beat her, most likely due to the fear she had of Johnson. With the beatings, the infidelity, the depression, and the fact she had nowhere to go and no way out—Etta Duryea committed suicide in September of 1912.

Ed “Gunboat” Smith, the one-time “White Hope World Champion,” witnessed the abuse firsthand, saying:

He married a white woman. That was the worst thing he ever did. She was a highly educated woman. The first wife I met in Milwaukee. He invited me. He was in burlesque. He treated her like a dog. I felt like slapping him right across the face.[2] [9]

Less than three months after Duryea’s suicide, Johnson married a white prostitute, the aforementioned Lucille Cameron.

Predictably, most reports on Trump’s pardon of Johnson neglected to include such seedy details. To do so would have counter-signaled his pardon and undermined the anti-white narrative typically supported by the mainstream press. Most importantly, it would also have lent credence to negative black stereotypes which have much more than just a kernel of truth to them. It is simply not permitted these days to point out how oversexed and violent black men tend to be. That Jack Johnson fit this bill as neatly as he fit any politically correct narrative of a freedom fighter oppressed by The Man is an inconvenient truth best left forgotten.

Of course, I don’t blame Donald Trump for pardoning Johnson. He’s covering his left flank and giving black people yet another reason not to vote Democrat. There’s also a kind of symmetry to it: one womanizing alpha male pardoning another. It makes for a good show and hurts no one. Who knows? It might even make a positive difference in 2020. Johnson was also technically innocent of violating the Mann Act, since the actions for which he was indicted predated the Act by a matter of months. So there’s that.

But looking back without ideological blinders, it pays to recognize the Jack Johnson story for what it really is: whites acting in their racial interests against a brutish, yet talented, man intent on foiling them. Further, the whites in question behaved far more respectfully to Johnson than blacks do to white people when the roles are reversed (as evidenced by the way the South African and Zimbabwean governments have disregarded the rights of their white citizens over the past few decades). Whites had a right to feel incensed when Johnson won the title. They had a right to be appalled by the way he flouted their taboos and traditions. They had a right to be offended by his race-mixing and his abuse of women. That Jack Johnson wasn’t simply deported for his abhorrent behavior speaks more to the kindness of white people than to their supposed racism. In any black-run nation, Jack Johnson would never have achieved as much as he did. He owed a good deal of his success to the patronage of whites, and he aimed to pay them back by helping make their nation less normatively white. If a white ethnostate is ever achieved, we will know its success by measuring its level of tolerance towards the Jack Johnsons of the future, and the closer to zero, the better.

One final point. For all the negativity surrounding Jack Johnson, his life does have meaning for the Dissident Right today. Voltaire may or may not have said that “To learn who rules over you, simply find out who you are not allowed to criticize.” In the same vein, to learn who possesses truth, simply find those no one wishes to debate. In Jack Johnson’s day, black men held the truth in heavyweight boxing. They were quite frankly the best, and that’s why nobody wanted to debate the issue with them. Jack Johnson had to literally chase Tommy Burns across the world in order to secure a challenge,[3] [10] and that was only after a promoter offered the champion the unheard-of sum of thirty thousand dollars to fight. Joe Jeanette, Sam McVey, and Sam Langford all never received a shot at the title, and that’s because all the heavyweight champions from 1900 to 1920 (including Johnson) were afraid to fight them. Even the great Jack Dempsey ducked Sam Langford, and is on record saying he didn’t think he could beat him.[4] [11]

If all of this sounds eerily familiar, it’s because thinkers on the Dissident Right today are being treated in a similar way. They are being ducked by the mainstream. Recently, Jordan Peterson dipped his toe in the Jewish Question and helped promote Nathan Cofnas’ attempt at refuting Kevin MacDonald’s classic, The Culture of Critique. MacDonald, of course, responded immediately [12], but did Peterson continue the debate? Of course not. MacDonald is too infra dig for a scholar of Peterson’s stature, you see. Along those lines, Steven Pinker and Jared Diamond are not about to have a sitdown with Jared Taylor anytime soon. Nor is Ben Shapiro going to ever share a microphone with Millennial Woes. And that great Malcolm Gladwell-Greg Johnson race debate? Yeah, not happening.

The mainstream is afraid of the Dissident Right, not because they really think we’re Nazis or fascists, but because we hold more of the truth than they do. If they were to debate us on even terms, their paucity of truth would be revealed, and their jig, so to speak, would be up. We would emerge as winners. Not wanting this to happen, they take the coward’s way out and flee. This forces the Dissident Right into a situation similar to Jack Johnson’s a century ago: always itching for a fight and having a hard time getting it.

This is why we take a page out of the Jack Johnson playbook and always flout the illegitimate value system of the Left. Because in a fair fight with them, we know we will always win.

Spencer J. Quinn is a frequent contributor to Counter-Currents and the author of the novel White Like You [13].



[1] [14] Edward J. Bristow, Prostitution and Prejudice: The Jewish Fight Against White Slavery, 1870-1939 (New York: Schocken Books, 1982), p. 161.

[2] [15] Peter Heller, In This Corner: 42 World Champions Tell Their Stories (Boston: Da Capo Press, 1994), p. 42.

[3] [16] Ibid., p. 58.

[4] [17] Nat Fleischer & Sam Andre, A Pictorial History of Boxing (New York: Carol Publishing Group, 1987), pp. 84-85.