WASHINGTON - Sen. John McCain and Rep. Peter King, who lost their last attempt to win a presidential pardon for the first black heavyweight champion, Jack Johnson, are looking for a rematch.
The two GOP lawmakers reintroduced a congressional resolution urging President Barack Obama to pardon Johnson, who was imprisoned nearly a century ago because of his romantic ties with a white woman.
A similar resolution passed both houses of Congress in 2009, but the president gave it a TKO by refusing to act on it. Although Obama didn't comment publicly on the effort, the Justice Department told McCain and King that its general policy is not to process posthumous pardon requests.
In a statement, McCain, R-Ariz., said that he and King, R-N.Y., were reintroducing the resolution "to send a clear message to rectify this unacceptable historical injustice."
"A full pardon would not only shed light on the achievements of an athlete who was forced into the shadows of bigotry and prejudice, but also allow future generations to grasp fully what Jack Johnson accomplished against great odds," McCain said.
The White House declined to comment on the resolution.
King and McCain have both sparred in the ring and are lifelong boxing fans.
In a telephone interview, King said he hadn't talked to the White House but that perhaps he and McCain could sit down with Obama to make a personal appeal. He said there's a lot of symbolism of a white politician — McCain, the GOP's presidential nominee in 2008 — losing a race to the first black president, and then asking that president to issue a pardon to the first black heavyweight champion.
King conceded that he didn't know if the effort would have any more success this time.
"I just believe in doing this," he said. "We owe it to the sport of boxing and the memory of Jack Johnson to pursue this. It transcends sports. This is a sad moment in history that has to be corrected. John and I think, just keep trying. The president may look at it differently now."
The resolution, which references the 2009 congressional vote calling for the pardon, says a pardon should be issued "to expunge a racially motivated abuse of the prosecutorial authority of the federal government from the annals of criminal justice in the United States; and in recognition of the athletic and cultural contributions of Jack Johnson to society."
Johnson, a native of Galveston, Texas, inflamed white sensibilities with his flamboyant lifestyle and relationships with white women. Racial resentment boiled over after he defeated a white boxer in the "Fight of the Century" 100 years ago last summer. Three years later, Johnson was convicted of violating the Mann Act, which made it illegal to transport women across state lines for immoral purposes.
In their efforts to prosecute Johnson, authorities first targeted Johnson's relationship with Lucille Cameron, who later became his wife, but she refused to cooperate. They then found another white witness, Belle Schreiber, to testify against him. Johnson fled the country after his conviction, but he agreed years later to return and serve a 10-month jail sentence.