Topeka A spokeswoman for Rep. Lynn Jenkins said the freshman congresswoman didn’t read a resolution she supported urging a pardon for boxer Jack Johnson that contain the phrase “great white hope,” a term she recently was criticized for using at a forum in northeast Kansas.
The resolution urged President Barack Obama to pardon Johnson posthumously for a prison term.
Jenkins, a Republican, caused a stir when she used the phrase on Aug. 19 during a town hall meeting in Hiawatha. She apologized for the remark, but said it was in reference to the GOP’s need for bright, young leadership. Someone in the crowd recorded it and gave the video to the Kansas Democratic Party.
A staffer told the Topeka Capital-Journal on Monday that Jenkins didn’t review the Johnson resolution before it came up for House vote.
“No, she did not read the specific resolution,” said Mary Geiger, Jenkins’ press secretary.
Geiger said that the resolution was passed on an unanimous consent vote rather than a roll-call vote. The resolution came to the House floor late in the day and a vote was taken quickly.
The resolution was sponsored by Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, and co-sponsored by Sen. Sam Brownback, a Kansas Republican. The House version was co-sponsored by Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., an Illinois Democrat.
Kansas Democrats issued a statement Tuesday taking Jenkins to task for not reading the resolution.
“Kansans should be able to trust that their elected officials are taking an interest in the legislation that will affect their everyday lives,” said Executive Director Kenny Johnston.
Geiger said it would have been “nearly impossible” for anyone to read the resolution before it was approved on July 29.
The phrase “great white hope” often is associated with pre-civil rights-era racism and is widely believed to have entered usage in the U.S. when boxer Jack Johnson, who was black, captured the heavyweight title in the early 20th century. Many whites reacted to Johnson’s achievement by trying to find white fighters — or a “great white hope” — who could beat him. The boxer’s story inspired a play, then a movie, with that title, both starring James Earl Jones.
The resolution describes Johnson’s career and how he won the title by defeating Tommy Jones, who was white. It notes that after Johnson’s victory there was “a recruitment effort that was dubbed the search for the ’great white hope”’ to find someone to beat Johnson and reclaim the title for whites.
One of those hopefuls was Jess Willard, from St. Clere, Kan., about 25 miles from Jenkins’ hometown of Holton. Nicknamed “The Pottawatomie Giant,” the towering Willard beat Johnson with a knockout punch in the 26th round in 1915. Willard later lost the title to Jack Dempsey.
Johnson was sent to the U.S. Penitentiary at Leavenworth nearly a century ago because of his romantic ties with a white woman. He tried to renew his boxing career after leaving prison, but failed to regain his title. He died in a car crash in 1946 at age 68.
Jenkins, 46, won the 2nd Congressional District seat last year by ousting Democratic incumbent Nancy Boyda. She previously served two terms as state treasurer and four years in the Kansas Legislature.