October 18, 1912 – Boxing Champion Jack Johnson Arrested For Violating the Mann Act

On this day in history, John Arthur (“Jack”) Johnson (“The Galveston Giant”), the first African American world heavyweight boxing champion, was arrested on the grounds that his relationship with Lucille Cameron (who later became his second wife) violated the White Slave Traffic Act (also known as the Mann Act).

Jack Johnson

Jack Johnson

As originally passed in 1910, the Mann Act made it a felony to engage in interstate or foreign commerce transport of “any woman or girl for the purpose of prostitution or debauchery, or for any other immoral purpose.” Its primary stated intent was to address prostitution, “immorality”, and human trafficking particularly where it was trafficking for the purposes of prostitution.

But using the Mann Act against Johnson was an excuse; racial animosity against Johnson for his winning the heavyweight title ran deep. The fight had taken place on July 4, 1910 at a ring built just for the occasion in downtown Reno, Nevada. After Johnson was declared the winner, race riots broke out in 25 states. At least 26 deaths (all but two of them of blacks) were attributed to the riots. Hundreds more were injured Moreover, police interrupted several attempted lynchings.

Johnson continued to alienate whites by refusing to pay deference to the color line. He dated white women and married three of them. Two southern ministers called for his lynching.

During the Mann Act proceedings, Ms. Cameron refused to testify against Johnson. The Assistant U.S. District Attorney asked the Justice Department’s Bureau of Investigation (forerunner of the FBI) to mount an all-out effort to find any evidence at all that Johnson had violated the Mann Act. They soon found a prostitute named Belle Gifford a.k.a. Belle Schrebier willing to testify against Johnson, and within days, a grand jury issued seven Mann Act indictments.

In the courtroom of Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the future Commissioner of Baseball who perpetuated the baseball color line until his death, Johnson was convicted by an all-white jury in June 1913. It took them less than two hours to find Johnson guilty on all counts. Despite the fact that the incidents used to convict Johnson took place before passage of the Mann Act, he was sentenced to a year and a day in prison.

Yet another boxer labeled "The Great White Hope" against Jackson goes down for the count

Yet another boxer labeled “The Great White Hope” against Jackson goes down for the count

On June 24, while out on bail pending appeal, Johnson fled the country, returning to the U.S. seven years later. He surrendered to Federal agents at the Mexican border and was sent to the United States Penitentiary at Leavenworth to serve his sentence.

On June 10, 1946, Johnson died in a car crash on U.S. Highway 1 in North Carolina, after speeding away angrily from a diner that refused to serve him. He was 68 years old at the time of his death.

As Ken Burns remarked in his documentary, Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson:

“Jack Johnson wished to live his life nothing short of a free man,” says Burns. “And that was a dangerous choice for an African-American in the first two decades of the 20th century.”

Since the time of his death, there have been numerous petitions for him to receive a presidential pardon. He did not receive one until May 24, 2018, when President Trump granted Johnson a full and unconditional pardon.


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