Donald Trump, Colin Kaepernick and Jack Johnson

April 23, 2018, 3:31 PM UTC

In a strange turn of events, a living, breathing athlete at the top of his game is being sidelined for his quiet protest of the police, while a long-dead, trash-talking champion is getting a second chance at dignity after being harassed by the police.

In a stranger turn of events, President Trump is a player in both stories.

Professional football player Colin Kaepernick continues to make headlines without even putting a cleat on the gridiron. The Seattle Seahawks abruptly canceled a planned workout with the quarterback, perhaps because he refused to reassure them that he would leave his social justice statements off the field. Perhaps not. Kaepernick has not had a job since he opted-out of his contract with the San Francisco 49ers last March.

But he still has his calling.

On Saturday, Amnesty International awarded Kaepernick and his now famous knee its highest honor, the Ambassador of Conscience Award. Past recipients include Nelson Mandela, Malala, and Ai Weiwei.

“The Ambassador of Conscience award celebrates the spirit of activism and exceptional courage, as embodied by Colin Kaepernick,” Salil Shetty, the organization’s secretary-general, said in a statement. “He is an athlete who is now widely recognized for his activism because of his refusal to ignore or accept racial discrimination.”

But heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson, who died in 1946, is up for recognition of a different kind: A presidential pardon for the crime of upsetting white people.

Unlike the calm and reserved Kaepernick, Johnson was a bold figure who literally chased white opponents around the globe taunting them into sanctioned fights. Brilliant, proud, funny, gifted, rich, and unapologetically black, he fought for equal rights, in part, by demanding the world acknowledge that a black man was equal to a white one.

Johnson had been crowned the first black heavyweight in 1908; he’d defeated his opponent, Tommy Burns, so soundly, that the fight was stopped for fear of white rioting. What followed instead was a race panic so widespread that even the literati began calling for a “great white hope,” to vanquish Johnson.

Heavyweight champion Jim Jeffries had entered a hasty retirement specifically to avoid facing Johnson, but he was harangued back into the ring. “Jim Jeffries must now emerge from his Alfalfa farm and remove that golden smile from Jack Johnson’s face. Jeff, it’s up to you,” wrote novelist Jack London. “The White Man must be rescued.”

There was no rescuing Jeffries when the two went toe to toe on July 4, 1910, however, and a grim prophecy came true: News of Johnson’s brutal victory triggered race riots across the country. Black folks were killed, their homes burned. President Theodore Roosevelt banned footage of the bout from U.S. theaters for fear of more violence.

But Johnson also affronted the public by consorting with and marrying white women. In 1913, the champion was arrested for violating the Mann Act, a statute designed to prevent trafficking and prostitution, but was disproportionately used to harass African Americans. He was targeted and detained for “traveling across state lines” with his white girlfriend.

Convicted by an all-white jury, Johnson fled the country and continued fighting in Europe, though returned and spent ten months in Fort Leavenworth.

So imagine Twitter’s surprise when President Trump suddenly weighed in on the Johnson story on Saturday.

“Sylvester Stallone called me with the story of heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson. His trials and tribulations were great, his life complex and controversial,” he tweeted. “Others have looked at this over the years, most thought it would be done, but yes, I am considering a Full Pardon!”

The “others” he’s referring to include President Obama, who declined to issue a pardon even after both houses of Congress agreed to a resolution asking for one.

Now, I’m keenly aware that nothing can be accomplished by pointing out that the president’s petty harassment of Kaepernick– repeatedly calling for his suspension, and even crediting himself for the quarterback’s woes– has no doubt contributed to his current lack of employment. “[The NFL owners] don’t want to get a nasty tweet from Donald Trump. Do you believe that?” he said to a rally in Louisville, Kentucky after Kaepernick became a free agent last March.

Nor will I dwell on the cognitive dissonance associated with the president’s sudden support of a man who was also a heavyweight champion in triggering white anxiety and violence. (Or the fact that Jack London is now canceled.)

Instead, let’s just enjoy the moment. Both Kaepernick and Johnson were keen observers of systemic racism, both used the attention garnered by their excellence to push for equity — though in very different ways — and both had their careers threatened for their efforts. While Kaepernick’s quest continues, both deserve to be recognized, remembered, and to have respect put on their names.

