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Another 'teachable moment' for Obama?

NEW YORK – He was widely traveled, but he cited his time in Chicago as crucial to his later success. He entered into contests with a large number of men but emerged as the last man standing. He was a trailblazer who rose to the height of his profession.  

Yes, it turns out Jack Johnson and President Barack Obama have more than just skin tone in common.  

Both houses of Congress have now approved a resolution Wednesday urging a presidential pardon for Johnson, who became the first black heavyweight champion in 1908 a century before Obama's election as the nation's first black president. 

Image: Jack Johnson In Boxing Stance
Getty Images file
American boxer Jack Johnson, the world heavyweight champion, in a boxing stance, during the early 1910s. 

Johnson, publicly defiant of the Jim Crow-era laws that ruled the day, was the first person prosecuted under the Mann Act, which banned the transportation of females across state lines "for immoral purposes."  The official offense cited was for consorting and traveling with a white prostitute whom he later married. Unofficially, it was his destruction of Jim Jeffries, the white American titleholder whom Johnson met in the ring in 1910.

That match, held in Reno, Nev., and dubbed "the Battle of The Century" (at a time when that title was not yet trite), resulted in deadly riots and cast Johnson as the villain in the eyes of the white establishment.  

The Los Angeles Times wrote after the fight:  "A word to the Black Man. … Do not point your nose too high. Do not swell your chest too much. Do not boast too loudly.  Do not be puffed up. … You are on no higher plane, deserve no new consideration, and will get none. …  No man will think a bit higher of you because your complexion is the same as that of the victor at Reno." 

Johnson was convicted in 1913 and sentenced to a year and a day in jail, the maximum penalty allowable. He fled and was a fugitive in Europe and Mexico for seven years.  He eventually surrendered and served 10 months at Leavenworth, Kan. 

A long fight back
Attempts to resurrect his boxing career after his release largely failed – it didn't help that the champion at the time, Jack Dempsey, refused to fight him, even though Johnson was 43 by then. He died in a car crash in 1946 at the age of 68. (It would be more than two decades later before the U.S. Supreme Court essentially legalized interracial marriage, in 1967, with its ruling in  Loving v. Virginia.)   

Still, the effort to clear Johnson's name gained considerable momentum with the 2005 release of the Ken Burns documentary "Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson."  (Burns also formed a committee dedicated to Jackson's pardon, which petitioned the Justice Department in 2004. That petition was never acted on.) 

And Vernon Forrest, the former boxing champion killed in July by a gunman attempting to steal his car, also championed Johnson's cause.* Then, in April, Sen. (and boxing aficionado) John McCain, R-Ariz., along with Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., introduced the proposal in  Congress. 

In his own effort to clear his name, Johnson wrote in his autobiography that he was determined to "act as if prejudice does not exist." While that noble stance may have better fit Johnson's times, it is not one our president seems to embrace today. Obama has made clear the importance of an ongoing discourse on race in our country.   

'A more perfect union'
The congressional resolution says Johnson's pardon would "expunge a racially motivated abuse of the prosecutorial authority of the federal government from the annals of criminal justice in the United States."      

Obama's ascension to the nation's highest office could have been derailed by the firestorm over some incendiary comments from his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Instead, he seized the moment and, standing at Constitution Center in Philadelphia, delivered what history will surely judge as one of the seminal speeches on race in America.

In it, he said, "The path to a more perfect union means acknowledging that what ails the African-American community does not just exist in the minds of black people, that the legacy of discrimination … [is] real and must be addressed."    

The president, having just recently defused another controversy over race – one he largely helped fuel – may be loath to go near anything with a racial theme for a while. 

His role in the debate over the arrest of Henry Louis Gates Jr. became a major distraction for the White House but one that, however awkwardly, fit the president's criteria for making race an ongoing conversation. As he said in Philadelphia, "Race is an issue that this country cannot afford to ignore right now."   

The White House has so far had no comment on the Johnson resolution. And the resolution passed by Congress does not require any presidential action.

Although presidential pardons are rarely granted – and even fewer are granted posthumously – those still trumpeting Johnson's cause now appear to have momentum on their side. 

*Correction: Vernon Forrest was misidentified as "Vernon Jackson." The text has been corrected above.