Press Releases

Washington, D.C.U.S. Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Harry Reid (D-NV), and Representatives Peter King (R-NY) and Gregory Meeks (D-NY) sent a letter to President Barack Obama today calling on him to issue a posthumous pardon for the first African-American heavyweight boxing champion, John Arthur “Jack” Johnson, for his racially charged conviction in 1913. Johnson’s career and reputation were ruined after he was unjustly charged with transporting a white woman across state lines in violation of the Mann Act. Both Houses of Congress have passed a resolution that calls on President Obama to posthumously pardon Johnson. It is now up to the president to issue the pardon.

“As we mark the 70th anniversary of Jack Johnson’s death this month, we are reminded of the cruel injustices of our nation’s past that led to this great athlete’s wrongful conviction more than a century ago,” said Senator McCain. “With just months left in President Obama’s term in office, now is the time for him to finally do the right thing and issue a posthumous pardon for Jack Johnson. We must right this historical wrong, restore the legacy of a great American athlete, and close a shameful chapter in our nation’s history.”

“Jack Johnson defined an era of American boxing. He was a true champion, a fighter and a barrier-breaking pioneer whose reputation was tarnished by the racism of that time, which led to his unjust imprisonment,” said Senator Harry Reid. “Sadly, his legacy continues to be marred by that miscarriage of justice. I urge President Obama to issue a posthumous pardon for Jack Johnson so we can finally right this wrong. Jack Johnson deserves to be remembered for his incredible career, not the memory of the historical travesty that defamed him simply because of his race.”

“Jack Johnson is a trailblazer and a legend, whose boxing career was cut short due to unjust laws and racial persecution,” said Congressman King. “I urge the President to do the right thing and take the final step and grant his pardon.”

"As the first African-American Heavyweight Boxing Champion, John Arthur ‘Jack’ Johnson is truly a legend whose contributions to history extend far beyond his boxing career," said Congressman Meeks. "His achievements inspired African-Americans, encouraging them to overcome obstacles and achieve greatness and in recognition of the 70th anniversary of his death, it especially timely to restore his reputation.”

Jack Johnson was born in Galveston, Texas on March 31, 1878 and in 1908, he became the first African-American World Heavyweight Boxing Champion after defeating Tommy Burns in Australia – a title Johnson held until 1915. Prompted by his success in the boxing ring and his relationship with a Caucasian woman, Jack Johnson was wrongly convicted under the Mann Act when he brought the woman he was dating across state lines. The intent of the Mann Act was to prevent human trafficking of women for the purpose of prostitution. However, this racially motivated 1913 conviction imprisoned Jack Johnson for a year. The conviction ruined his career and destroyed his reputation.

Senator McCain and Congressman King, both life-long boxing fans, have been introducing legislation urging the president to pardon Jack Johnson since 2004. The same Resolution passed the Senate unanimously in the 113th Congress, and cleared both the House and the Senate with unanimous support in the 111th Congress.

American presidents have issued posthumous pardons in the past. In 1999, President Clinton pardoned Henry O. Flipper, the first African-American to graduate from West Point and first African-American officer to lead the Buffalo Soldiers of the 10th Cavalry Regiment during the Civil War, who was later dismissed from the Army for racially charged allegations. In 2008, President Bush pardoned Charles Winters, an American volunteer in the Arab-Israeli War who was convicted of violating the U.S. Neutrality Acts in 1949 after he helped to transfer two B-17 “Flying Fortresses” in an effort to aid the Jewish peoples’ effort to establish the state of Israel.

The letter is below and here.


June 30, 2016

The Honorable Barack Obama

President of the United States

The White House

1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW

Washington, D.C. 20500


Dear President Obama,

We write once again to bring your attention to the ongoing injustice of John Arthur “Jack” Johnson’s racially-motivated conviction, now over a hundred years old. As you know, Jack Johnson, a boxing legend and the first African-American Heavyweight Boxing Champion, had his character and achievements marred when he was unjustly convicted under the Mann Act in 1913 for transporting his white girlfriend across state lines.

Congress, taking notice of this improper and unfair conviction, has passed multiple resolutions over the years calling for the posthumous pardon of Jack Johnson. Most recently, the Every Student Succeeds Act, which you signed into law on December 10, 2015, included a provision expressing the sense of Congress that this boxing great should receive a posthumous pardon. And, just last week, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights unanimously voted to request that you “right this century-old wrong” and pardon Jack Johnson. 

This month marks the 70th anniversary of Jack Johnson’s death. While it is unfortunate that this unjust conviction was not corrected during the boxer’s lifetime, a posthumous pardon today represents the opportunity to reaffirm Jack Johnson’s substantial contributions to our society and right this historical wrong. We urge you to grant this posthumous pardon.


John McCain

Harry Reid

Peter King

Gregory Meeks