Few people outside the world of boxing have heard of Jack Johnson.
However, in the early years of the twentieth century, Johnson was perhaps the most hated black man in America.
In the late nineteenth century, ‘Jim Crow’ racial segregation of public facilities and services was the norm. In every area of society, blacks were subjected to separate and unequal treatment. However, the boxing arena was one area where blacks could compete with whites on a ‘level playing field’. Throughout the nineteenth century, black boxers such as bantamweight George Dixon and lightweights Joe Gans and Joe Walcott had shown they could defeat white boxers if given a fair chance. In fact, they were so successful, a sportswriter for the New York Sun warned: ‘We are in the midst of a growing menace. The black man is rapidly forging to the front of the field in athletics, especially fisticuffs. We are in the midst of a black rise against white supremacy!’
At Heavyweight level, however, there was no level playing field. Many Americans considered the Heavyweight boxing champion of the world to be the epitome of masculine perfection, and since the champion had always been a white man, he also served as a symbol of racial superiority. Therefore, from 1882 to 1908, no black contender was allowed to challenge for the heavyweight title. For example, the first heavyweight ‘great’ of the modern era, John L. Sullivan, infamously declared ‘I will not fight a Negro: I never have and never shall.’
This would change when Jack Johnson fought his way to the top. Johnson was a technically gifted fighter, with impressive defensive skills and a mean knockout punch. By 1908 the lanky Texan had made such a name for himself, through a combination of shameless self publicity and relentless taunting of the opposition, that white champion Tommy Burns accepted Johnson’s challenge. The fight took place in Sydney, Australia, and was a humiliation for Burns, who failed to live up to his pre-match boast to ‘make it tough for Mr Coon.’ Johnson toyed with Burns for much of the fight before scoring a knockout win.
The racial fallout from the fight was instant and odious: the Sydney Sportsman called the new champion ‘a gloating coon…with only the instincts of a nigger.’ American newspapers called Johnson a ‘coon’, a ‘watermelon pickaninny’, ‘darkmeat’ and, most commonly, a ‘nigger.’
Johnson modelled his style on that of Gentleman Jim Corbett, a boxer admired for defensive, technical skills. However, as Negroes weren’t supposed to ‘think’, and instead act only instinctively and primitively, when Johnson employed his usual defensive tactics against Burns the press labelled him lazy, shifty and cowardly. Johnson, however, was jubilant. He had proven that a black man was capable of becoming the heavyweight champion and his deliberate policy of challenging white supremacy in the boxing ring was vindicated.
Johnson also made a name for himself outside the ring. He realised that he could use his race to his financial advantage. He deliberately inflamed white animosity by portraying himself as the villain of the piece, knowing that whites would pay good money to see him defeated. Johnson set about provoking whites by appearing in public with a series of white girlfriends at his side. He insisted on staying in rented rooms that were meant for whites only, and declared in the press that he wanted to move into a wealthy all-white neighbourhood. These tactics infuriated whites as they challenged the racial doctrine of the time. They also ran counter to the advice of black public figures like Booker T. Washington, who had previously endorsed segregation in his infamous ‘Atlanta Compromise’ speech of 1895. Rather than agitate for social equality, Washington claimed that blacks and whites could co-exist “as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand”.
Johnson’s behaviour was also of concern to the black middle class, many of whom thought boxing was a barbaric sport. However, Johnson did have the support of some prominent black leaders. W.E.B. DuBois opined that Johnson was hated by whites not because he lacked talent or grace, but simply because of his ‘unforgivable blackness’. In addition, Marcus Garvey, founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association, was a Johnson fan. Like Frederick Douglass who, in an earlier time, kept a picture of black boxer Peter Jackson on his desk, claiming ‘Peter is doing a great deal with his fists to solve the Negro question’, Garvey realized that Johnson was an affront to the racial doctrine of the time, and living proof that blacks were the equal of whites.
A search began for a ‘Great White Hope’ to defeat Johnson. Former champion Jim Jeffries was persuaded to come out of retirement, boasting, ‘I am going into this fight for the sole purpose of proving that a white man is better than a Negro.’ Jeffries had previously fought and beaten at least three black boxers before he became world champion, but once he had the title he refused to defend against a black challenger. He perhaps should have stayed in retirement. Johnson proved to be a much better, and fitter, boxer, picking apart his hapless opponent and winning by TKO in 15 rounds. Having built up the fight as the ‘great white hope’ against the ‘bad nigger’, whites reacted badly to Jeffries’ defeat, instigating race riots across the United States in which over 20 people died. Even the US Congress reacted: before the fight, Congress had refused to consider a bill suppressing motion picture films of prize fights. However, within a few weeks of Johnson’s victory, a bill suppressing fight films passed both houses and was signed into law.
Unable to defeat Johnson in the ring, his enemies sought other means to bring about his downfall. In October 1912, he was arrested and charged with crossing state lines with a prostitute, in violation of the Mann Act. He was found guilty by an all-white jury and sentenced to a year in gaol. Johnson skipped bail, however, fleeing to Europe. For the next few years he fought outside the United States, and in 1915 lost his title to Jess Willard in Havana, Cuba. He eventually returned home to serve his prison sentence, a beaten and impoverished man. After his release, he continued to fight professionally but never again reached his former heights. He died in a car crash in 1946.
In recent years, Johnson’s boxing skills have been acknowledged by the Boxing Hall of Fame. His bravery in challenging the racial doctrine of the time has also been recognised. His criminal conviction remains controversial, however, and attempts have been made to seek a presidential pardon to ‘expunge from the annals of American criminal justice a racially motivated abuse of the prosecutorial authority.’ To date, however, Barack Obama — ironically the United States’ first African-American president — has failed to respond to requests to right this historic injustice. Today, 98 years after Johnson’s conviction, his achievements remain tainted by what many consider to be a trumped-up charge, motivated by racial hatred.
For more on Jack Johnson, listen to the BBC’s Great Lives’ Podcast
Dr. Brian Ireland teaches American History at the University of Glamorgan. In his module entitled Violence in America, he helps students trace the history of Heavyweight boxing in the twentieth century, discussing such notable sportsmen as Jack Johnson, Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson.