Pardon Jack Johnson

On the surface, it appeared to be a textbook example of a “no-brainer.” In July of 2009 both Houses of Congress passed a resolution urging Barack Obama, America’s first African-American president and symbol of racial progress, to pardon Jack Johnson, America’s first African-American heavyweight boxing champion and symbol of racial injustice.

In 1908 Johnson won the championship by defeating Tommy Burns, and soon used his celebrity status to condemn the racial mores of his day. This prompted calls for the boxing world to find a “great white hope” to defeat him. When these efforts failed, the United States government decided to target Johnson for engaging in sexual relationships with white women. During this era federal law enforcement officials often claimed they had no jurisdictional authority to investigate lynchings and other atrocities committed by white supremacists, yet they had little difficulty manufacturing such authority when it came to targeting prominent and outspoken African-Americans like Johnson. Convicted of violating the Mann Act—a law originally intended to penalize human trafficking for sexual purposes—Johnson was sentenced to “a year and a day,” and eventually served ten months in a federal prison. He died in a car accident in 1946.

Unfortunately, America’s so-called “justice” system is neither about truth nor justice. It is, to this day, a corrupt and hypocritical cesspool that silences, through criminal prosecutions, those who defy, attack or offend the political agendas of the power structure, while ignoring the criminality of those who serve its interests; thus the pardon process is simply a “fail-safe” designed to ensure that people protecting this structure will go unpunished, even when, through some quirk of fate, they are convicted of a crime.

For example, in recent years the United States “Justice” Department (DOJ) has been busily prosecuting comedian Tommy Chong for selling drug “paraphernalia,” “Max Hardcore” (aka Paul Little), an adult filmmaker, for distributing “obscenity,” two Ohio men for mailing adult videos to the repressive State of Utah, and the owners of an adult video company named “Extreme Associates.” In all these cases, federal prosecutors engaged in “venue shopping” to ensure the defendants would be tried in politically conservative communities, and/or in front of overtly biased judges. And, in all these cases, federal prosecutors trumpeted their respect for the “law” as justification for the prosecutions. Although this strategy initially backfired in one case, when a federal judge ruled that the anti-obscenity statutes used to indict the owners of “Extreme Associates” violated the United States Constitution, federal prosecutors successfully appealed to the Third Circuit Court, and the charges were reinstated.

Yet this alleged “respect for the law” was conspicuously absent in the following cases: there were no criminal trials for the Chicago police officers who extrajudicially executed Black Panther leader Fred Hampton in 1969; there were no prosecutions of CIA agents who facilitated the overthrow of the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende in Chile in 1973, and replaced it with the brutal military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet; there were no prosecutions of CIA agents for conspiring with members of organized crime to assassinate Fidel Castro; there were no prosecutions of FBI agents for training, and in some cases supplying weapons or ammunition to, vigilantes who were propping up a corrupt tribal government on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota during the 1970s; there was no federal prosecution of the FBI sniper who shot and killed the wife of Randall Weaver as she held her ten-month-old child in her arms; there were no prosecutions for the war crimes committed by members of the Bush dictatorship; and, except for convictions obtained by the government of Italy, no federal official or agent in the United States has been prosecuted for creating, advocating or using torture, rendition or illegal detention during Bush’s eight-year reign of terror. And, as if these examples weren’t enough, just a few days ago a federal judge dismissed all charges against five Blackwater security guards accused of killing seventeen Iraqi civilians in 2007.

I will be the first to acknowledge that reasonable minds can disagree about what impact, if any, drug “paraphernalia” or adult material may have on a society. What is painfully clear, however, is that America’s legal “system” incessantly prosecutes and imprisons consenting adults for manufacturing and/or selling materials to other consenting adults, yet it just as incessantly excuses or grants immunity to those who torture, maim and/or kill innocent or unarmed people at the system’s behest.

And America’s power structure calls this “justice.”

