On Thursday, President Trump officially pardoned heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson.
Johnson, who was the first black heavyweight champion, was "arrested in 1912 with Lucille Cameron, who later became his wife, for violating the Mann Act," reports Reuters.
Section two of the Mann Act (also known as the White-Slave Traffic Act), which was passed on June 25, 1910, states in part (emphasis added):
That any person who shall knowingly transport or cause to be transported, or aid or assist in obtaining transportation for, or in transporting, in interstate or foreign commerce, or in any Territory or in the District of Columbia, any woman or girl for the purpose of prostitution or debauchery, or for any other immoral purpose, or with the intent and purpose to induce, entice, or compel such woman or girl to become a prostitute or to give herself up to debauchery, or to engage in any other immoral practice ... shall be deemed guilty of a felony, and upon conviction thereof shall be punished by a fine not exceeding five thousand dollars, or by imprisonment of not more than five years, or by both such fine and imprisonment, in the discretion of the court.
The alleged intent of the law was to prevent cross-state prostitution and human trafficking. However, the language of the law, specifically the portion that states "or for any other immoral purpose," was vague enough that the law was used inappropriately.
As History writes:
In 1917, the Supreme Court upheld the conviction of two married California men, Drew Caminetti and Maury Diggs, who had gone on a romantic weekend getaway with their girlfriends to Reno, Nevada, and had been arrested.
Following this decision, the Mann Act was used in all types of cases: someone was charged with violating the Mann Act for bringing a woman from one state to another in order to work as a chorus girl in a theater; wives began using the Mann Act against girls who ran off with their husbands.
The law was also used for racist purposes: Jack Johnson, heavyweight champion of the world, was prosecuted for bringing a prostitute from Pittsburgh to Chicago, but the motivation for his arrest was public outrage over his marriages to white women.
According to the BBC, when Johnson beat Jim Jeffries in 1910, "race riots erupted across the nation, claiming more than 20 lives."
In April, Trump tweeted about the possible pardon:
During Thursday’s ceremony, President Trump said:
Now, we all sort of have heard of Jack Johnson – had a very tough life and an interesting life. One of the greatest fighters ever in the early 1900s.
Today, as president, I've issued an executive grant of clemency, a full pardon posthumously to John Arthur "Jack" Johnson ... the first African-American heavyweight champion of the world.
A truly great fighter – had a tough life. They say he violated the Mann Act, and he had a conviction that occurred during a period of tremendous racial tension in the United States more than a century ago. Johnson served ten months in federal prison for what many view as a racially motivated injustice. He was treated very rough, very tough.
Born in 1878 in Galveston, Texas to former slaves, Johnson overcame difficult circumstances to reach the heights of boxing. One of the greatest that ever lived.
...In light of these facts and in recognition of his historical athletic achievements and the contributions to society – he really represented something that was both very beautiful and very terrible at the same time – I believe that Jack Johnson is a very worthy person to receive a full pardon, and in this case, a posthumous pardon.
So, 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 as a human being, and unfairly as a champion.
...It's about time.