Wednesday, October 21, 2009

How do we rectify past racial slights?

I’m sure there are going to be people who will try to make an issue of the fact that Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., is willing to see a black man receive a pardon for a criminal conviction that clearly was racially motivated, only to have the first non-Anglo president turn it down.

That is the position that President Barack Obama finds himself in with regards to Jack Johnson, one of the great boxers of the early 20th Century whose presence ticked off much of white America because Johnson was a black man who felt no need to have to kow-tow to Anglo society.

SPECIFICALLY, JOHNSON DID a 10-month prison term for a violation of the Mann Act, which was a law meant to prevent women from being abducted and taken elsewhere for sexual purposes.

In Johnson’s case, he found a consenting adult female who happened to be white (and who later married him). Which was his real “crime” in this case. He did that 10 months in prison for not sticking with “his own kind.” This prison term came at a time when he was a defending boxing champion, and it threw his athletic career offstride as he had to spend much of what should have been the prime of his athletic career boxing in the Caribbean instead.

Now some people will try to argue that we shouldn’t be trying to judge the past by our contemporary standards. Miles Davis did the complex, not easy listening soundtrack album to the 1970 documentary film about the life of boxer Jack Johnson, which is a complex story not easy to listen to in and of itself.

But McCain, Obama’s opponent in the 2008 presidential election who fancies himself a boxing fan, has touted this idea before.

IN FACT, HE has gone so far as to get his Senate colleagues to overwhelmingly back a resolution that urges the president to approve a pardon for Johnson, who died in 1946.

Personally, I don’t have a problem with a pardon. Nobody with any common sense would argue that Johnson committed any act that deserved to be a crime, for that very law was often used by local officials to justify getting at people whose presence was an annoyance.

Keep in mind that several decades later, rock ‘n’ roller Chuck Berry had his musical career sidetracked by a conviction of the very same Mann Act – and for the very same act as Johnson.

But it is for that very reason that I am a little hesitant to just automatically say that Obama should sign the pardon and allow McCain to have a moment of glory by claiming he influenced officials to undo a racial wrong of the past.

BECAUSE IT WASN’T just Johnson who was wronged in the past. As I just noted, Berry also got hit with the same legal action and did his jail time back in the early 1960s for having relations with white women who weren’t the least bit objecting.

While some can argue that changing musical tastes throughout the years would have sent Berry’s career downhill after the 1950s, it can’t be argued that the jail term threw him off-track rather quickly.

What I fear is that some people are going to be inclined to think that by giving Johnson a posthumous pardon, all of the racially inspired injustices of the past have suddenly all been rectified.

Would it be right for Johnson to have to represent all of black America in taking a pardon for every black man who suffered in the criminal justice system just because some white person was offended by their existence at a particular moment?

AND WOULD IT really mean all that much for Johnson to receive that pardon some six-plus decades after his death?

Yet I can also appreciate how difficult it would be to go through the rolls of criminal cases throughout the United States (not just the South, even though some of us would like to think bigotry was restricted there – it wasn’t) and try to undo every single case where a black person was wronged.

It’s not like Johnson is in the situation of boxer Muhammad Ali, who at least was alive and capable of resurrecting his athletic career when his own racially-motivated criminal conviction was overturned by the Supreme Court of the United States.

Obama’s aides have been reluctant to say what they will do with the Johnson pardon request, which on the surface would be a hard one for him to deny.

I CAN ALREADY hear in my mind Rush Limbaugh, fresh off of being denied the chance to sit in the stands at St. Louis Rams football games and claim himself to be an owner, trying to use the issue to say on his radio program that McCain is the champion of racial justice and Obama is somehow a bigot.

Those of us with sense would dismiss such trash talk as cheap political rhetoric. But there will be those in today’s politicized environment who won’t want to let it go.

I would hope that if Obama does go ahead and grant the Johnson pardon, he somehow manages to use those rhetorical skills he possesses to let us know that the Scales of Justice aren’t suddenly balanced out because of this one action.

He’d have to make it pretty clear that the degree to which this nation’s racial situation was out of whack in the past was so severe that it can never truly be pardoned.

OF COURSE, THAT kind of statement (no matter how true) will offend some people in our society because they’re the ones who want to believe that a single stroke of a president’s pen can somehow erase the negative portions of our nation’s history.

Which is the real reason some people are anxious to have this particular pardon approved. They’d rather give up a token gesture to a deceased black man than do anything of substance to those who are still living.


EDITOR’S NOTES: Jack Johnson picked up his boxing skills in part by spending his early days ( in Chicago and later owned a nightclub in the Second City.

Is Johnson going to become the centerpiece of the 2009 confrontation ( between Barack Obama ( and John McCain?

Some people want to view Johnson’s actions as potentially worthy of a (,_unnecessary_intersection_of_sports_and_society) criminal conviction.

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