Great Jack Johnson
By Tom Donelson
With the upcoming Ken Burns special next week on Jack
Johnson, the following is an excerpt from my book, Boxing in the Shadow,
scheduled for release at the end of the year. Boxing in the Shadow reflects
upon some of the great black boxers and with Black History month upon us, I
will release excerpts of other chapters over the next six weeks—Tom
Jack Johnson, the Original Ali
Jack Johnson was the original Muhammad Ali, possessing
quick hands and defensive skills ahead of his time. Early boxing reporters and
some boxing historians considered him one of the greatest and Jack Johnson
became a hero to his race when he captured the heavyweight championship.
His conduct outside the ring challenged every taboo of
prevalent attitudes of White America. If he was not knocking out white men in
the ring, he was bedding white women outside the ring. Arrogant and fun
loving, Johnson lived life at a reckless pace and his public life was an
irritant to white America, essentially giving White America the middle finger.
With Johnson accession to the heavyweight championship, white promoters began
a search for the Great White Hope. Unfortunately, no white challenger could
match Johnson skills.
Johnson, for one, changed the rules of boxing by
depending upon guile as much as brute strength. In the early part of the
century, strength was the key factor. Gentleman Jim Corbett could not handle
the power of James Jefferies, despite being the superior boxer. As one boxing
historian stated, “If Jeffries could not outbox an opponent, he could
certainly outlast the best of them.” With fights lasting as long as 45
rounds, strength and endurance played key roles in winning championship fight.
Corbett’s first fight with Jefferies demonstrated this point as he easily
dominated most of the fight. By the end of the 23rd, Jefferies strength
eventually wore the flashy conqueror of the great John Sullivan.
Born with a knockout power, Johnson broke Stanley
Ketchel’s teeth, cracked Jim Flynn’s jaw and broke Sam Langford’ nose.
(Langford was one of the best fighters in the early part of the century.)
Callis quoted early boxing historians by stating, “There was no denying
Johnson’s ability. He was a superb boxer with a punishing blow in either
hand and amazingly fast for a big man.” As Johnson dominated the Heavyweight
Division, a search for a Great White Hope began. The first man to be that
White Hope would be James Jefferies.
When Johnson defeated Burns, he defeated an excellent
fighter. Burns was small in stature but fast in feet and hands. He would hold
his hand low and he had the ability to dart in on larger opponents. With a
large reach for his size, Burns had a devastating left hook.
After winning his title from Tommy Hart, Burns went on a
world tour defending his title over a dozen times. (Hart actually defeated
Jack Johnson in a very close and controversial decision in 1905. As they say
in boxing, Burns beat the man who beat the man, so to speak. So this added to
the intrigue of the fight as Burns had already defeated the man, who
supposedly beat Johnson.) Interesting enough, Burns nearly fought Sam McVey
for the title in Paris a few months before he actually fought Jackson but the
negotiations fell through. McVey almost became the first African-American to
fight for the heavyweight title. (McVey would later lament that Jack Johnson
would never give him a shot at the title.)
In the first round, Johnson set the pattern of the fight
as the bigger Johnson crashed a right on Burns chin and sent Burns to the
canvas. Burns was up against a fighter who matched his quickness and who was
bigger and stronger. Burns swung widely against Johnson repeatedly but Johnson
avoided the shots while mocking the smaller Burns. Johnson dominated every
round and in the fourteenth round, Johnson ended Burns championship reign.
Jim Jeffries was the dominant fighter as the 20th century
began. Having taken the title from Bob Fitzsimmons in 1899, Jeffries dominated
the Heavyweight division including two defeats of Gentleman Jim Corbett, one
of boxing best fighters. A big man at 6’2” and 220 pounds, Jeffries would
pound a fighter for round after round and with superior endurance; he would
outlast his opponent. In 1904, Jeffries retired from boxing after beating all
the major white opponents in his division. Jeffries refused to fight Jack
Johnson due to Johnson skin pigment. There was an unofficial sign on the
heavyweight championship belt that read, “Blacks need not apply.” Boxing,
like sports in general, was segregated and black athletes were denied access
to the mainstream of America’s sports. Peter Jackson, a slick boxer/puncher
was denied a chance at both Corbett and Sullivan title in the 1890’s. He
fought Corbett to a 61 round draw before Corbett wrestled the championship
from Sullivan and Corbett never gave Jackson a rematch after obtaining his
belt. Both Jeffries and Corbett were willing to fight Peter Jackson in
non-title fights. Jeffries would knock out an aging Peter Jackson one year
before winning his crown. Like Corbett, Jeffries was not averse to fighting
black fighters—just not for a championship.
