Donald Trump and Jack Johnson Would Have Despised One Another

Donald Trump and Jack Johnson Would Have Despised One Another

Donald Trump and Jack Johnson Would Have Despised One Another

Who is Trump to “pardon” anyone, least of all Jack Johnson?


Donald Trump is a racist and a bigot. He has a fifty-year history that demonstrates this time and time again. I could write—as so many have—yet another scroll-length listing of the man’s racial perversions, from housing discrimination to his promotion of the racist birther theory to his equivocation on condemning the Klan in Charlottesville to his reference just this week to “breeding” when discussing immigration. But at this point if you still need proof of his gutter politics, then you either don’t care or are sympathetic to the ideology he has mainstreamed and we are just wasting each other’s time.

It is Trump’s own history and politics that explain why it took people aback over the weekend when Trump tweeted that he was considering a “pardon” of the first black heavyweight champion Jack Johnson. The great Jack Johnson was an anti-racist hero a century ago who first had to flee the country and then spent time in prison for crossing state lines with a white woman. In an ugly era of ascendent white supremacy, the charges were racist payback for Johnson’s—in the words of W.E.B. DuBois—“unforgivable blackness.”

On Saturday, Trump tweeted, “Sylvester Stallone called me with the story of heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson. His trials and tribulations were great, his life complex and controversial. Others have looked at this over the years, most thought it would be done, but yes, I am considering a Full Pardon!”

(It’s worth noting that exoneration for Johnson has been a quixotic project of John McCain since 2004, and Trump giving the credit to Stallone instead of McCain as McCain battles brain cancer is just more evidence, as if needed, of Trump’s cruel pettiness.)

I have written before why I think this government lacks the ethical standing to either exonerate or pardon Johnson seventy-two years after his death. In January 2017, I wrote at The Nation: 

Jack Johnson is too important a historical figure to be used as a prop by right-wing politicians Johnson lived a rebel’s life, and his persecution by this government is precisely part of what makes him such a powerful symbol of resistance to this day. He was both brash and uncompromising in an era when public lynchings against black men took place on weekly basis. We are a country that just used the political tool of 18th and 19th century slaveholders—the Electoral College—to elect a white-supremacy sympathizer even though he received three million fewer votes than his opponent. This is a sick system, and it lacks the moral authority to pardon Jack Johnson for any reason other than its own public relations. It’s not for us to forgive Jack Johnson. The opposite is the case.

This is all still the case. Yet what is even more repellent today is the thought that Donald Trump would be the one to “pardon” Johnson. First and foremost, a “pardon” means that Johnson did something wrong and that guilt must be acknowledged. The language should be that of exoneration. Second, Donald Trump not only lacks the credibility to either pardon or exonerate Jack Johnson—he does not even have the moral standing to have Jack Johnson’s name in his mouth. This is Donald Trump, who still believes the exonerated Central Park 5 to be guilty. Just ask yourself what Donald Trump would be saying if he were around in Jack Johnson’s heyday.

As Grand Valley State Professor Louis Moore, author of the book I Fight for a Living’: Boxing and the Battle for Black Manhood, 1880-1915, said to me,

100 plus years ago, Trump would have hated Jack Johnson. He’d hate him for his independence. His very existence challenged what white men like Trump believed. Trump would be just like those other politicians, scheming ways to go after Johnson. In Johnson’s day, the same white politicians that tried to stop him from fighting, also turned a blind eye to lynchings. They are the same politicians, like Trump, who demanded that black men die, for supposed crimes, even if they were innocent.

It’s understandable why Jack Johnson’s relatives want his name cleared. It also should be more than understandable why Donald Trump is not the person to do it. Donald Trump would have despised Jack Johnson, and the feeling would have been very mutual.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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