The Twisted Tale of a Racist Law Still on the Books

Mann Act Jack Johnson
Heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson is seen with his first wife Etta. In 1913, an all-white jury took less than two hours to convict Johnson under the Mann Act. Elmer Chickering/Library of Congress

A federal law passed in 1910, first designed to tackle the supposed scourge of "white slavery" that threatened the moral base of a rapidly changing America, is back in the news again. And, of course, Donald Trump is in the middle of it all.

The Mann Act has been used in many ways over the more than a century that it's been on the books. Lately, some of those ways have been legitimate. But the law also has been abused at times by zealous prosecutors and an overreaching government. The most nefarious example of that came in 1913, when heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson was charged with, and eventually found guilty of, violating the law.


The legislation was crafted as an anti-prostitution, interstate commerce law that made it illegal to cross state lines with women and girls "for the purpose of prostitution or debauchery, or for any other immoral purpose." It was sponsored by Illinois congressman James Robert Mann at a time when the United States was wrestling with an unprecedented influx of immigrants — mostly from Europe — and a wave of migration from rural areas into growing, bustling, job-needy cities.

Many legislators (you can read that as "old white men") feared that those factors — the immigration, the migration, foreigners mixing with established Americans in big cities — would endanger young white women moving away from their rural homes. These women and girls could be forced, it was thought, into prostitution or other illegal acts. They could be shipped to other big cities and never heard from again. The threat of "white slavery" was born.


Seduced Into Prostitution?

"It was a widespread worry. I think people thought that young girls were moving from the countryside into the city and encountering bad people and being seduced into prostitution. And that did happen," says Jane Dailey, author of "The Age of Jim Crow: A Norton Documentary History," and a professor at the University of Chicago. "[But] it was more of what historians would call a 'moral panic.' Worrying about something that actually isn't a big problem.

"When people worry about that, that tells you something about what they're thinking, what their emotional state is."


Into that milieu came Johnson, a brash, showboating son of slaves who fought his way into the public consciousness as the first African-American heavyweight champion. In 1910, in a bid to reassert white supremacy in the realm of boxing, former world heavyweight champion Jim Jeffries (aka the Great White Hope) — who had quit the sport years earlier because he didn't want to face Johnson — came out of retirement for what was dubbed as the "Fight of the Century."

In front of a crowd of 20,000 in Reno, Nevada, Johnson drubbed Jeffries, punching him to the canvas three times in the 15th round — the first time Jeffries had ever been knocked down — to win his title.

Johnson's victory sparked race riots throughout the nation and it was, many believe, instrumental in his eventual prosecution under the Mann Act.

"There is a racial dimension to this law, and it's really important to recognize that," says Jessica Pilley, a history professor at Texas State and author of "Policing Sexuality: The Mann Act and the Making of the FBI." "In the hands of congressmen, what they're really thinking [in 1910] is that they are protecting what one congressman calls the ... 'daughters of America.' So they are envisioning this as a law that is going to protect native-born white girls, not so much necessarily immigrant girls."


Nailing Jack Johnson

The new undisputed world heavyweight champion had not only beaten "The Great White Hope," he lived in a way that infuriated much of white America. Johnson sported an ever-present smile with gold caps on his teeth and a not-so-private life that included very public displays of his growing wealth. He also was married twice, both times to white women. It was an affair with a Chicago prostitute — another white woman — that finally gave law enforcement officials a chance to nail the champ.

Under the Mann Act's vague "other immoral purpose" language, prosecutors brought charges against Johnson for taking an unmarried white woman across state lines. An all-white jury took less than two hours to convict.


Johnson skipped bail and traveled with his wife through Europe and South America for years before finally giving himself up to authorities in 1920. He spent about a year at the federal penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kansas.

Since its passage, the Mann Act also was also used to prosecute silent film star Charlie Chaplin regarding a paternity suit (he was acquitted); singer Chuck Berry for taking an Apache girl across state lines (convicted); and Frank Lloyd Wright for moving his lover and her daughter from Minnesota to Wisconsin (convicted); many other men also were convicted for premarital and extramarital sexual activity. The act has been amended since then and now is employed, primarily, as a tool to stop sex trafficking.


The Mann Act Today

"As there has been a concerted concern about sex trafficking that has really emerged in the last 18 years, and more and more people are aware that sex trafficking could be a problem, it's like the Mann Act has been rediscovered," Pilley says. "It's always been on the books, but it hadn't really been being used until about 10 years ago, [when] prosecuting attorneys and U.S. Attorney offices realize that they have this very, very powerful tool that they can use against people who are taking sex workers across state lines."

In 2004, Ken Burns' documentary film "Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson," brought the first real push for a presidential pardon for Johnson, who died in 1946. President George W. Bush turned it down. A bipartisan resolution from Senators John McCain (R-Arizona) and Harry Reid (D-Nevada) in 2015 called on President Barack Obama to grant a posthumous pardon. Obama declined to do so.


And now, after being prompted by another former boxer, of sorts — Sylvester Stallone — President Trump decided on May 24, 2018 to posthumously pardon Johnson. "Today I've issued an executive grant of clemency, a full pardon, posthumously, to John Arthur 'Jack' Johnson ... The first African-American heavyweight champion of the world, a truly great fighter. Had a tough life," Trump said. In April Trump tweeted that he was considering it.

"Good news. Absolutely good news. [Johnson] was completely hounded for no reason other than the fact that he was African-American and heavyweight champion of the world," Dailey says. "I don't usually agree with Donald Trump, but I'm with him on this one."

Says Pilley: "Jack Johnson should be pardoned — 100 percent. He should have been pardoned a long time ago. Everything about the way they used the Mann Act against that man was abnormal. It was a very, very clear case of racial policing. It was a way to punish one of the best black athletes in America for being the best black athlete in America, and also having a white wife."