Updated: October 16, 2009, 6:38 PM EDT
WASHINGTON (AP) - Sen. John McCain on Friday pressed President Barack Obama to give a posthumous pardon to Jack Johnson, the black heavyweight boxing champion who was imprisoned nearly a century ago because of his romantic ties with a white woman.
Jack Johnson. (File / Associated Press)
McCain, R-Ariz., and Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., noted in a letter to Obama that both houses of Congress this summer passed their resolution urging a pardon. After the vote, the lawmakers wrote to Obama in August asking him to issue the pardon.
"Regrettably, we have not received a response from you or any member of your administration," they wrote in Friday's letter, adding they hoped that Obama would be eager to "right this wrong and erase an act of racism that sent an American citizen to prison."
The White House declined to comment on the letter.
When he unveiled the resolution in April, McCain said he was sure that Obama "will be more than eager" to issue the pardon. On Friday, McCain said he was still confident the president would do so.
"The president's been very, very busy," McCain said in a telephone interview with the Associated Press. "Hopefully, this letter will be a kind of reminder that it's important to get it done. But I'm not critical of the president yet. We'll give him some time."
The senator said he hasn't personally talked to Obama about the issue.
"The conversations that I've been having with him have been on Afghanistan," he said. "But we'll see what result we get from this letter."
Johnson became the first black heavyweight champion on Dec. 26, 1908 — 100 years before Obama was elected the first black president. Johnson won the title after police in Australia stopped his 14-round match against the severely battered Canadian world champion, Tommy Burns.
That led to a search for a "Great White Hope" who could beat Johnson. Two years later, Jim Jeffries, the American world titleholder Johnson had tried for years to fight, came out of retirement but lost in a match called "The Battle of the Century," resulting in deadly riots.
Johnson was convicted in 1913 of violating the Mann Act, which made it illegal to transport women across state lines for immoral purposes. He fled the country after his conviction, but agreed years later to return and serve a 10-month jail sentence.
Filmmaker Ken Burns helped form the Committee to Pardon Jack Johnson, which filed a petition with the Justice Department in 2004 that was never acted on. His 2005 documentary, "Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson," explored the case against the boxer and the sentencing judge's acknowledged desire to "send a message" to black men about relationships with white women.
McCain and King — both of whom have done their share of amateur boxing — pushed similar resolutions in recent years but only this year were able to get it through both chambers of Congress.