The growing federal sex trafficking case against prominent Trump apologist Matt Gaetz, a right-wing Florida congressman accused of luring underage girls across state lines, has an unexpected connection to the black history.
The charges Gaetz may face are based on a law, the Mann Act, first rolled out to unfairly prosecute Jack Johnson, the world’s first black heavyweight boxing champion.
Johnson’s persecution under this broader measure reveals more than the troubled history of racial anxiety in the United States. His saga is a first data point in our national review of the criminal justice system. Jack Johnson is part of a long line of black Americans who have challenged the status quo only to find themselves prosecuted by the law.
Johnson drew condemnation for openly dating white women, some of them of dubious virtue, three of whom he was to marry. In Chicago, he opened a co-ed nightclub – Café de Champion – doubling down on his detractors’ chief complaint.
This was the era of public lynchings, when displays of vigilante violence enforced racial apartheid. American audiences in the emerging film industry watched “Birth of a Nation” portray race relations as de facto rape. Black people, and especially black men, were both economic and romantic threats to American patriarchy before World War I in 1910. Jim Crow had settled across America.
Johnson’s lawsuit came more than a decade before an innocent remark by a black teenager to a white girl in his elevator sparked a racial massacre in Tulsa, two decades before Billie Holiday sang “Strange Fruit,” a chilling evocation of the lynching, and 45 years before Chicago teenager Emmett Till, while visiting family in Mississippi, was brutally murdered for an imaginary whistle to a white woman.
At the height of Johnson’s boxing career, Chicago-based U.S. Attorney Edwin Sims was waging a war against the “white slave trade.” In a self-published treatise on the subject, Sims described himself as “the most dreaded man of all white slave traders.” Sims argued that Congress should let federal agents, a precursor to the FBI, fight interstate human trafficking. The 481-page booklet suggested the legislative language of what would become the Mann Act.
Chicago Congressman James R. Mann chaired a powerful committee on interstate commerce. For more than six months in 1910, Mann quickly signed into law his namesake bill. The Congressional Record immortalizes Sims’ influence on the Mann Act debate, which appears under the title: White-Slave Traffic.
Two years earlier, before Mann pushed his legislation through Capitol Hill, Jack Johnson won his first heavyweight title, easily knocking out Canadian Tommy Burns. Johnson fought Burns after years calling for a title fight against defending champion Jim Jeffries, who had retired rather than fight a black man. In 1910, Jeffries, the first so-called “Great White Hope”, came out of retirement to lose to Johnson in an outdoor fight in Reno, Nevada attended by thousands. Riots broke out when Johnson’s hand was raised in victory.
Two years later, Sims launched an investigation into Johnson’s race dealings and made the boxer the first defendant to face Mann Act charges. By then, Congressman Mann had been elevated to House Minority Leader.
In retrospect, Johnson’s charges in 1912 should come as no surprise. The federal prosecutor handling the case was Sims’ protege, Assistant U.S. Attorney Harry Parkin. After Johnson’s conviction, Parkin’s twisted judgment was quoted in The Indianapolis Freeman newspaper: “This Negro, in the eyes of many, has been persecuted. Perhaps as an individual he was. But it was his misfortune to be the first example of evil in permitting the intermarriage of whites and blacks.
For Sims and Parkin, Johnson appeared as a threat to the order received. He walked onto the world stage confident and strong, dressed fresh and often with a white woman on his arm. He refused to accept the economic and social restrictions imposed on blacks. His shameless disregard for contemporary racial norms is why Ken Burns’ documentary “Unforgivable Blackness” would describe Johnson as “the most famous and notorious African American on earth.”
But the problem with Sims’ accusations was that Johnson was not involved in human trafficking. On the contrary, the mother of his future wife, Lucille Cameron, complained to the police about her daughter’s consensual relationship with a black man. It was all the excuse prosecutors needed to prosecute Johnson.
The case would fall apart when Cameron refused to cooperate. But, in 1913, Johnson was again arrested and charged. The 1913 trial was overseen by Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis – the future baseball commissioner who kept blacks from playing major league diamonds throughout his career. The boxer was found guilty after an alleged prostitute testified about incidents that occurred before the Mann Act was passed.
Similarly, bogus Mann Act charges would later be brought against people like brash black musician Chuck Berry and would-be communist Charlie Chaplin.
In recent years, the use of the law has moved closer to its original purpose. The Mann Act helped convict rapper R. Kelly, who used his position in the music industry to seduce and bully teenage girls. Ghislaine Maxwell, accomplice of serial attacker Jeffrey Epstein, was also convicted under the law.
Congress twice amended the Mann Act to remove the overt moral standard that was abused when Jack Johnson was indicted. And Johnson was even pardoned by Donald Trump in a cynical attempt to use this troubled history for political gain.
Despite his posthumous pardon, Johnson’s life passed without corrective action. Sentenced to a year in prison, Johnson fled the United States to live abroad, fighting boxing matches to support himself for seven years. Finally, after exhausting all resources and struggling wearily, he returned to the United States in 1920 to serve his full sentence in Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary in Kansas.
In 1946 Johnson died at age 68 after a car accident. He had hit a telegraph pole in a high-speed collision after driving angrily away from an isolated North Carolina restaurant that refused to serve him – a final blow of injustice to bring down the champion.
But neither the Mann Act nor his prison sentence could stop Johnson from making his own choices: He was buried in Graceland Cemetery in Chicago next to his white wife.