Last weekend, President Donald Trump announced he was considering granting a pardon to Jack Johnson.
The first African-American heavyweight champion in boxing history, Johnson was also an outspoken critic of racism, which often brought him into fierce conflict with authorities in the early 20th century.
Johnson was convicted for violations of the Mann Act in 1913, for transporting a woman across state boundaries for the purpose of sex. The law, often called the “White Slave Traffic Act,” was intended to prevent sexual trafficking. In Johnson’s case, however, it was used to prevent him from traveling with white women he was dating at the time, some of whom were current or former prostitutes.
Despite marrying one of the alleged victims in the Mann Act violations, Johnson would eventually serve nearly a year in prison.
The movement to pardon Johnson has been sponsored by former Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) for more than 14 years. The senators first asked for a presidential pardon in 2004. Congress passed a resolution urging the pardoning of Johnson in 2009 and 2011. McCain and Reid again urged a pardon in 2013. Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama both declined to grant it, however.
“Johnson’s memory was unjustly tarnished by a racially motivated criminal conviction,” Reid said in 2013, “and it is now time to recast his legacy.”
Johnson was released from prison in 1921, but his battles against the establishment, and racism, didn’t end there. In fact, he would continue to clash with authority over race until his death, and that’s where his story brought him to North Carolina.
There are conflicting reports on exactly what happened on June 10, 1946, but by all accounts, Johnson was just passing through the Old North State, on his way to New York. He’d just finished a series of personal appearances in either Texas or Miami, which had been his primary source of income in the 15 years since his last sanctioned fight.
Johnson was driving his 1939 Lincoln Zephyr, along with Fred Scott, a friend who had accompanied him on the trip. They stopped somewhere in the Raleigh area — one account claims it was Apex — to attempt to get lunch at a diner.
Johnson and Scott, who was also black, were told they had to eat in the back of the restaurant — although some reports say he was forced to eat outside. Either way, that demand didn’t sit well with Johnson.
“He told them he was the heavyweight champion of the world and would not go around back,” Joseph Cutchins Jr. told a publication in 2013. “He took his rage out on his car.”
Angry at his treatment, Johnson sped off, at speeds that may have reached 80 mph. He followed the winding path north on Route 1, until he missed a turn near Evergreen Cemetery in Franklinton.
Johnson’s Zephyr collided with a light pole and flipped. Both he and Scott were thrown from the car. Scott suffered minor injuries, but Johnson wasn’t as fortunate.
At the time, hospitals and emergency services were segregated, which meant that Johnson couldn’t be taken by ambulance to Rex Hospital. Instead, the town’s African-American undertaker, Joseph Cutchins Sr., was summoned to take Johnson to the nearest black hospital — St. Agnes Hospital, more than 25 miles away, in Raleigh.
Cutchins Jr. said that Johnson told his father, “I’ll be all right,” when he arrived on the scene.
Johnson was pronounced dead at the hospital at 6:10 p.m.
While the circumstances surrounding Johnson’s death are uncomfortable, to say the least, Franklinton has embraced its place in the boxing champion’s personal history. There is a commemorative plaque at the Cutchins Funeral Home, and a wreath is placed on the location of the accident on June 10 of each year.
Former professional boxing trainer Aaron Snowell also co-produced a documentary on Johnson’s death. Snowell’s mother was a native of Franklin County, and he was able to track down and interview several Franklinton residents who witnessed the car crash, more than 70 years ago.
Johnson’s boxing career and life after leaving the ring were controversial and combative. A presidential pardon could help to heal some of the scars that remain.
“As we look back on our nation’s history, the Jack Johnson case is a shameful stain, apparent to all,” McCain said in 2013. “Rectifying this injustice is long overdue.”