Jeffries descendant backs pardon for Johnson
Associated Press Writer
RENO – A descendant of “Great White Hope” Jim Jeffries says he supports a posthumous presidential pardon for the man who whipped Jeffries in the “Fight of the Century” in Reno a century ago.
A pardon for Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight boxing champion, “would rectify the wrongs of the past,” Jeffries’ great-great nephew Gary Wurst told The Associated Press.
“Times have changed so much,” said Wurst, a 73-year-old accountant from Santa Clarita, Calif.
Wurst and several Johnson descendants gathered Friday at a Reno gala marking the centennial of the July 4, 1910, bout, and shook hands on stage.
“A moment long overdue,” emcee and broadcaster Al Bernstein said, noting Johnson and Jeffries did not shake hands before or after the historic bout on July 4, 1910.
Supporters of the pardon say Johnson’s conviction for transporting a woman across state lines for immoral purposes was steeped in the racism of the time. They say Johnson was unjustly imprisoned because of his romantic links to white women.
Johnson died in a car crash in 1946 at age 68. He had no children. Only one of his siblings, Janie Johnson Rhodes, did – and five of her descendants shook hands with Wurst.
“All of this is so overwhelming to us, that this fight was so significant,” said Linda E. Haywood, 54, of Chicago, Johnson’s great-great niece. “It never impacted us until now.”
The fight was perceived by many as a battle for racial supremacy at a time when racism was pervasive in the U.S., historians say.
Joseph Rickard Halprin, a grandson of the fight’s promoter and referee Tex Rickard, also voiced support for the pardon Friday.
“It seems like the right thing to do,” said Halprin, 45, of Hastings on Hudson, N.Y. “The woman (involved in the case) went with Johnson willingly. Hopefully, President Obama will do the right thing.”
At the urging of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., Congress last year passed a resolution urging Obama to issue the pardon.
McCain said he welcomed renewed support for the cause in Reno. He told the AP last month that he remains hopeful Obama will sign the pardon.
“I know the president, once he looks carefully at this issue, would want to correct a grave injustice done,” McCain said.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., a former boxer and avid fight fan, helped spearhead passage of the resolution. Johnson served nine months of a one-year and one-day prison sentence in 1920 after returning from exile overseas.
Asked whether Reid would press Obama to issue the pardon, Reid spokesman Jon Summers replied, “That is a decision for President Obama to make.”
Organizers of a tribute to the fight will gather today in Reno to ring the same bell used in 1910 at the site of the bout, now a metals salvage yard.