If we end up with Sly Stallone as a cabinet member or some such, so be it.


Studying Jack Johnson’s life provided an early awakening for me, and helped me to re-contextualize the history I’d been taught. Go deep if you’ve got time: Unforgivable Blackness is both a book and documentary, here is a virtually unknown memoir.

On Point

Harriet Tubman will be the face of the new twenty dollar billAfter a long period of (occasionally contentious) debate, the $10, $20 and $5 bills will be redesigned; all three bills will now include portraits of notable women. The $10 bill will arrive in 2020, in time for the 100thanniversary of the 19thamendment giving women the right to vote, and will include a montage of suffragettes on the back. But the big news is that Tubman is kicking Andrew Jackson to the back of the bill, and will become the first black woman to to grace the front of a U.S. banknote. Another good thing is happening – for the first time in U.S. history, the new bills will have tactile features to aid the visually impaired.CNN Money

The Trump administration is challenging the status of Native American tribes
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First Canadian adult to be “cured” of sickle cell anemia
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Journalists learning to listen
Peter Fray, the Co-director of the Centre for Media Transition at the University of Technology Sydney, explains that “listening to your audience,” will never progress pass the mantra stage if journalists and newsrooms don’t make listening a serious practice. But it’s essential if media is going to evolve. The idea is to shift the bias to listening first, rather than listening after a story is published.  “It rebalances that relationship,” he says. “It makes audiences and reporters co-conspirators, collaborators. The journos are no longer on top.” He has a fascinating list of resources and ideas, all of which could be adapted to other communications-related and corporate disciplines. Remember: We're all publishers now. He also recommends the Year of Listening initiative and The Local Fix newsletter.

The Woke Leader

Starbucks needs to make white people uncomfortable
Evelyn Carter, a social psychologist at UCLA, has pulled together a social-science based blueprint that she says will better ensure that even a one-day bias training can lead to culture change. (The first step, of course, is to acknowledge that one day will never be enough.) Carter begins by reminding people not to design an experience that prioritizes the comfort of the majority of the room, which in most cases would be the white participants. First of all, discomfort gets people's attention. But on a deeper level, when we lessen the potential emotional distress – by saying that discrimination is largely unintentional, for example – people tend to frame the perpetrator as less blameworthy and the victim as less harmed. “Conversations about race between white and black people often make it seem that we are living in different countries,” she says. Increasing the ability of white people to detect even subtle biases are undermined when we design for their comfort. Please read and share.
The Undefeated

Racial bias training is a life-long class
Here's an essay that builds on Carter's research cited above. After two black men were arrested in a Philadelphia Starbucks, Zachary Wright, a local 12th-grade world and AP literature teacher, says it’s time for even “woke” white professionals to do the hard work of investigating their biases. And, it won’t be fun. He describes his initial resistance to the training he received. “I was aggressively disengaged and reflexively defensive,” and felt blamed for generations of oppression; worse, that his years of service to black students was being dismissed. But during one specific exercise, it clicked – and he was able to see that bias was not about being a bad person, but by becoming slowly able to see what had once been invisible. “The tearing down of implicit racial bias is not a one-off exercise, but rather something to be worked on day after day,” he writes.
Education Post

Remembering the Columbia 1968 protests
Today marks the fiftieth anniversary of a student-led protest and occupation of Columbia University. At issue was the university’s role in the Vietnam War and their planned expansion into Harlem which would have further separated the mostly black neighborhood from the mostly white student body. Reading this account by Mark Rudd, a leader of the protests, it's hard not to be shocked that the event isn’t more famous. “By the end of May 1968, almost a thousand of us had been arrested, beaten or expelled (as I was),” he writes. But the black students had a different and more disciplined approach to the protest than the white students did, Rudd remembers. “They saw themselves as representatives of the Harlem community,” he says. “Their occupation, much more than anything we white students did, was 'the pivotal act' of the Columbia protest.”
New York Times



The saddest moments of my career as a fighter came about because of the so-called color question people are always going on about. I have noticed many times that a fighter doesn’t make himself very popular by bringing up the line demarcating whites from blacks too much. That line caused me a lot of trouble in my early years. But now I’m used to it and don’t even notice it anymore.
Jack Johnson

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