Jack Johnson was the first African American to become world heavyweight boxing champion in 1908, and was nicknamed "the Galveston Giant." In his time, was known for boldly embarrassing white fighters and for openly showcasing his affection for white women.
The latter tendency landed him in jail, and now, nearly 10 decades after his death, his great-great-niece, Linda E Haywood, wants President Donald Trump to clear the champion’s name with a posthumous pardon, the Associated Press reports.
Johnson's legal woes began in 1913, when he was sentenced to jail for violating the Mann Act, which made it illegal for a man to take a woman across state lines for "immoral" reasons.
Johnson traveled extensively, and was known to do so in the company of white women. After being convicted, he fled the country for seven years, before returning and turning himself into the authorities. He spent a year in prison before being released.
Muhammad Ali would often speak of how Johnson inspired him, and how he felt his own lauded courage paled in comparison to Johnson's.
“They had lynchings and rapings and burnings and every time he’d fight they’d lynch Negroes and burn houses," Ali said "This man was told if you beat this white man we’re going to shoot you from the audience. He said well just shoot my black so-and-so because I’m a knock him out … Here’s a Negro during the time you’d be lynched for looking at white ladies. He’d walk down the street and left the country with them. He was bold. … He had to be a courageous man.”
Haywood says that her family wasn't quite as in awe of Johnson.
"They were ashamed of him, that he went to prison," she said. "They were led to believe that he did something wrong. They were so ashamed after being so proud of him. The white man came and told them that he did something wrong, he did something dirty and they painted him out to be something that he wasn’t.”
Recalling the downcast faces family members would get when Johnson's name was brought up, Haywood said she began fighting for his name to be cleared during the George W. Bush administration.
She was joined in that fight by Senator John McCain (R-AZ) in 2004.
“Jack Johnson was a boxing legend and pioneer whose career and reputation were ruined by a racially charged conviction more than a century ago," McCain said. "Johnson’s imprisonment forced him into the shadows of bigotry and prejudice and continues to stand as a stain on our national honor.”
Haywood failed to have the second Bush pardon Johnson, and tried again during President Barack's administration.
“In terms of Jack Johnson, I think the Department of Justice came back recommending — not recommending a pardon on that,” Obama press secretary Robert Gibbs said in 2009.
Having been unsuccessful during the Obama administration as well, Haywood now hopes that the Trump administration will be able to help clear her great-great uncle's name.
“The last thing you want to do is die and have your name tarnished," Haywood said. "That’s wrong."