Presidential pardon recalls Reno's 'Fight of the Century'

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RENO, Nev. (KOLO) - A presidential pardon today corrected what's been viewed as an "historic case" of racial injustice.

This is a Nevada Historical Society photograph of the Fight of the Century between Jack Johnson and Jim Jeffries in Reno on July 4, 1910.

President trump signed a rare posthumous pardon-- lifting the conviction of Jack Johnson, the first African American to win the heavyweight championship.

The pardon comes more than 70 years after Johnson's death and 108 years after his appearance in Reno in what was much more than a sporting event.

It became known as 'The Fight of the Century.'

"It was a watershed moment not only for the country," says Nevada historian Phillip Earl, "but the sport of boxing."

In fact it's hard to find a parallel to the meeting of Jack Johnson and Jim Jeffries in Reno on July 4th, 1910.

Johnson had won the title in Australia two years before, but here at home, he was a divisive figure in a volatile time.

Personally flamboyant, he promoted himself with no apologies to an America with institutionalized segregation, a time when white supremacy was unquestioned in many quarters.

He also dated and married white women.

And he defeated all comers of both races.

Former champion Jim Jeffries was coaxed out of retirement as the "Great White Hope" to win back the title for his race.

The bout was scheduled for San Francisco, but called off under pressure from the federal government. Promoter Tex Rickard moved it to Reno. Many here also opposed it, but Governor Denver Dickerson didn't and thousands of fight fans journeyed here to see the spectacle.

A wooden stadium was built on East Fourth Street at a spot where an historical marker now stands. It was built almost literally overnight and it was huge.

"It was built for 23,000," says Earl, "and that many came and more. Some people climbed over the fence into the bleachers."

Earl says extra sheriff's deputies were hired for security. Spectators were searched for alcohol and guns.

Jeffries entered the ring the odds-on favorite, but quickly proved overmatched, well past his prime.

The fight was stopped in the 15th round by his corner, it appeared to avoid the embarrassment of a knockout. Many felt Johnson could have ended it by the fourth.

The end was greeted by jeers and little applause, but no violence. Elsewhere across the country there were riots and deaths, African Americans the prime target.

Four days before the fight the Mann Act, a law forbidding the transportation of persons across the state line for 'immoral purposes, had gone into effect.

Three years later Johnson was arrested and charged with traveling with an 18-year-old prostitute. He was sentenced to a year and a day, but skipped bail and fled into exile, finally returning seven years later.

He served his term in Leavenworth where the warden was former Governor Dickerson who had allowed the Reno fight and always believed Johnson had been framed.

Over the years many including many Nevadans would come to share that view. Today their efforts were rewarded.