Last Saturday, President Trump tweeted that he was considering a posthumous pardon of Jack Johnson. This pardon is more than deserving as Johnson was the victim of the Jim Crow era, but Trump’s recent support of a similar, counterproductive sex trafficking law (FOSTA) will also help to create wrongful convictions.
Jack Johnson was the first black heavyweight boxing champion and his victories over white opponents sometimes resulted in race riots. He also openly courted white women which made him a target of public ire and the federal government. In fact, Congress passed a law in 1912 banning interstate transportation of boxing films to thwart Johnson’s fame and prevent future riots.
One year later, Johnson was convicted by an all-male, all-white jury for violating a different law, the Mann Act, also known then as the White Slave Traffic Act. It was written in response to the “White Slave Panic” of the early 20th century.
In short, numerous newspapers printed sensationalized articles alleging that black and European immigrants were forcing young white women into the sex industry. The vast majority of this content was entirely fabricated, but several years passed before this type of reporting was debunked.
Anyhow, Johnson had been in relationships with a number of white prostitutes, but there was no evidence that he coerced them into the industry or profited from their work. Nonetheless, federal investigators dug into Johnson’s past and he was the first person arrested for violating the Mann Act.
The mother of Lucille Cameron (a white prostitute) claimed that Johnson had kidnapped her daughter. However, Johnson’s relationship with Cameron was entirely consensual and she refused to testify against him. In turn, the charges were subsequently dropped; Johnson and Cameron married each other a few months later.
However, Johnson was arrested again on Mann Act charges one year later. That case involved one of his former lovers, Belle Schreiber. She worked at Chicago’s most exclusive brothel when she met Johnson. He was forced off the premises due to his race, but not before Johnson wooed Schreiber to leave with him.
Johnson’s relationship with Schreiber eventually ended, but afterward, he wired money to her to help her get by. However, Schreiber later set up her own brothel in Chicago and federal authorities used that leverage to pressure her to testify against Johnson.
Ultimately, Johnson was convicted for alleged offenses that took place before the Mann Act became law. In hindsight, it was clear that this trial was a witch-hunt for a man who defied Jim Crow’s social standards. Remarkably, the Assistant U.S. District Attorney, Harry Parkin, essentially admitted as much to reporters one day after the trial:
“This negro, in the eyes of many, has been persecuted. Perhaps as an individual he was. But it was his misfortune to be the foremost example of the evil in permitting the intermarriage of whites and blacks. Now, he must bear the consequences.”
The Mann Act remains intact today, but some of the expansive language has been amended. This federal law originally banned transporting a woman across state lines for the “purpose of prostitution, or debauchery, or any other immoral purpose.”
The language of the bill was open to wide interpretation and it included cases of consensual sex among adults, unrelated to prostitution. Indeed, a U.S Supreme Court ruling in 1917, Caminetti v United States, upheld a conviction of two married California men who crossed state lines with their mistresses.
David J Langum’s impressive book, Crossing over the Line: Legislating Morality and the Mann Act, went into great about the draconian nature of this law. His research showed that the vast majority of the early Mann Act convictions involved people working voluntarily in the sex industry. In other words, Congress passed legislation posed as an anti-sex-trafficking bill that was really an anti-prostitution bill.
This same dynamic is at play in the present. Two weeks before tweeting about Jack Johnson, Trump signed a bill into law, the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA). Like the Mann Act, this new law conflated prostitution between consenting adults with sex trafficking.
Again, FOSTA was presented strictly as an anti-sex-trafficking measure, but it didn’t include the terms “force, fraud, or coercion,” which are part of the traditional definition of trafficking. Instead, FOSTA bans website owners from “promoting or facilitating prostitution of another person.”
There are several glaring flaws with FOSTA, including the fact that it can be prosecuted retroactively, which is reminiscent of the Jack Johnson case. Nonetheless, this bill was passed in a bipartisan manner despite a letter from Assistant Attorney General Stephen E. Boyd to the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee Bob Goodlatte. Boyd stated that the bill posed constitutional concerns.
FOSTA may also result in further nullifying free speech online. This law reduces some of the protections for website owners against lawsuits related to their third-party users. Website owners can now be prosecuted under the ambiguous language of “promoting or facilitating prostitution of another person.” Hence, Reddit.com has already discontinued its online forum for discussions about prostitution.
This is a dangerous precedent for the future of the First Amendment, but lawmakers were convinced that FOSTA was necessary to shut down a website known as BackPage.com, which featured advertisements for sex workers. However, that website was seized by the federal government in the interim period before it was signed by Trump and after FOSTA was passed by Congress.
BackPage has been labeled as a haven for sex trafficking by many activists, politicians, and a Senate investigation. After all, there have been victims of sex trafficking exploited on BackPage.com. However, before the shutdown, BackPage (and other similar services) have actually helped to protect sex workers from exploitation. By enabling sex workers to communicate directly with their clients, it has allowed numerous sex workers to no longer be forced to work in the street.
This new legislation has been devastating to the sex worker community. Criminalizing and pushing the sex industry further underground helps pimps and traffickers exploit a vulnerable population. Generally, this narrative has been neglected by most media outlets as prostitution. However, with the backlash from the recent shutdown of BackPage.com, it has forced several media outlets to reevaluate this issue and consider the perspective of the sex worker community, even in unlikely sources such as The Washington Post.
To sum up, it would be a positive step forward if Donald Trump pardons Jack Johnson. This idea has received widespread support mainly due to the racial prejudice exhibited during his investigation and prosecution. However, the resurrection of this topic hasn’t addressed the draconian sex trafficking legislation that put him in prison. He was convicted as a result of an overly expansive law, the Mann Act, which equated consensual prostitution with sex trafficking. That lesson still applies today.
Brian Saady is a freelance writer whose work covers a variety of topics, such as criminal justice and corruption. He’s also the author of four books, including Decriminalized Prostitution: The Common Sense Solution. You can check out his website and follow him on Facebook and Twitter.