Took Hits Outside Ring, Too
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
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
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
“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
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.
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