(Bloomberg) -- President Donald Trump granted a full, posthumous pardon for Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight boxing champion, who was convicted of racially tinged federal morals charges more than a century ago.
Three hours after canceling a landmark summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, and minutes after rolling back major parts of the Dodd-Frank law, all while markets swirl over possible import tariffs on foreign cars, President Trump took a moment to account for what many Americans now consider a racist overreach by the government.
Trump signed a full posthumous pardon for Johnson while flanked by boxing royalty including Lennox Lewis, Deontay Wilder and Rocky himself, actor Sylvester Stallone. Trump last month credited Stallone for urging Johnson’s pardon.
“I am taking this very righteous step, I believe, to correct a wrong that occurred in our history and honor a truly legendary boxing athlete,” Trump told his guests. “Jack Johnson was not treated fairly and we have corrected that.”
Johnson was convicted under a law that prohibited the transport of women over state lines, called the Mann Act. The law was sometimes employed by racist authorities to punish black men who had relationships with white women; it was later amended to apply only to the transport of women for purposes of prostitution or illegal sex acts.
Johnson’s case has been derided for decades as shaky and motivated by racial animus toward the boxer, who defeated white opponents in the ring and enjoyed relationships with white women out of it.
He was heavyweight champion from 1908 to 1915. His reign included his knockout in 1910 of the so-called Great White Hope, former champion James J. Jeffries, which prompted race riots in dozens of U.S. cities.
The U.S. Department of Justice began investigating Johnson for violating the Mann Act almost from the time it was enacted in 1910, according to the 2004 documentary “Unforgivable Blackness.” An all-white jury convicted Johnson in 1913 after less than two hours of deliberations, and he was sentenced to a year and a day in prison.
Johnson died in 1946.
Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, has led an effort to win a pardon for Johnson since 2004. Former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat who once was an amateur boxer, also advocated for Johnson’s pardon. The Senate and House at various times have each passed resolutions urging a pardon for the Galveston, Texas-born fighter.
Trump’s previous pardons include Scooter Libby, former chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney, and former Maricopa County, Arizona, Sheriff Joe Arpaio.
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