In fact, the architects of the Bush dictatorship’s torture policies are making out quite nicely: former “Justice” Department attorney John Yoo teaches law at the University of California, Berkeley; former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales teaches political science at Texas Tech—a university that recently fired its football coach for supposedly mistreating an injured player. Strange how an institution so sanctimoniously concerned about the alleged mistreatment of another human being had no problem hiring a man who endorsed the mistreatment of people on a global scale via waterboarding and other forms of torture; and, in what may epitomize the hypocrisy of America’s “legal system,” Jay Bybee, once a torture-endorsing “Justice” Department attorney who sought to shred the United States Constitution, now sits as a federal judge on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals “interpreting” this same Constitution.

Yet the “Justice” Department that produced Bybee, Gonzales and Yoo now opposes a presidential pardon for Jack Johnson.

One “reason” the DOJ gives for this opposition is that pardons should only be given to persons “who can truly benefit from a grant of the request.”

If that were only so. But far too often the persons who could truly benefit from presidential pardons are the ones least likely to get them.

One of America’s most sagacious, yet little known, founding fathers was George Mason. Mason’s obscurity is based largely upon the fact that he refused to sign the final draft of the United States Constitution because he feared that the document’s pardon and commutation authority would give corrupt presidents the ability to order subordinates to commit crimes and the power to pardon them for doing so.

History has shown that Mason’s concerns were justified when, in one of the most egregious abuses of presidential pardon authority in United States history, Richard Nixon’s handpicked successor Gerald Ford issued a blanket pardon for crimes Nixon may have committed during his presidency.

But there were other abuses as well: In 1981 Ronald Reagan pardoned two FBI agents, W. Mark Felt (later revealed to be the mysterious “Deep Throat” during the Watergate scandal) and Edward S. Miller, for crimes they committed during the FBI’s infamous COINTELPRO operation; George H.W. Bush pardoned three key players in “the Iran-Contra Affair”—Casper Weinberger, Robert C. McFarlane and Elliot Abrams; Bill Clinton pardoned his own brother; and George W. Bush commuted the sentence of Lewis “Scooter” Libby for his alleged involvement in leaking the name of a CIA agent whose husband had written an op-ed in The New York Times attacking some of the pretexts the Bush dictatorship used to justify the war against Iraq.

Yet pardons are rarely given to those who “could truly benefit” from them. Many victims of COINTELPRO have not been as fortunate as its instigators: Former Black Panther leader Elmer “Geronimo” Pratt, who was framed by the FBI for a 1968 murder he did not commit, wasn’t released from prison until 1997, sixteen years after Felt and Miller were pardoned. Other Panther/COINTELPRO targets still imprisoned and/or lacking state or federal pardons include Veronza Bowers Jr., Marshall Eddie Conway, Mondo we Langa (aka David Rice) and Edward Poindexter. Since 1993, the Nebraska Parole Board has recommended that Langa and Poindexter be released, but political officials have refused, even though, as the years have passed, it has become evident that they were prosecuted more for their leadership roles in the Black Panther Party than for any actual crime. This was underscored by the detective in charge of the Langa/Poindexter case, who stated in a 1990 BBC documentary, “I think we did the right thing at the time because the Black Panther Party . . . completely disappeared from Omaha [Nebraska] after we got the two main players.”

During Bill Clinton’s presidency, rumors surfaced that he was about to grant clemency to Leonard Peltier, a Native-American activist convicted of killing two FBI agents during the unrest on Pine Ridge Reservation. This prompted a protest by five hundred FBI agents and their families.

Like Pratt, Bowers, Conway, Langa and Poindexter, Peltier’s case graphically illustrates how so-called law enforcement agencies, like the FBI, can corrupt and intimidate the legal “system.” Although it is a crime to lie to FBI agents, it apparently isn’t a crime for them to lie whenever it serves their ends. Peltier was extradited from Canada on the basis of a perjured affidavit signed by a mentally challenged woman named Myrtle Poor Bear. Yet when Poor Bear was called to testify on behalf of Peltier about the intimidation tactics used to compel her signature, the presiding judge refused to allow it, duplicitously citing as a factor the very mental incompetence the FBI had exploited in the first place.

Although questions about Peltier’s guilt or innocence are unsettled, every day that he and other victims of COINTELPRO remain in prison is a day that spotlights how the corruption, perjury and manipulation of the legal “system” by law enforcement officials, on both the state and federal levels, will go unchallenged, even at the highest levels of government.

