Why Jack Johnson Deserved A Pardon
By Adam J. Pollack
There are several reasons why former world heavyweight champion Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion,deserved to be pardoned posthumously by President Donald J. Trump.
I am no supporter of the “White Slave Traffic Act,” an act intended to protect white women from forced prostitution, but whose wording is so vague and overbroad it made nearly all sexual immorality (even noncommercial sex, includingconsensual sex with your girlfriend if you weren’t married to her) a federal offense if the woman crossed state lines for the purposes of the immorality, and the defendant provided her with the funds to travel across state lines, including a train ticket, with the intent and purpose to commit the immoral acts. To me, the law is a violation of the commerce clause and the 10th amendment, although the U.S. Supreme upheld it. The law eventually was amended in 1978 and 1986 to be limited only to prostitution or illegal sexual acts, as opposed to “immoral” acts, which prior to then, was sex with anyone to whom you were not married. Let’s face it, the law was a ridiculous limitation on liberty, and not truly grounded in any constitutional power given to Congress, because human beings are not commercial goods, and having consensual sex (not for payment) has nothing to do with commerce, or any of the enumerated powers given to the federal government.
Although known as the Mann Act because James Mann proposed it, the law’s official legal title was “White Slave Traffic Act.” Notice the overtly racially biased motivation behind the act. Although the law’s language was racially neutral, clearly the intent was to protect white women, not black women. The vast majority of prosecutions involved instances where the woman traveling across state lines was white. The government rarely ever bothered to prosecute when the woman was black.
The law often was abused by women who were angry at their former lovers, or used it to blackmail boyfriends into giving them money, or into marriage, because the law criminalized the man, not the woman. It criminalized the person for providing the funds for travel, as opposed to the person receiving the funds. Hence, the woman, although engaging in a totally consensual sexual relationship with the man, could receive the money to travel, and then subsequently could threaten to turn the man in to the government for prosecution. Essentially the law became a sword rather than a shield.
Although Belle Schreiber was a seasoned prostitute, she basically was Johnson’s girlfriend. She left a brothel to live and travel with him. At various times, he even called her his wife. She willingly and consensually traveled the country with Johnson for over a year prior to the Mann Act’s passage. He put her up in nice hotels, paid all of her expenses, and she lived very well.
Although the law went into effect on July 1, 1910, the government did not care about Johnson’s travels with several women until 1912. Johnson was prosecuted in 1913 for acts that had taken place back in 1910. So why was the government so concerned by the fact that Jack Johnson had given Belle Schreiber $75 two years earlier, in October 1910? The entire underlying reason was race.
After Johnson’s white wife Etta committed suicide on September 12, 1912, most newspapers throughout the nationused the incident to write homilies on how it was an example of the inevitable result of an interracial marriage; never mind the fact that Etta was a depressive. At that time, the majority of states, 29 out of the 48-state Union, had state laws forbidding interracial marriage, and the U.S. Supreme Court had upheld such laws. The racial and political climate in the wake of Johnson’s wife’s suicide was one that strongly frowned upon the idea of him dating another white woman, given what had happened with Etta. Some even went so far as to state that Etta did the sanest act of her life when she killed herself.
What truly angered the federal government and got it to take notice was the fact that a month after his wife’s death, Johnsonwas dating yet another white woman, Lucille Cameron, a former prostitute, and Cameron’s mother strongly objected. On October 18, 1912, Cameron’s mother had Johnson arrested for abduction, and her own daughter arrested for disorderly conduct, and requested an evaluation as to her mental sanity, because she thought her daughter had to be insane to be with Johnson. She preferred her daughter be imprisoned rather than be the girlfriend of a black man. She allegedly said, “I would rather see my daughter spend the rest of her life in an insane asylum than see her the plaything of a nigger.”
Of course, the charges were ludicrous, for Cameron informed law enforcement that she loved Johnson, was with him willingly, and wanted to become his wife. The police, judges, and prosecutors abused the law horribly, and charged, arrested, and detained Johnson and Cameron even when they knew there was no legal basis whatsoever to do so. Furthermore, Illinois had no anti-interracial relationship laws. The state government and Cameron’s mother did what they did in an attempt to facilitate the breaking up of the relationship. They saw the attempted ends as justifying the unethical means. It was a clear abuse of power.Yet, the white press, and even some members of the black press, came down hard on Johnson. The black press feared a backlash of increased prejudice.
There was an atmosphere of hysteria and anger towards Johnson, who had to hire bodyguards to protect him against threatened assassination attempts. The black-owned Freeman wrote, “Mr. Johnson should bear in mind that sentiment and custom are often stronger than written laws. For instance, most of the states have laws that permit Negroes to do what other men do, but when it comes to doing those things then it is something else.” “Let Mr. Jack Johnson kindly cut the female white people out of his operations and he will have plain sailing.” “He’s free, and all that, as he says, but there are ‘invisible’ laws to which he must subscribe – the agreements of society – if he would enjoy a large measure of that freedom of which he boasts.”