Jack Johnson was the second of six children of Henry and
Tiny Johnson. After leaving school in the fifth grade and working odd jobs in
South Texas, Jackson started boxing as a sparring partner. His early fights
were matches with other black voters for white audience with white patrons
throwing his pay into the ring after the end of each match. He turned pro in
1897 but he left Texas because boxing was considered a criminal profession. As
the Negro Heavyweight champion, Johnson followed Tommy Burns around the globe
before finally getting Burns in the ring for the heavyweight championship.
Johnson spent most of the fight taunting Burns, as he knocked out the out
manned white champion in the 14th round. Police forced the cameramen to
discontinued filming the fight as Burns stumbled to the ground. The police
would not allow a film showing a white man hitting the canvas as a result of a
black fighter’s punch.
With a black man in possession of the most prized title
in sport, many promoters and white boxing fans clamored for a white hope to
take the title back. Jack London, the noted author, demanded that Jim Jeffries
take up the white man’s burden and relieve Johnson of his title. Jack
Johnson would not be considered the official champion until he defeated
Jeffries and for white America, the great Jeffries was the man to reclaim the
title for the Caucasian race. Jeffries was the “Great White Hope.”
Fans remembered the Jeffries who retired six years
earlier and at his peak was a magnificent specimen. Rugged beyond belief and
armed with a granite chin, no one could knock Jeffries out. But the Jeffries
that fought Johnson was out of shape and no longer the fighter of yore. Before
starting his training, he was close to 300 pounds and lost 80 pounds training
for this fight.
Fighting in a crouch, Jefferies had a powerful left hand
and his size hid a quickness rarely seen in big fighters of his era. John
Sullivan once noted, “the fastest big man I ever saw in the ring.” In his
prime Jefferies was an indestructible machine, who would move forward. In his
prime, Jefferies appeared to be like a man sparring with boys.
Johnson adopted a different strategy. In many ways,
Johnson resembled Ali’s style. Like Ali, Johnson had the strength to take
punishment and could deliver knockout punches in return. With long fights,
strategy demanded cautious beginning and Johnson was the master boxer, who
could fend off other fighters’ attack. Like Ali, Johnson could handle the
power of others; and with superior defensive skills, he could avoid punches.
Like a young Ali, he enjoyed taunting his opponents and destroying their will
before finishing them off.
Jack Johnson’s personal conduct outside the ring
scandalized White America, as modesty and humility were not part of his make
up. Jack Johnson essentially gave White America the middle finger as he
violated every taboo of his time. Jack Johnson found white women more to his
liking as he said, “Every colored lady I ever went with two-timed me, and
white girls didn’t.” And when he was not bedding white women, he was
beating white heavyweights. He did not just beat his opponent; he taunted and
tortured them before beating them. Ring Lardner described Jack Johnson as that
“grinning Negro whose delight was in whipping Caucasian fighters with taunts
pouring from his mouth.” During his training in Reno, he openly appeared
with his white wife. The message was clear, “you can not intimidate me.”
Jack Johnson battered the aging Jeffries and spent a
portion of the fight taunting his outclassed rival. “Mr. Jeffries, where is
your punch,” he would ask the bewildered Jeffries. Though the fight was
scheduled for 45 rounds, it was obvious that this fight was not going the
distance. By the 15th round, the end was close. In this fateful round, Johnson
knocked Jeffries down three times. The crowd gasped and the fans leaving the
stands resembled a funeral march. Silence spread through the crowd.
Remarkably, no riots happened in Reno after the fight but in other parts of
the country, whites retaliated against blacks who openly celebrated
Johnson’s victory. Seven people died in the violence.
As for Reno, this event attracted worldwide attention and
was a golden harvest for local businesses. As for Johnson, he was forced into
exile due to the Mann Act, which outlawed “taking women across state line
for immoral purpose”; Johnson spent the last years of his championship reign
outside the country. He eventually lost his title to Jess Willard under the
scorching Havana sun.
This fight demonstrated the great divide that existed in
America where racism was more open and violent. Throughout the South, lynching
was common and Jim Crow laws dominated many states even in the Midwest.
Segregation existed nation wide and in spite of that, Boxing was the most
integrated of all sports. Blacks were allowed to fight white fighters and earn
an income. Johnson personal behavior insulted white America and this assured
that a black fighter would not be allowed to fight for the Heavyweight
championship for another two decades.