The second reason the DOJ opposes a pardon for Jack Johnson is because of a general “policy” against granting posthumous pardons, particularly since such pardons often require that the historical record be “scoured.”

But isn’t that precisely the reason for posthumous pardons, so records of past injustices can be cleansed and corrected? In 1977 Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis issued a proclamation stating that “any disgrace should be forever removed” from the names of Sacco and Vanzetti, two Italian immigrants executed in 1927; In 2003 comedian Lenny Bruce was posthumously pardoned by New York Governor George Pataki for a 1964 obscenity conviction; and in 2009 members of the South Carolina Board of Pardons and Paroles unanimously voted to grant pardons to Thomas and Meeks Griffin, two African-American men who were executed in 1915 for a murder they did not commit. Both men were great-uncles of radio personality Tom Joyner.

Such pardons have even occurred on the federal level, as demonstrated by President Bill Clinton who, in 1999, posthumously pardoned Henry O. Flipper, the first African-American cadet to graduate from West Point. Resented because of his race, Flipper had been dishonorably discharged from the military in 1882 for alleged offenses that merited only minor punishment when committed by white officers.

But there may be a third reason for Barack Obama’s reluctance to pardon Jack Johnson—a phenomenon I call the Soldier’s Story syndrome. Based on an Off-Broadway play, A Soldier’s Story is a movie about the mystery surrounding the murder of an African-American army sergeant in the racially segregated South during World War II. Although suspicion was initially cast upon white supremacists, it was later revealed that the sergeant’s own men had killed him in retaliation for the insults and abuse he had heaped upon them.

This abuse was inspired by the sergeant’s belief that the soldiers in his command were somehow responsible for the racism he encountered. Sadly, similar beliefs even exist today, as illustrated by the self-loathing antics of African-Americans like Larry Naves, Ward Connerly, Clarence Thomas and others of their ilk, who favor accommodation and appeasement of the racist power structure over challenge and change.

Naves is the Denver judge who decimated academic freedom, spit upon the Bill of Rights, ignored the rule of law, and nullified a jury’s verdict when he ruled against Ward Churchill, a former University of Colorado professor who was fired, not for advocating the destruction of the Constitution as in the cases of Yoo, Gonzales and Bybee, but for exercising his freedoms under it.

Connerly and Thomas are both ardent opponents of affirmative action policies that were developed to provide educational and employment opportunities to persons historically victimized by racial discrimination. Connerly has successfully campaigned to have anti-affirmative action initiatives placed on ballots in several states, and Thomas, in his rulings as a Supreme Court “justice,” has consistently joined his four racist colleagues, Scalia, Kennedy, Roberts and Alito, in dismantling existing affirmative action programs.

Thomas even went so far as to state that he intentionally took difficult courses while attending Yale Law School to prove to white students that his admission hadn’t simply been based upon race.

But why are Thomas, Naves and Connerly so obsessed about what white people think of them? After all, an intellectual lightweight like George W. Bush attended both Yale and Harvard because of his family’s name and wealth. And during the 1960s Dick Cheney, later to become Bush’s vice-president and principal instigator of the war against Iraq, was busily obtaining five deferments to avoid military service, even as African-Americans were disproportionately being sent to Vietnam. Yet does anyone sincerely believe that either of these two despicable men, or others like them, lost even a second of sleep wondering what African-Americans thought about them?

So is Barack Obama’s hesitancy to posthumously pardon Jack Johnson, or to pardon those still living like Bowers, Conway, Langa, Poindexter and Peltier, based upon concerns about how he will be viewed by white voters? If so, he should remember that people of all races elected him because they wanted a leader, not another politician. He should also remember the sentiments expressed by a member of the Board that pardoned Thomas and Meeks Griffin: “There’s no statute of limitations on doing the right thing.”

In closing, one more presidential action must be noted. In 1978 Jimmy Carter posthumously restored the citizenship of Jefferson Davis, the man who served as president of the Confederate States of America during the civil war. Yet had Davis’s side been victorious Jack Johnson might never have become the first African-American heavyweight champ, and Barack Obama might never have become the first African-American President of the United States.

If a man who defended slavery is entitled to posthumous consideration from a United States president, then why isn’t Jack Johnson?

David R. Hoffman
Legal Editor of

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Author`s name David R. Hoffman