It was at that time that the federal government decided to start investigating Johnson, and see what it could get on him. The Chicago Broad Ax said the minions of the law, like a pack of wolves, were hunting Johnson day and night. It noted that Cameron’s relationship with Johnson was consensual, and he was taking very good care of her. She needed no protection. Conversely, when black women were raped, they could obtain no justice whatsoever. The Chicago Defender lamented, “Our white brethren, whose minds are enslaved by prejudice, and whose daily papers, with their brimstone and blood-thirsty articles of condensed suggestions, seem to be laboring very energetically to provoke violence against this Negro whom the world has failed to conquer by fair play.”
Shortly thereafter, the federal government indicted Johnson under the “White Slave Traffic Act.” The black-owned Seattle Republican opined that had the woman been black instead of white, “the federal authorities would have considered it beneath their dignity to give it a moment’s consideration.” The Freemanalso noted the inconsistency of Mann Act prosecutions, which were based solely on race. White men lusted after coloredwomen, in both the North and South: “Yet in all this the government has never yet invoked the white slave law.”
Eventually, on November 19, 1912, the groundless state abduction charge against Johnson was dismissed, but by then he was facing federal charges.
On December 3, 1912, Johnson married Lucille Cameron, which only added fuel to an already racially charged fire. On December 11, U.S. Congressional Representative Seaborn Roddenberry, a Georgia Democrat, from the House floor said, “We have heard much of slavery in the South, but in all the years of Southern slavery there never was such brutality, such infamy as the marriage license authorizing that black African brute, Jack Johnson, to wed a white woman and to bind her in the wedlock of black slavery.” He advocated for a constitutional amendment banning interracial marriage.
Johnson’s trial began on May 5, 1913. According to Belle Schreiber, in October 1910, she was kicked out of a Pittsburgh sporting house, or brothel. She was not dating Johnson at that time. But she was in need of help, so she reached out to Johnson. “When I was put out of that place in Pittsburgh, I asked the defendant for money to help me get away because I didn’t have any more friends. I lost all my friends, and he was the only one I could turn to. I suppose I regarded him as my friend, too. I thought it was due for him to see me through my trouble.”
Schreiber spoke to someone who worked for him, for Jack was traveling the country at the time. A telegram was sent back asking her how much she needed. She replied, and then Johnson sent her $75. She claimed that Johnson included a message asking her to go to a home in Chicago. However, she did not keep the alleged telegram, and the government never produced it, even though she had kept all of the hotel bills from her travels with Johnson from back in 1909. “I don’t know why I saved the hotel bills and didn’t save anything else.” She came to Chicago, and eventually met with Johnson at a hotel and had sex with him.
Schreiber claimed that Johnson told her that since she was sporting, she might as well be in business for herself, as opposed to giving half of her money to others. He supplied her with enough money to obtain a very large seven-room apartment, as well as enough money, over $1,000, to furnish it lavishly.
Johnson denied that he had any intent regarding what Schreiber should do when he gave her the money. She told him she needed help, and he gave her help. He denied telling Schreiber to travel, although at one point in his testimony he admitted that he could not remember whether he did or did not tell her to come to Chicago. He said that once she arrived in Chicago, she contacted him, not the other way around, as she claimed, and they met up. She told him that she wanted her mother and sister to come live with her, so he gave her money to get an apartment and furnish it. He denied ever telling her to open up a sporting house.
Under the 6th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, a Defendant is entitled to a jury of his peers, which would include women and black folk. However, owing to the era’s racially and sexually discriminatory laws, there were no blacks or women in the jury pool. So Jack Johnson had a jury of all white men.
The prosecutors improperly attempted to inflame the passions of the jury with totally irrelevant facts to the charges at hand, including injecting facts about other women, his wife Etta, potential violence against Etta, Belle, and others, allegations about his fight career, and general morality, including facts prior to the passage of the Act, and allegations for which the government had no proof. The government charged him with crimes against nature, but no facts supporting such charges ever were presented. The government accused him of debauchery, but no supportive facts were presented. The government accused him of dropping off one or more women at sporting houses when he did not want to take care of one, but again, no proof was presented. Such charges were dropped before the close of the case, but one has to wonder why they were included in the first place. The Freeman believed that the prosecutor, realizing his inability to make a case, resorted to irrelevant matters wholly immaterial to the case at bar, in an attempt to prejudice the jury. It was a character assassination.
It is not clear that the government proved beyond a reasonable doubt that Jack Johnson’s specific intent at the time he gave Schreiber the money was for her to travel across state lines, or to travel for immoral purposes, both of which were required elements. She reached out to him for help when she needed it, and he helped her. There was scant proof that at the time he gave her the $75 that his specific intent was for her to travel across state lines so that she could engage in prostitution.
Within an hour after the close of the evidence, the jury convicted him on the counts accusing him of providing funds for Schreiber to travel across state lines for immoral purposes, and to travel for purposes of prostitution.
