What Links Interracial Marriage and Jack Johnson

It was 1994, my birthday—a beautiful May day in New York—and my friend David and I were en route to happy hour to celebrate. Engrossed in our conversation, we didn't notice the drunken black guy do a double-take as we passed him. Nor did we figure out he was following us until he began to shout. He kept screaming, "You race-traitor bitch," and a few other choice phrases that I can't repeat on our family-friendly Web site. At first we adopted the "we don't hear you" attitude of lifelong New Yorkers and hence weren't paying attention when he threw the first punch. Thanks to his powerful appetite for booze, our assailant missed both David and me. After that we dropped the attitude, ran straight into Grand Central, and besieged first a bus driver (we were panicked) and then a cop. The police officer calmed us down, brought us to his office, and went in search (to no avail) of the perpetrator. Crisis averted. But what really shook me more than the fear of a broken nose was that the bus driver (white) had ignored us completely. Well, he did find the time to give us the same glare of disapproval as our wasted attacker. Why? What was the sin that merited a beat-down and/or the refusal to help? Both men thought we were a couple (we weren't). And since David was white and I was black, our transgression was being in an interracial relationship. And for that, both the bus driver and the bum were sure we deserved to be punished. Happy birthday. (Click here to follow Raina Kelley)

Many years have passed since then, and I'm married now to a different white guy. I'm happy to say that times have improved—I've never again felt my relationship put me in physical danger. But the recent news of a Louisiana justice of the peace brought the fear and anger I felt that day 15 years ago all rushing back. This fella (Keith Bardwell) refused to grant an interracial couple a marriage license on the grounds that "those marriages never last." In this day and age—42 years after Loving v. Virginia, in which the Supreme Court ruled as unconstitutional any laws that forbade marriage on the basis of race (a.k.a. miscegenation)—it's unbelievable that someone would dare to abuse his governmental authority in that way. And it struck me as ironic that this should happen at the same time that Sen. John McCain is urging the Obama administration to posthumously pardon the African-American heavyweight boxer Jack Johnson on a 1913 conviction of "moving a woman across state lines for immoral purposes." That's an old-fashioned term for Johnson's real crime, which was consorting with a white woman, and which actually earned him 10 months in prison. It's funny, isn't it, that labeling Johnson's behavior a crime should seem so antiquated and unfair nearly 100 years later, and yet this justice of the peace can deny citizens their rights for wanting to marry despite being two different colors.

Jack Johnson was most likely the victim of other forces colluding to prevent him from remaining the first black heavyweight champion of the world. But these two people just wanted to get hitched. And stay with me now, but the specter of local officials running amok is partly to blame for the disdain so many people have for the government. Don't get me wrong: I respect local, state, and federal government. I pay taxes into those institutions precisely because I don't want to singlehandedly plow the roads after a blizzard, keep track of potholes, feed the poor, or pay for a private education for my son. But I don't want even the smallest government functionary to pass judgment on my personal life or the color of my skin. If I am within my rights and within the laws, I should be left alone to mind my own business and pursue my own dreams. It's inexcusably wrongheaded to have my privileges as an American citizen abridged by a bureaucracy that doesn't approve of my lifestyle and choices.

The reality is that governments, being composed of humans, none of whom are infallible, sometimes make mistakes and use their powers inappropriately. And when they do—as in the case of the Tuskegee syphilis trials, in which more than 300 black men were purposely infected and not treated despite the availability of penicillin—it poisons public opinion. Many of those men, and their wives and children, died. And for generations, tens of thousands of African-Americans felt justified in their opinion that America didn't care about black people. Only when then-president William J. Clinton both admitted government wrongdoing and apologized for it did some of the distrust begin to heal. Which brings me back to the subject of Jack Johnson. Even though a pardon is too late to help Johnson himself, it would work to restore the trust of black people scarred by cases in which functionaries felt their own opinions were equal to or more important than that of the Constitution.

As for Bardwell, he won't even apologize, telling CNN that "It's kind of hard to apologize for something that you really and truly feel down in your heart you haven't done wrong." That's garbage. How he feels in his heart should have nothing to do with it, thankfully.

We all have opinions that fly in the face of "freedom for all." I, for one, am sick of the gun culture and wish we could start abridging some Second Amendment rights. Many pharmacists have refused to dispense morning-after contraceptives based on their opposition to abortion; I get that (I don't like it, but I get it). But the government and the people it employs, right down to justices of the peace, have no such luxuries: they have to follow the rules or they should be removed. It's as simple as that. The consequences of these outliers are too severe and that slope is too slippery. I need to feel that I can go to the cops or the post office without fear that I'll be turned away. Jack Johnson went to jail because, as McCain put it, "an athlete ... was forced into the shadows of bigotry and prejudice." The best way to get that scar to heal isn't just to pardon him, but to also make sure that no one else gets forced into those shadows. Everyone needs to feel the government has their back. That's what we pay taxes for, and it just happens to be what our government is there to do.