Senator McCain fights for pardon of black boxer Jack Johnson

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Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight boxing champion. Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight boxing champion.
Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight boxing champion, was sentenced to prison for dating a white woman. Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight boxing champion, was sentenced to prison for dating a white woman.
Senator McCain has tried to grant Jack Johnson a posthumous pardon. Senator McCain has tried to grant Jack Johnson a posthumous pardon.
Civil rights leader Pastor Warren Stewart and his boxing coach feel a deep connection to Jack Johnson's story. Civil rights leader Pastor Warren Stewart and his boxing coach feel a deep connection to Jack Johnson's story.
PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) -

In 1910, "The Fight Of The Century" captured the spotlight of the sports world. 

The fight pitted two heavyweight champs against each other -- Jack Johnson versus James Jeffries. 

The crowd booed as Johnson entered the ring. Just moments after the fight began, Johnson delivered powerful blows, a combination of jabs, hooks, and uppercuts knocking his opponent out of the ring. 

Jack Johnson was born in 1878. He began dominating the world of boxing at age 30, becoming the first black heavyweight boxing champion. Being black and being the world champ during the Jim Crow Era would become Johnson's biggest fight.

In 1912, Johnson was dealt a vicious blow. He was sentenced to prison for dating a white woman. 

It's a story of racial injustice that's been told on the big screen and on Broadway. Even the name of both the film and theater productions was controversial: "The Great White Hope". It tells the story of the world of boxing trying to find a white boxer who would be able to defeat Johnson.  

"Frankly, a serious wrong was committed," said Arizona Senator John McCain. The story of Jack Johnson resonated with McCain, who was a young boxer himself at the United States Naval Academy.  

"There's a difference of not approving of someone's lifestyle and railroading them and putting them in prison, and if there was ever an injustice done in American sports, it's certainly what was done to Jack Johnson."

Johnson was a flashy, flamboyant guy, similar to many current pro athletes who thrive in the spotlight. But, Johnson wasn't always celebrated for his marvelous athleticism. He was often booed, cursed, and eventually sentenced to prison for falling in love with a white woman. 

Senator McCain, who has repeatedly called this one of the greatest racial injustices in history, has tried three times to convince a sitting president to erase Johnson's prison sentence from the record books. 

3TV's Brandon Lee sat down with the senator at his Phoenix office to talk about the difficulty of getting a presidential pardon. McCain responded by saying, "it's been one of the more confounding aspects of my political career… because of his race was sentenced to prison. A gross injustice." 

The legacy of Jack Johnson still inspires many people in the black community, including up and coming civil rights leader Pastor Warren Stewart, "Especially the racism that he faced, and how he was criminalized for loving a woman who did not look like his color. Yes, that story needs to be told."

Pastor Stewart read about Johnson's success in the ring and his personal battles. Stewart felt a deep connection. "My first interest and crush in high school was white and her dad was prejudice, and I walked to the door and he said 'You can't date my daughter, because you're black' and that was in the 90s," Stewart said. 

Local boxing coach and actor Xango, who's currently coaching Pastor Stewart, auditioned to play Jack Johnson in "The Great White Hope" back in the 1970s. 

"Jack Johnson is a serious piece of sport history that is missing and it shouldn't be," Xango said. "Without Jack Johnson, we don't have a Muhammed Ali, Mike Tyson, and Sugar Ray, and all these great icons that we know by name, and just because he was early on in history, doesn't mean his story shouldn't be told." 

Senator McCain tried to convince President George W. Bush and President Obama to grant Jack Johnson a posthumous pardon. Both presidents turned down McCain's efforts. Senator McCain is not giving up his fight.

He's now urging President Trump to pardon Johnson, "I promise you this: I will not give up until Jack Johnson is pardoned. Not just because of Jack Johnson, but because of a repudiation of an era where people were discriminated against and harmed, and sometimes lynched because of the color of their skin." 

Copyright 2017 KPHO/KTVK (KPHO Broadcasting Corporation). All rights reserved.


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