Mann Act

Pardon Jack Johnson

The White Slavery Panic of the late 19th/early 20th centuries caused Congress to pass the vaguely-worded Mann Act. It allowed the FBI and prosecutors broad discretion to go after individuals they didn't like.


President Trump is considering a posthumous pardon for Jack Johnson, the first African-American world heavyweight champion boxer (1908-1915). The flamboyant Johnson was convicted of violating the White Slave Traffic Act (otherwise known as the Mann Act), which prohibited transporting women over state lines for an "immoral purpose." Johnson's crime was essentially that he had white girlfriends, and he liked to flaunt both them and his wealth.

I hope Trump pardons him. In 2016, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights (on which I sit), in a rare moment of unanimity, urged President Obama to pardon Johnson, but he left office without having done so. Maybe Trump will act. It would be a symbolic act, but symbols matter.

The tendency today may be to see Johnson's case purely through the lens of race. But it wasn't just African Americans who were the victims of excessive prosecutorial discretion in the enforcement of the Mann Act. Among those arrested for violations were Charlie Chaplin, Frank Lloyd Wright, and University of Chicago sociologist William I. Thomas. And it was sometimes used to prosecute fundamentalist Mormon polygamists, since (to the disappointment of zealous prosecutors) federal law did not actually prohibit the practice of polygamy.

The vaguely-worded Mann Act was a product of the panic over "White Slavery"—a term then in vogue for forced prostitution. Of course, the concern over forced prostitution was not completely foundationless. Some women had indeed been forced into prostitution, although the fear that women were being snatched off the streets right and left and forced into prostitution was sensationalized and overblown. "White Slavery" was one of "the" politically correct issues of the day. Clergymen preached against it. Artists depicted it. And it sold lots and lots of newspapers. But not nearly as many women were being forced into prostitution as one would think from reading those reports. Intentionally or not, the Social Purity Movement (the arm of the Progressive Movement that pushed for the Mann Act) was causing women to live in fear. My own grandmother was a victim. She was not allowed to go to college, because her parents feared it would be too dangerous.

Congress passed the Mann Act in haste. Its shockingly vague language outlawed transporting across state lines "any woman or girl for the purpose of prostitution or debauchery or for any other immoral purpose."

It could thus be used to cover not just forced prostitution but Labor Day weekend jaunts to the beach with a woman to whom the accused was not married. Immoral? Maybe. Worthy of calling out the FBI? For most Americans, probably then and now, the answer would be "no."

Federal prosecutors appreciated the statute's vagueness. It gave them the discretion to prosecute individuals they didn't like for driving a woman across a state line for a lovers' tryst. This is not what members of Congress thought they were prohibiting. But it is what they wrote, so it is what we got. Mercifully, the language of the Mann Act has since been amended to tighten it up.

I wrote about the White Slavery Panic in my Commissioner Statement in the Commission's Sex Trafficking Report.

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  1. They used to call it white slavery. Now they call it “human trafficking.” Same thing.

    1. Actually “human trafficking” is much broader.

      1. No, it’s not. Both then and now, to a first approximation “human trafficking” does not exist, but the myth is being perpetuated by prudes who want to demonize voluntary adult sex work and keep it illegal. The myth needs to be debunked at every opportunity, and its proponents named and shamed.

        1. So you’re saying all sex workers are entirely voluntary?

          1. “All” would be difficult to prove, but certainly a much higher fraction than workers in such fields as fishing, shoe manufacturing, and rug weaving.

            1. Are involuntary workers in those industries victims of human trafficking?

        2. That’s not the narrative I picked up reading Traci Lord’s “Underneath It All”.

  2. “…the Social Purity Movement (the arm of the Progressive Movement that pushed for the Mann Act)…”

    One of many Acts and Laws that were pushed by Progressives including Jim Crow laws, Progressive Democrat President Wilson segregating the federal government, etc. Speaking of media, it was in the early 1900s that Bernays & Lippmann developed the methods of propaganda to assist Progressive Democrat President Wilson in segregating the fed gov’t just as they pushed the Mann Act, and many other crap laws just as they do today.

