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Expert Advisory: Possible Posthumous Pardon of Boxing Legend Jack Johnson

WHO: Theresa Runstedtler, AU Associate History Professor & Author of "Jack Johnson, Rebel Sojourner: Boxing in the Shadow of the Global Color Line" 

WHEN: Ongoing

WHERE: Via phone, email, Skype, or at American University, 4400 Massachusetts Ave. NW.

BACKGROUND: Congress has passed an education bill containing a provision for a presidential pardon of Jack Johnson, the world's first African-American black boxing heavyweight. It is now up to President Obama to grant the posthumous pardon.  

American University History Prof. Theresa Runstedtler, who believes the pardon is long overdue and should happen, says: "I am cautious about how this pardon can be used politically to bolster the argument that 'we're beyond race.' What Johnson's story has in common with the current moment is that he and his black contemporaries were criminalized for going about their daily lives. Until we recognize that this is an ongoing problem, the pardon will be an empty gesture."

An all-white jury convicted Johnson in 1913 of transporting a white girlfriend across state lines, under the Mann Act, a measure designed to stop the proliferation of immigrant prostitution.  

In a 2013 op-ed for The Feminist Wire, Runstedtler called for a pardon. 

From the op-ed: "Passed in 1910, the Mann Act barred the interstate transport of women for 'prostitution or debauchery' and 'other immoral purposes.' However its language was so vague that white prosecutors often used it as a political tool to punish black men who dared to fraternize with white women.

Infamous for his high-profile relationships with white women, Johnson had the book thrown at him in an era when laws prohibiting interracial marriage were the rule across much of the nation. Facing a 366-day prison sentence and a $1,000 fine, Johnson fled the country in protest, and spent the next seven years in exile abroad. When he finally returned in 1920, he still had to serve a 10-month sentence at Leavenworth Penitentiary."

In her book, "Jack Johnson, Rebel Sojourner: Boxing in the Shadow of the Global Color Line," Runstedtler, who studies black popular culture and black internationalism, traces Johnson's public challenges to white supremacy at home and abroad, providing the first in-depth exploration of Johnson's battles against the color line in places as far-flung as Sydney, London, Cape Town, Paris, Havana, and Mexico City. In relating this dramatic story, Runstedtler constructs a global history of race, gender, and empire in the early 20th century.

American University is a leader in global education, enrolling a diverse student body from throughout the United States and nearly 140 countries. Located in Washington, D.C., the university provides opportunities for academic excellence, public service, and internships in the nation’s capital and around the world.