After he was convicted, the prosecutor admitted that the entire motive behind the prosecution was racial, done as a result of feelings of anti-miscegenation. In other words, if the woman had been black instead of white, Johnson never would have been prosecuted. Gloating Assistant U.S. District Attorney Harry Parkin, the chief prosecutor handling the case for the government, said, “This verdict will go around the world. It is a forerunner of laws to be passed throughout the entire country forbidding miscegenation. Many persons believe the negro has been persecuted. Perhaps as an individual he was, but his misfortune will be a foremost example of the evil in permitting intermarriage between whites and blacks. He must bear the consequences.”
The Freeman said that Parkin’s comments proved that Johnson was not being prosecuted for being good to Belle Schreiber, but persecuted for marrying his white wives. “Perhaps this is the first time in the history of the country where a federal court officer has given it out that a prosecution was not based on the charges preferred; that a race prejudice was the underlying motive of the prosecution; that it was in the interest of the race division. All of this is appalling in view of the source from which it came.” “It is to be hoped that the government will not be put in the unenviable light of persecuting a race.”
At his sentencing, the government specifically requested that Johnson be housed in a maximum security prison at Leavenworth, Kansas, as opposed to the normal usual designation of the local Joliet penitentiary. The judge granted the request.
The judge specifically considered Johnson’s race in sentencing, something also which would be considered improper and unconstitutional today – a violation of the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment. Race is not a proper sentencing consideration. Judge George Carpenter said, “The circumstances in this case have been aggravating. The life of the defendant, by his own admissions, has not been at all a moral one. The defendant is one of the best known men of his race, and his example has been far reaching. The court is bound to take these facts into consideration in determining the sentence to be imposed. In this case the defendant shall be confined one year and one day in the Leavenworth penitentiary and that he shall pay a fine of $1,000.”
While his appeal was pending, Johnson left the country.
A little known fact is that on April 14, 1914, the federal Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit overturned Johnson’sconvictions on the prostitution counts, chastised the prosecution for improperly attempting to inflame the passions of the jury, and also stated that an atmosphere of prejudice pervaded the record. Yet, despite the fact that an atmosphere of prejudice pervaded the record, he was not afforded a re-trial on the immorality counts, the convictions for which the Court upheld.
The Court held that the mere fact that Johnson supplied Schreiber with sufficient money to enable her to open up and run a brothel after she arrived in Chicago was not enough, for it only raised suspicion regarding his intent at the time he provided her with the money for the train ride to Chicago. There were no supplementary facts. There was no proof that Johnson had been connected with or interested in brothels or ever had aided anyone to engage in prostitution. In fact, the Court held that the prostitution evidence was “slight and dubious.”
The Court criticized the government for its improper methods and tactics designed to inflame the jury’s passions in order to prejudice them against Johnson, and for not dismissing counts it knew it could not prove. Nothing justified the injection of collateral issues. The Court held that all of the improper questions and evidence “show the atmosphere of prejudice that pervades the record.” Hence, “When the situation thus improperly created is measured against the doubtfully sustainable prostitution counts, we are all convinced that defendant did not have a fair trial on that issue.”
Yet, despite the government’s improper inflammation of the jury’s passions, creating an atmosphere of prejudice which pervaded the record, the Court did not reverse the convictions on the sexual relations counts, for “the record demonstrates that, no matter how improperly the prejudices of jurors may have been aroused, no other verdict could properly have been reached.” Many folks, then and now, might strongly disagree. Johnson was entitled to have a fair trial with a decision made by an unbiased jury whose passions were not inflamed improperly against him. Such improperly inflamed passions easily could have affected the jury’s judgment on all counts, not just the ones involving prostitution. The Court ordered that he be re-sentenced on the immorality counts, without consideration of the prostitution counts.
Rather than return to the U.S. and be re-sentenced, Johnson decided to remain at large for several years. He lost his championship crown in 1915.
Although some folks like to reference Johnson’s alleged penchant for violence towards women, or allude to him being a pimp, he never was convicted of assaulting women (unless one considers an earlier conviction for “attempted” statutory assault, for which he was fined), nor was he ever convicted of being a pimp.
On July 20, 1920, a 42-year-old Jack Johnson returned to the U.S., surrendered to federal agents at the Mexican border, and was taken into custody. At his re-sentencing hearing on September 14, 1920, Judge George A. Carpenter once again sentenced Johnson to serve one year and a day at Leavenworth Prison and pay a $1,000 fine.
In January 1921, the Leavenworth Prison’s Parole Board unanimously recommended that Johnson be paroled.
However, on January 21, 1921, the Justice Department, at the behest of U.S. Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, denied parole, and Johnson was required to serve his full one-year term, less any required credits for time previously served. Palmer was the attorney general who in response to strikes, race riots, and fear of communism and anarchism, had created the General Intelligence Unit, which would be led by J. Edgar Hoover.
On July 9, 1921, a 43-year-old Jack Johnson was released from prison.
After a ten-year marriage, Lucille Cameron divorced Johnson in early 1924. In August 1925, Johnson married Irene Pineau, another white woman, to whom he remained married until his death.
Adam J. Pollack is the author of In the Ring With Jack Johnson – Part I: The Rise, and Part II: The Reign. His upcoming Black Man Versus the World: Jack Johnson’s Trials, Tribulations, and Triumphs, is set to be published later this year.