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Fighting for the legacy of boxing champ Jack Johnson

Boxing was a segregated sport when John Arthur “Jack” Johnson started.

Boxing was a segregated sport when John Arthur “Jack” Johnson started.

He was born in 1878 in Galveston, Texas, the first son of two former slaves. His parents made sure he and all five siblings learned how to read and write. A true trailblazer, Johnson eventually made his way on to the boxing circuit and won the World Colored Heavyweight Championship in 1903. Five years later, on the day after Christmas--Boxing Day, coincidentally--Johnson became the first African-American boxing heavyweight champion of the world, defeating Canadian Tommy Burns in Sydney, Australia.

That all changed in 1913. “No one could beat Jack Johnson in the ring, and so they cornered him in the courtroom,” msnbc’s Lawrence O’Donnell said on The Last Word.

An all-white jury threatened Johnson’s legacy by convicting him under a Jim Crow-era law, the Mann Act, of illegally taking a woman across the state lines for “immoral purposes.” Johnson testified that he and the woman were merely friends. Still, he was thrown in jail for a year.

A bi-partisan group of lawmakers are continuing their fight to restore Johnson’s good name. Last week, Senators Harry Reid, John McCain, William “Mo” Cowan and Representative Peter King  introduced a resolution to pardon Johnson, 100 years after his conviction. This has been an ongoing battle:  since 2004, McCain and King have been introducing legislation to pardon Johnson .

McCain said, "We can never completely right the wrong perpetrated against Jack Johnson during his lifetime, but this pardon is a small, meaningful step toward acknowledging his mistreatment before the law and celebrating his legacy of athletic greatness and historical significance."

“Jack Johnson was a legendary competitor who defined an era of American boxing and raised the bar for all American athletics,” said Reid, himself a former boxer. “Johnson's memory was unjustly tarnished by a racially-motivated criminal conviction, and it is now time to recast his legacy. I am pleased to work with my colleagues in both the Senate and House to formally restore Johnson’s name to the full stature and dignity he deserves.”

Both Houses have passed it unanimously under President Bush and President Obama, but neither president took action on a formal pardon.

“President Obama has never said why he didn't pardon Jack Johnson when Congress unanimously asked him to do so. The senators and congressmen pushing this pardon are apparently hoping that a re-elected President Obama sees this differently than he did in his first term,” said O’Donnell. “One hundred years after Jack Johnson's conviction in court, justice for the first African-American heavyweight champion is up to the first African-American president.”