Image by Tanja Hayes Photos
Tommie J. Moore has just wrapped the first of a three-week run at Manhattan's Theater for the New City. His one-man show "Dare to Be Black: The Jack Johnson Story," is off to a great start, but still, the Queens, New York playwright is fighting for something more than ticket sales and notoriety with these performances. Moore is on a quest for social justice, seeking a pardon for Jack Johnson, the world's first black heavyweight champion.
"The main thing is to try and get Jack Johnson a pardon … he didn't do anything wrong," explains Moore of Johnson's 1912 conviction. "They charged him with the Mann Act. They said that he was trafficking white women over state lines for prostitution, which he wasn't. Not only was he not doing it … there was no law. It's like getting arrested right now for something you did last year. That law wasn't even there. So not only did he not offend the law, there was no real law to offend."
It's been eight years since Moore, 36, first started educating people about Johnson: eight years of performing in schools, eight years of research, and eight years of understanding the nuances and intricacies of a man who was way ahead of his time. And just as Moore's original 15-minute short has grown and developed into a full-length play, so has his mission to exonerate Johnson.
"To be the first black heavyweight champion and not to be recognized to this day? Everyone knows Ali, everyone knows Tyson, but a lot of people don't know who Jack Johnson is," offers Moore. "Jesse Owens … Jackie Robinson, even Muhammad Ali. There's no denying that they benefitted from what Jack Johnson did [in] 1908."
A Golden Gloves boxer in his teens, Moore drifted away from combat sports early on in life, lured by the pursuits of theater and acting. But after delving into Johnson's story, the project became a natural fit, a combination of passions that had a deeper social message. After all, Moore is just one of the 40-million African Americans who have benefitted from Johnson's courage to break down the color barrier.
"For a black man to be doing what he was doing in his time … he was marrying white women and knocking out white men, and this was at the peak of racism … that was a big thing," states Moore. "But [authorities] wanted him out the ring because nobody could beat him and they didn't want the black man with that title … back then you had the President, you had the Generals, and you had the heavyweight champion. That was the biggest thing in the world at the time."
Of course, 100 years after Johnson first became the world heavyweight champ, the United States elected its first black President, perhaps the most blatant example of how far racial equality and civil rights have come. But even with President Obama in office for nearly eight years, and Senator John McCain and Congressman Peter King lobbying for a pardon, exoneration has yet to come.
"I'm not sure why Obama's not doing it. Some people tell me because he's black, and he feels a black president shouldn't do it … Obama can do it. I feel Obama can do it right now," offers Moore. "America was wrong. Back then it was racist. We didn't understand what it was. But it was wrong. He went to jail. He did his time in jail. But I really feel his record should be cleared … you have to apologize … that's how you move on."
Moore's comments take additional significance when juxtaposed with those of President Obama, who just last week, on February 5, delivered a speech proclaiming, "change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we've been waiting for. We are the change that we seek."
The President's remarks echo the exact sentiments and philosophies that have guided Moore to this point in his career. Unable to "wait for America to change," as he says, Moore took to writing his own plays after realizing the limited options for black actors in film, television, and on the stage. The process eventually led him to draft "Dare to Be Black," which runs through February 21.
Using the Ken Burns documentary "Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson" and Johnson's autobiography "In the Ring and Out" as his primary references, Moore developed a character around the champ's charming personality, beginning when he was just 11-years-old fighting in Galveston, Texas' battle royal.
Moore also includes other anecdotes about Johnson's time as a member of the 11th St. & Ave. K gang, and his fluency in a number of foreign languages. And just as Johnson's life has been an inspiration for Moore, so have his words, guiding the playwright to his current mission of clearing the former champion's name.
"Jack Johnson said – I use some of his real dialogue – 'I have found no better way in avoiding race prejudice than to act with people of other races as if prejudice did not exist,' " explains Moore. "I want to make sure I get Jack Johnson his pardon. Then I can move on."