For more than 100 years, Jack Johnson’s legend as the first black heavyweight boxing champion has been undisputed, but his legacy had been tarnished by a racially tainted criminal conviction.It's not surprising that Obama did nothing about this: he was parsimonious in his pardons, and he was remarkably timid regarding any issue that involved the intersection of bigotry and law enforcement.
His battles against white opponents, in the ring and outside of it, gave rise to “The Great White Hope” play and movie and he came to be lionized as a barrier breaker.
But the criminal conviction from 1913 that most would find abhorrent today — for transporting a white woman across state lines — haunted Johnson well after his death in 1946 and motivated politicians and celebrities for years to advocate for a pardon, however symbolic.
On Thursday in the Oval Office, Johnson posthumously found an unexpected champion: President Trump.
Although his own record on civil rights has come under question, often harshly, Mr. Trump, flanked by boxing champions and Sylvester Stallone, the actor who brought the case to his attention, signed an order pardoning Johnson.
The president called Johnson “a truly great fighter” who “had a tough life” but served 10 months in federal prison “for what many view as a racially motivated injustice.” Mr. Trump said the conviction took place during a “period of tremendous racial tension in the United States.”
Still, in Johnson, Mr. Trump found a way in one swoop of the pen to stake a claim on civil rights and rebuke his predecessor, Barack Obama, for not taking action on an issue that seemed in line with the principles of fighting injustice that he had championed.
Though other presidents passed up the chance to pardon him, Mr. Trump noted that the last resolution in Congress calling for the pardon was while Mr. Obama was in office, in 2015.
“They couldn’t get the president to sign it,” Mr. Trump said.
FWIW, I give very little credit to Trump for this: As a casino owner, he's made a lot of money from boxing, and he has long of history of being involved with the sport, so for him, it's about boxing, not race.