On Pardons and Penance

Art Remillard

On December 4, 1912, pugilist Jack Johnson wed an eighteen-year-old prostitute by the name of Lucille Cameron. While her profession raised some eyebrows, her white skin sparked outrage from the likes of Georgia Representative Seaborne Roddenberry. Seven days after the ceremony, rather than sending a wedding gift, Roddenberry proposed a Constitutional ban on the “un-American and inhuman leprosy” of interracial marriage. Allowing such unions, he averred, “will bring annihilation to that race which we have protected in our land for all these years.”

Roddenberry drew from an American and Southern civil religious discourse that demanded white supremacy for the sake of social order. Civil religion is a complicated academic category. So for the sake of simplicity, let's just focus on social values, or as Robert Bellah put it, the normative standards that “indicate what is a good society, what is good social action, what are good social relations, what is a good person as a member of society.” In 1912, in the eyes of Rep. Roddenberry, Jack Johnson’s marriage was not a good social action, his marriage did not lend toward good social relations, and he was certainly not a good member of society. Others must have agreed, since Johnson was convicted for violating the Mann Act in 1913.

Today I discovered that Senator John McCain is seeking a posthumous pardon for Johnson. "I had admired Jack Johnson's prowess in the ring. And the more I found out about him, the more I thought a grave injustice was done." I like to think that McCain is doing an act of civil religious penance, a symbolic gesture meant to atone for the collective misdeeds of the past, and mark a new era where America's social values require racial justice. To be sure, the nation still has work to do when it comes to race. But this is a good sign.

If you're interested, here's a portion of Ken Burns's documentary, which played a significant role in getting the pardon-ball rolling.


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