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, PBS NEWSHOUR CORRESPONDENT: 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) DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:
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) 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, DOCUMENTARY FILMMAKER: 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. YANG: You mentioned John McCain. What about the man who actually signed the
pardon, President Trump? 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. YANG: Filmmaker Ken Burns, thanks so much
for being with us. BURNS: My pleasure. Thank you. 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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