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Pardoning Jack Johnson

Ken Burns' campaign to pardon Jack Johnson was inspired by racist editorials from some surprising sources.
 
 
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It's widely known that filmmaker Ken Burns, whose four-hour documentary on Jack Johnson concluded last night on PBS ( scheduled to rebroadcast this week), is now spearheading a drive to secure a presidential pardon for the boxer's Mann Act conviction. What's less known is what sparked his protest: racist editorials in leading newspapers, including The New York Times and Los Angeles Times .

Burns told The New York Times , in an article today, that the decision to seek the pardon "was born out of anger, from listening to the accumulated bile of the Los Angeles Times , the Chicago Tribune and The New York Times , spouting racial language about Johnson," back when he competing for the heavyweight crown in the early 1900s. "We were all sitting around a table and someone said maybe we should seek a pardon. And a light went on."

Burns' acclaimed film is called Unforgivable Blackness . Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion, was eventually defeated by federal persecution and "great white hope" Jesse Willard.

Last Friday, the Los Angeles Times , in a kind of apology, ran an editorial quoting from one of its 1910 broadsides, and endorsed Burns' call for a pardon. It said that the newspaper's views "shamefully" did not rise above "the sentiments of the day." A portion of one of the paper's editorials, which ran on July 6, 1910, the day after Jackson defended his title against ex-champ Jim Jeffries, was read in the film to great dramatic effect by Billy Bob Thornton.

Two other excerpts from that editorial, not read, reminded whites of their "mental supremacy," which "cannot at the present be taken" from them. It also instructed blacks, "If you have ambition for yourself or your race, you must try for something better in development than that of the mule."

An E&P search found that The New York Times , in a May 12, 1910, editorial previewing that fight, wrote, "If the black man wins thousands and thousands of his ignorant brothers will misinterpret his victory as justifying claims to much more than mere physical equality with their white neighbors."

On July 5, 1910, the day after the Jeffries fight, a cartoon in the Chicago Tribune pictured a Johnson fan as "Sambo" happily ordering a big meal. A editorial in that paper the same day called the champ "Little Arthur Johnson, a perfect specimen of smoked American." His victory had "made it necessary for us to look to intellectual employments for the racial superiority in the sensations of which we luxuriate."

A day earlier, an article in the paper had warned that a Jackson win would encourage blacks to challenge the "power" of whites.

Greg Mitchell is the editor of Editor and Publisher .