    1. it was in the early 1900s that Bernays & Lippmann developed the methods of propaganda to assist Progressive Democrat President Wilson in segregating the fed gov’t just as they pushed the Mann Act, and many other crap laws just as they do today

      If memory serves, and at my age it often won’t, Bernays and Lippmann are as dead as Jack Johnson, and haven’t pushed any “crap laws” lately. As for “the media” in general, they have a long history of pushing “crap laws” of all sorts, from left, right, and centrist perspectives alike.Since I, like Adam Smith, am impressed by the power of the division of labor, I can’t begrudge your deciding to specialize.
      And it’s always fun to see Woodrow Wilson take another turn as a pinata between his equally virulent critics on the left and right, though I’m often perplexed by folks who knock him around for doing things they don’t actually object to.

  3. I am sure that if Trump does pardon Johnson, which I hope he does, it will be seen as a shameless political ploy for black votes. It’s good to know, though, that the commission endorsed it prior to Trump even taking office.

    1. It has already started!

      “But after the news broke, The Nation’s sports editor Dave Zirin erupted in a furor that Trump was going to be the president to pardon Johnson after both W. Bush and even Barack Obama ignored the pleas to come to the boxer’s aide.”

      “This is a sick system, and it lacks the moral authority to pardon Jack Johnson for any reason other than its own public relations. It’s not for us to forgive Jack Johnson. The opposite is the case.”…..k-johnson/

      1. Ah, thanks for that update.

        Speaking of pardons, I have read in some lefty news sites, that the Trump pardons, and pardon talk, are just shots across the bow of the Russian collusion investigation, and moreover, that they are actually obstruction of justice.

        1. That’s the narrative I expect, nothing about turning to wooing the black vote.

          Certainly I expect Trump does have pardons on his mind more than the average President at this point in his term.

          1. That doesn’t mean Trump shouldn’t deserve credit if he does this (though as I note below, I do think a full pardon is kinda silly)

  4. Chuck Berry also served time under the Mann act, which helped to ensure RnR’s death.

    All things considered, I don’t really understand posthumous pardons of people who died half a century ago. There are almost certainly living people who could use that attention.

  5. Its shockingly vague language outlawed transporting across state lines “any woman or girl for the purpose of prostitution or debauchery or for any other immoral purpose.”

    So like, what, going to an out-of-state Nickelback concert?

    1. Maybe. See Caminetti v. U.S., 242 U.S. 470 (1917).

  6. Pardons for the dead are stupid, they are beyond benefit of earthly mercy.

    1. They have value as an official admission of government wrongdoing, and I can think of some cases where it might have legal importance. I don’t know if there’s any precedent on this, but imagine a scenario where Person A is accused of killing their mother, is wrongly convicted of murder, and dies in prison a year later. Normally so-called “Slayer’s Statutes” prohibit a murderer from inheriting from their victim. Person A doesn’t inherit from their mother, and so their heirs don’t inherit the mother’s wealth when Person A dies. With the pardon, it’s possible they could get their inheritance. Not sure how a pardon works with the slayer’s statute, just a hypothetical.

  7. Pardons for the dead are stupid, they are beyond earthly mercy.

  8. Sorry for the double post

    1. There may be some implications for the estate, but I think I basically agree with Bob.

      It’s like an apology, but with a bunch of added paperwork for no reason.

      1. If a child of the deceased was being denied an inheritance or some other actual [not emotional] harm was being suffered by a living person, it would be ok. Seems like that would be very rare.

        Some famous person unjustly convicted a century ago is not an exception.

        1. The rare Bob-Sarcastro alignment!

        2. “Some famous person unjustly convicted a century ago is not an exception.”

          Yet I still want Shoeless Joe Jackson admitted to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

    2. Double posts are common enough on It happens to everybody sooner or later. I’ve had it happen when I know I didn’t double click.

    3. I disagree Bob, the pardons have meaning for the living. Certainly Galileo didn’t require an apology from the Catholic Church, nor Joan of Arc a sainthood after the English burned her as a witch, but they are ways that we can recognize the faults of our ancestors, and signal that we won’t make the same mistakes.

      Damn…I feel downright progressive today.

      1. If it acts like an apology, why not just an apology? Certainly it’d cut the legs off the expected all-pardons-are-Russian narrative.

        1. Because an apology doesn’t have the same symbolic meaning. A pardon is saying, in effect, that I have the power to undo the act, I make it so (but for the passage of time it is symbolic). An apology doesn’t have that power aspect.

