President Donald Trump pardoned black boxing icon Jack Johnson Thursday, posthumously nullifying the heavyweight champion’s conviction handed down by an all-white jury for an interracial relationship more than 100 years ago.
Johnson’s story was brought to Trump’s attention in recent months by actor Sylvester Stallone, who famously played the scrappy underdog boxer Rocky Balboa in the “Rocky” film series. Trump tweeted in late April that he was considering a full pardon for Johnson.
“At the end of the day this isn’t about Trump, this isn’t about the petitions,” the 62-year-old told NBC News in and interview from her home in Chicago. “This about history being re-written and righting a wrong and clearing my uncle’s name.”
Johnson is a legendary figure in boxing, whose meteoric rise and controversial prison sentence made him a symbol of racial injustice and led to numerous biographies, films and documentaries of his life over the decades.
He was born in Galveston, Texas, in 1878 as the son of former slaves and from an early age he showed a propensity for boxing, often competing in — and winning — numerous underground prizefighting matches across the country during his life.
When he finally made it into mainstream boxing, he was often jeered by white spectators during fights with white opponents, with many hurling racial slurs and vicious death threats at Johnson. However, the taunts never seemed to phase Johnson as he often delighted in humiliating his challengers in the ring.
He was also not coy about flaunting his wealth and his fondness for dating white women, which during America’s Jim Crow era was illegal and tantamount to a death sentence.
Screenwriter and author John Ridley once called Johnson “a guy who basically lived his life with a metaphorical middle finger raised in the air.”
Though Johnson’s boxing profile grew and he put more wins under his belt, many white boxers still refused to fight Johnson.
However, onlookers often sought for “the great white hope” that would eventually defeat Johnson. In 1908, at age 30, he became the first black boxer to win the world heavyweight title when he defeated Australian Tommy Burns, the reigning champion.
But it was his 1910 bout Jim Jeffries, a white boxer who held the heavyweight title before Burns, that arguable sealed Johnson’s legacy as a boxing champion. It was dubbed the “Fight of the Century,” where more than 22,000 spectators turned out for the fight in Reno, Nevada. Johnson defeated Jeffries in the 15th round.
However, two years later he was convicted under the White Slave Traffic Act, also known as the Mann Act, for crossing state lines with his white girlfriend Lucille Cameron.
“The search for the ‘white hope’ not having been successful, prejudices were being piled up against me, and certain unfair persons, piqued because I was champion, decided if they could not get me one way they would another,” Johnson once said, according to the PBS documentary “Unforgivable Blackness.”
Haywood, his neice, said for years her family was ashamed because they viewed the conviction as an unjust stain on his legacy.
“It wasn’t a secret,” she said. “They were just very ashamed that he was incarcerated for something he didn’t do.”
She added, “We always knew that he was unfairly convicted and it was a lot of people who were very distraught.”
“At the time the family was powerless and voiceless and when the white man tells you that’s the way it is what can you do?”
Johnson’s story was adapted into the 1967 play “The Great White Hope,” starring James Earl Jones, which was later adapted into a film. The play went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for drama and a Tony Award for best play in 1969. The film was nominated for multiple Academy Awards, including best actor for Jones.
Haywood told NBC News that at the time the family strongly objected to how Jackson’s likeness and life story were portrayed in the film, calling it misleading.
Jackson’s story was also the basis for the documentary “Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson,” which was directed by Ken Burns and aired on PBS in 2004, which Haywood said was a more accurate portrayal of her uncle’s life.
Haywood also led the charge to clear her uncle’s name with speeches, petitions and even worked to push the Bush and Obama administrations to pardon her uncle.
She also recieved support from Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who has pushed for a pardon since 2004.