Last edited: February 10, 2005

Johnson Took Hits Outside Ring, Too

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, February 10, 2005

By Eugene Kane

What’s the best thing about Black History Month?

You might learn something new if you pay attention.

After reading a great new book, “Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson” as a Black History Month treat, I found myself captivated by the life of the nation’s first black heavyweight champion, a man who defied conventions and restrictions based on the color of his skin almost 100 years ago.

Johnson, whom many recognize as the inspiration for the Broadway play and movie “The Great White Hope,” is often portrayed as a rebel, a controversial black man who flouted convention by marrying white women.

But his life story, presented in the book and a new PBS documentary, was much more substantial.

Johnson, who won the heavyweight championship in 1908, was Muhammad Ali before Muhammad Ali; he was a famous and outspoken black man unfairly persecuted by the government essentially because he chose to ignore many of the restrictions placed on black people at the time.

He did what he wanted when he wanted, the public be damned.

Particularly, the media.

One of the most fascinating things I learned in reading “Unforgivable Blackness” was how the major media of the time—mainly daily newspapers—dealt with Johnson and the issue of race in such a bare-knuckled fashion that it’s startling to read decades later.

Take this, an editorial from the esteemed Los Angeles Times, published in 1910 after Johnson’s victory over a white champion:

It was headlined “A Word to the Black Man” and is clearly meant to dash any hopes of racial equality among blacks excited by Johnson’s victory:

“Do not point your nose too high. Do not swell your chest too much. Remember you have done nothing at all.

“You are just the same member of society you were last week. You are on no higher plane, deserve no new consideration, and will get none.”


That’s what you’d expect from a Ku Klux Klan publication, but the Los Angeles Times?

Milwaukee too is well represented in “Unforgivable Blackness.” One of Johnson’s white wives lived here off and on, and the Milwaukee press often weighed in on his public turmoils.

The local media seemed to have considerable license talking about Johnson.

“Traveling burlesquers have passed the word along and their stories of the capers of the negro reflect no credit on him,” the Milwaukee Free Press editorialized.

The paper urged Johnson to change his ways, suggesting “he will have to, or else the black bugaboo of the prize ring will be removed without the necessity of developing another white man’s hope.”

The shock of reading such racially charged language from popular newspapers of the time only hints at the struggle for most African-Americans back then.

Thankfully, most conventional media have little room for racially offensive language that demeans and insults, although remnants of that kind of hate speech still emerge from time to time on talk radio.

Looking backward to the past can help us understand what’s at stake today.

After reading “Unforgivable Blackness,” I’ve acquired new respect for the struggles of Jack Johnson and a renewed commitment to confront the racial issues that still plague us with my own voice in this newspaper.

It’s about the best black history lesson I could have learned this month.

[Home] [News] [USA]