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'100-year-old injustice'

Wire Report | 4/5/2013, noon
Boxing legend Jack Johnson

HOUSTON – (AP) – He was among the first black sports figures to unapologetically flaunt his prowess, to live life on his own terms and to refuse to be bullied by a racist white power structure and its oppressive laws.

And most historians agree that he paid the price for such autonomy.

Now, a full century later, relatives and hometown supporters of the nation's first black heavyweight boxing champion are turning to YouTube to convince President Barack Obama to posthumously pardon him of a 1913 conviction for accompanying a white woman across state lines.

Jack Johnson, nicknamed the "Galveston Giant" after his Texas hometown, was at the center of racial tensions after winning the title in 1908. When he defended his title by beating up white boxer Jim Jeffries in 1910, dubbed the "Fight of the Century," the victory sparked deadly race riots across the county.

Three years later, an all-white jury convicted him of violating a Jim Crow-era law that made it illegal to transport white women across state lines for "immoral purposes." He was sentenced to a year in prison.

His family and other supporters say he did nothing wrong and that the century-old conviction continues to tarnish Johnson's image. Lawmakers have asked for a pardon three times in the past decade, most recently in March, though none has been successful.

Former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson this week announced that he is launching a new campaign urging Obama to pardon Johnson. U.S. Senator Harry Reid, who called the case “a racially motivated criminal conviction,” and U.S. Sen. John McCain both have taken up the cause.

Tyson has now set up a petition on Change.org calling on fans to show their support for the issue.

In the call to arms, the fighter writes, “Let's show President Obama and the White House that we too care about Jack Johnson’s legacy by signing this petition. In doing so, we are also righting the legacy of our great country.”

The Justice Department, however, consistently has said that its general policy is not to process posthumous pardon requests, and the White House declined to comment on the most recent congressional resolution.

So last Sunday, to mark what would have been Johnson's 135th birthday, his relatives and supporters gathered in Galveston to honor him and record a video to go straight to Obama.

Leon Phillips, president of the Galveston County Coalition for Justice, which helped spearhead the effort, told reporters this week that the video adds another layer of support.

“Not only is it coming from Congress, but it will be coming from the citizens of the United States if we can just get everyone to click on that like button," he said. "President Obama's father could have been convicted of the same thing because he was married to a white woman and they traveled all over the world and from state to state."

Johnson's great-great niece, Linda Haywood, said Johnson was "railroaded" by authorities.

"I didn't know the man was my uncle until I was 12 years old, that's how ashamed my family was of the fact that he went to prison,” Haywood said in the video. “A pardon would erase the shame and the stigma and allow us to hold our heads up high because we know what a great man he was.”

"I'm asking President Obama as the first black, African-American president to give my uncle a pardon," she said. "A lot of times when he would come to his sister's house or his mother's house, he had to sneak at night with his white girlfriend or his wife because of the times that they lived in."

Authorities first targeted Johnson's relationship with Lucille Cameron, who later became his wife, but she refused to cooperate. They then turned to his former mistress, a prostitute named Belle Schreiber, to testify that Johnson had paid her train fare from Pittsburgh to Chicago, for immoral purposes.

Johnson skipped bail and fled the country following his conviction, but in 1920 he agreed to return and serve his sentence.

So far, the YouTube video hasn't had too many hits. But Haywood and other relatives are determined to get a pardon to clear Johnson's name.

"The color of your skin should not determine who you, or how you, love," Haywood said in the video.