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Pardoned boxer Jack Johnson just ‘wanted to live well,’ Ken Burns says

President Trump granted a rare posthumous pardon to Jack Johnson, boxing's first African-American heavyweight champion. An all-white jury convicted him in 1913 of violating the federal Mann Act, which made it illegal to transport women across state lines for "immoral purposes." John Yang talks with filmmaker Ken Burns about Johnson’s and his legacy.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Today, President Trump granted a rare posthumous pardon to Jack Johnson, boxing's first African-American heavyweight champion.

    John Yang has more.

  • John Yang:

    Judy, in 1913 an all-white jury convicted Johnson of violating the federal Mann Act, which made it illegal to transport women across state lines for immoral purposes. The woman in question was Johnson's girlfriend, who was white.

    Johnson was heavyweight champ from 1908 to 1915. Outside the ring, he defied conventions by showing off his wealth, mocking white opponents and, perhaps most shocking for the times, dating and marrying white women.

    President Trump signed the pardon in the oval office.

    (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

  • President Donald Trump:

    I am taking this very righteous step, I believe, to correct a wrong that occurred in our history and to honor a truly legendary boxing champion, legendary athlete, and a person that when people got to know him, they really liked him and they really thought he was treated unfairly.

    (END VIDEO CLIP)

  • John Yang:

    The 2004 documentary "Unforgivable Blackness" tells the story of Jack Johnson and was directed by filmmaker Ken Burns, who joins us now on Skype.

    Ken, thanks so much for being here.

    You are one of those who were advocating for this pardon. What's your reaction now that it's a fact?

  • Ken Burns:

    This is the right thing to do, and I'm just so happy that John McCain, who really led us through a decade and a half in this, is going to live to hear about it. So I'm very, very thrilled at this posthumous pardon, and you have to understand it may be, I think, the only third posthumous pardon, all of them African-Americans, which tells you a little bit about race in America.

  • John Yang:

    You mentioned John McCain. What about the man who actually signed the pardon, President Trump?

  • Ken Burns:

    Well, you know, to me, this is something we have been advocating for, for an awfully long time. It's very interesting that Johnson's private life as you described was quite controversial and involved not just marrying and sleeping with whomever he wanted to, but also involved charges of violence, domestic violence. And so, there are some interesting things.

    The most important thing, I think, is it shines a light on the racism of that period but also I think the racism of our period where code words and racist remarks still sort of populate our speech, and it's — it is very, very harmful to an African-American man back then, Jack Johnson, who was the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world and arguably the greatest of all time, Muhammad Ali, or many in his camp thought he was, and whenever Ali sparred, they said ghost in the house, ghost in the house. But I think also for men of color today, who almost daily we hear an incident of these things happening.

    So, there's — the pardon begins to remind us, I believe, of how much work we have to do, and the fact that it really begins with each one of us if we're really going to change this dynamic and live out, as Dr. King said, the true meaning of our creed.

  • John Yang:

    Help us understand more about who Jack Johnson was, how he lived his life in those times, and how that sort of fit into his times.

  • Ken Burns:

    You can't believe that he wasn't assassinated. His reign from the mid aughts to '15, as you said, 1915, was a time when more — a decade when more African-Americans were lynched for looking sideways at a white woman, more often than not. And so, the fact he survived and the lifestyle that he carried and his greatness in the sport are — term the great white hope was invented for Jack Johnson when he beat Tommy Burns and won the heavyweight championship on boxing day in 1908, every white contender went after him, he beat them all.

    And on July 4, 1910, he beat the biggest of them all, the retired star Jim Jeffries who had never been defeated, knocked him out in Reno, Nevada, and there were white-on-black riots that killed a lot of African-Americans throughout the country with a white race terrified that this had some larger symbolism other than a man who, all his life, just wanted to be a man, and wasn't in anybody's cause, wasn't — didn't want to be a civil rights leader.

  • John Yang:

    Talk a little bit more about that, that he did not see himself as a leader of a movement. He — compare him to, say, Jackie Robinson or Muhammad Ali.

  • Ken Burns:

    Well, he's the one — Jackie Robinson is the one that comes to mind most frequently. Jackie Robinson did understand the larger role he was playing.

    Jack Johnson wanted to box. He wanted to make money. He wanted to sleep with whomever he wanted. He wanted to live the way he wanted to.

    And so, in some ways, he's a perfect American, but we also have added in our demands for heroism people to be more than that and I think Jackie Robinson realized and assumed the burden of what his symbolic act of trotting out to first base on April 15, 1947, meant for civil rights.

    Jack Johnson had no such qualms. He wanted to live well and he did.

  • John Yang:

    Filmmaker Ken Burns, thanks so much for being with us.

  • Ken Burns:

    My pleasure. Thank you.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And Ken Burns had a lot more to say about race relations then and now. You can find that and more on our website, PBS.org/NewsHour.

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