Commentary: Jack Johnson should get pardoned

The (Raleigh) News & ObserverApril 7, 2009 

William Faulkner, the South's best writer, said it best: "The past isn't dead. It isn't even past."

More than 60 years after former heavyweight boxing champ Jack Johnson was pronounced dead at St. Agnes Hospital in Raleigh after a car crash, he and it are back in the news. Sen. John McCain and Rep. Peter King of New York introduced a bill last week seeking a presidential pardon of Johnson's conviction under the Mann Act, a nonsensical law passed because of him to prohibit men – OK, him – from traveling across state lines to have sex with women. The pardon would begin to rehabilitate the image of one of the most fascinating, reviled Americans to ever live and a hero of mine.

St. Agnes Hospital, reportedly the only hospital that would treat Johnson, is on the verge – one hopes – of its own rehabilitation. After it has sat on the edge of the St. Augustine's College campus for decades, like a stone carcass that's been picked bare, efforts are under way, yet again, to breathe life into the building. For decades, everybody who was anybody in black Raleigh was born there, as was anybody who was nobody.

The hospital is most renowned, though, for the man who died there. I've spent hours over the years parked in front of the building, gazing at it in an attempt to get inspiration for a Jack Johnson play I'm writing.

Johnson died June 10, 1946, after a car crash on Old U.S. 1 in Franklinton. He had, reportedly, just been denied service at a whites-only restaurant there and angrily sped away. It's never been determined whether he was denied admittance to other hospitals because of his race, but by the time he reached St. Agnes, he was too far gone. The next day, The News & Observer reported, the attending physician said Johnson, 68, died of "internal injuries and shock."

That's ironic, because Johnson spent much of his life shocking the country.

To read the complete column, visit www.newsobserver.com.

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