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.
Interesting article on political influence and DOJ shenanigans.