      2. A pardon is not an apology, it is an act of mercy.

        Apologies for things done to the dead are likewise pretty stupid. Johnson gets no benefit.

        In any event, Trump was not president when Johnson was convicted, he was not even born until after Johnson’s death. He lacks standing to apologize for century old wrongs.

        1. Younger by four days. I wonder if that is what caught his attention.

          1. Yeah, I checked the dates.

            Maybe Johnson was reincarnated as Trump.

        2. Exactly: Apologies are for the guilty to give out, from the innocent they mean nothing.

      3. Joan of Arc was exonerated within a few decades and she was made a saint for the living, not as an apology. Ideally your saints shouldn’t care whether or not they become one after death.

        1. Under Catholic doctrine, there are countless saints, only a few of them are ever canonized, if we are going to get hyper technical.

          Again, the pardon is a symbolic act for the living. See it an element of inter-generational justice, because based on the logic that since Johnson is deceased, it shouldn’t matter, then the way we leave this world and nation is meaningless, because your great grandchildren haven’t been born yet, and are not alive either.

          If you’re worried that Trump might somehow take the blame for a conviction that happened before he was born, you’re going to need another reason to hang your hat on.

          1. …this reply was meant for the thread in general, not just gormadoc.

          2. I understand your point about saints but not how it applies. Joan of Arc was exonerated in a religious trial in the 1450s but wasn’t canonized for almost five centuries. Her canonization was almost certainly due more to her status as a folk saint and Catholic symbol (and a desire for a friendly France, who the papacy had a falling out with a few years before) rather than any desire to right great wrongs.

            I think it’s a better move to exonerate somebody alive than to be worried about a man who was contemporaneous with only ~15% of the total population of now, let alone noticed by them during that time. There’s a set amount of things government can do with their time; this is a relative non-issue.

  9. Was I in possession of cocaine, amphetamines, amyl nitrate, also known as poppers, at the time of my arrest? In large quantities. Did I have consensual intercourse with two women under the age of 18? Repeatedly. I admit this. Did I violate the Mann Act and transport them across state lines for sexual purposes? Alleged but not proven. And, boy, they tried. They tried.

  10. This is like Sec. Moniz restoring Oppenheimer’s security clearance… even through the dead don’t need a clearance.

  11. Stop with the re-writing history. Johnson was persecuted for his race – we already know that. I have no doubt a few hours in the library could come up with ten thousand more reasons for apologizing for the past deeds of others. Simple rule – if the person can’t benefit today, don’t bother with it.

  12. I am curious whether, as a member of the Commission on Civil Rights, Gail Heriot has ever called for a pardon for a living person.

  13. The question is why did not Obama pardon Jack Johnson? He pardoned soooo many that one more would not made any difference. Jack johnson it seems is much more deserving than some that was pardoned so why not Jack johnston?

    1. Because there’s no real upside for him doing it. Very few of the people who don’t like Obama would start liking him for this and people who do like him aren’t going to mind if he pardons Johnson or not. He had better things to do with better returns.

    2. Per stuff I heard on NPR, Jack Johnson was a serial abuser of his white girl friends, and his white wife eventually committed suicide due to his abuse. He apparently was not an exemplar of African American manhood.

  14. You can argue these laws are bad policy. You can argue they are unconstitutional (an argument that so far is winning 5-4). But it’s hard to argue they’re vague. The Supreme Court gave this one a limiting construction, and it’s clear it covers Mr. Jackson’s conduct, transporting a person across stars lines for purposes of sexual outside of marriage.

    The Supreme constantly upheld laws like this against vagueness challenges. See e.g. State v. Poe, 252 S.E.2d 843 (1979), appeal dismissed sub nom. Poe v. North Carolina, 445 U.S. 947 (“We believe persons of ordinary intelligence would conclude a fellatio between a man and a woman would be classified as a crime against nature and forbidden by G.S. 14-177. This keeps it from being unconstitutionally vague.”)

  15. When people are asked to use gut instinct to stop real but rare horrors, relying on racial stereotypes and other biases tends to rule.

    Is that why the cops pulled a gun on my friend the day I moved him and his babby mamma into my town. It’s strange how one of the other regulars at the Wellness Center died of a drug overdoes latter that night in the Wellness Center bathroom.

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