The closet that a black came to fighting for the title
before Joe Louis was Harry Wills, who had a signed contract with Dempsey for
Unfortunately, money needed to support the fight never
appeared and then the aging wills lost a key fight that ended his hope for a
title shot. Joe Louis would win the title in 1937 and reigned for twelve years
as one of the greatest boxers in heavyweight history and beloved athlete. Jack
Johnson’s victory over Jeffries established black athletes as equal to
whites and no matter what white media reported, Johnson speed and ring savvy
erased the various stereotypes of black inferiority. It will take nearly six
decades before this lesson would eventually be accepted as truth
Mann Act And Jack Johnson
Who is James Robert Mann and why should we care about him
as sports fans? For one, this congressman would have the greatest effect upon
one of America’s great sportsmen in the early 20th century. Representative
Mann fought for women’s suffrage, and in 1910, he pushed a bill that bears
his name preventing, under heavy penalties, the transportation of women from
one state to another for immoral purposes.
This act began, as a movement to cripple prostitution,
would end up as the bill that would prohibit consensual sexual conduct outside
of marriage. In the early part of the century, the prohibition movement
extended from a movement to ban alcoholic beverages, recreational drugs and
other vices like sex. Fornication was made illegal in many states. By 1920,
nearly half of the states regarded habitual consensual sex a punishable act
and in many of these states, one act was enough to bring a conviction.
Widespread prohibition against all aspects of sexual activity made enforcement
impossible and many juries proved unwilling to convict for illegal sex acts.
One boxing historian told me that the only other person ever convicted was
Charlie Chaplin. Jack Johnson, when he became champion, scandalized America.
According to Boxing historian Mike DeLisa, there were some within the black
community that were as equally scandalized by his behavior as many whites. He
openly dated white women and he even married some of them. When Johnson
defeated James Jeffries in 1910, the search for the great White Hope began.
While promoters conducted tournaments to find the white boxer who could
challenge Johnson, others decided to use the law—the Mann Act—to cripple
the Champion. For many blacks, Johnson restored pride to them. The following
poem detailed the feelings that many blacks had after Johnson slaughtered
O my Lord
What a morning,
O my Lord,
What a feeling,
When Jack Johnson
Turned Jim Jeffries’
to the ceiling.
Many whites resented Johnson for his life style and
resented the positive effect that he had on blacks after the Jeffries debacle.
In the eyes of many whites, Johnson was the “uppity” black that needed to
put back in his place. Johnson was convicted in 1913 for “transporting a
woman across state lines for immoral purpose.” The woman in question was his
fiancée and soon to be his wife. The charges were trumped up and certainly
the worst you could say, Johnson was found guilty of having consensual sex
with a woman and then taking her across state lines, which his job demanded.
Johnson appealed this decision but in the meantime, fled the country. He first
went to Canada, then to Europe, Mexico and South America. He defended his
title in Paris twice and finally agreed to fight Jess Willard in Havana, Cuba.
Under a scorching sun in a fight scheduled for 45 rounds,
Johnson started quickly against the taller and bigger Willard. He dominated
those rounds but as the rounds went by, his years of running, lack of good
training and age caught up with Johnson. After the 20th round, Willard began
to take command and in the 26th round, he ended Johnson’s Championship
reign. But Johnson’s fight with the United States government did not end. He
returned to the United States in 1920 and served eight months for violation of
the Mann Act. While serving his sentence, he was appointed athletic director
of the prison. He continued to fight after he was released from prison but his
years as heavyweight contender were over. He finally called it quits in 1928
at the age of 50. He spent the rest of his life as a lecturer and
show—business performer. Married three times to white women, he never had
It could have been worse. Jack Johnson could have been
lynched. In the what is called the Jim Crow period, over 2500
African-Americans were lynched and no fewer than 50 were lynched on an annual
basis. Nor were these crimes limited to the old South. In 1908, just a half a
mile from the home of Abraham Lincoln in Springfield, Virginia, two
African-Americans were lynched and their property destroyed. As Samuel Eliot
Morrison wrote in the Oxford History of the American People, “The common
excuse for lynching is that it was restored to only for rape, or attempted
rape, of white women. The statistics prove that sexual assaults were not even
alleged in more than one case in five, and that many of those lynched for it
were innocent or the alleged assault was imaginary.”
In Waco, Texas, cheering crowds of men, women and
children attended one lynching. This crowd shouted as a Negro, convicted and
sentenced to death for murder, was burned alive and his flesh carried away as
Samuel Eliot Morrison wrote, “The Negro’s daughters
were free to all the lusty white lads of the neighborhood and nothing was done
about it; but if a African-American leered at a white girl of notoriously low
morals, he was liable to be lynched by a mob in defense of the alleged purity
of Southern womanhood.”
The Mann Act was originally designed to stop prostitution
but it broadened over the years to cover consensual sex acts, targeting sex
with “minor women.” Johnson’s only real guilt was becoming the
Heavyweight champion. His victory over Jeffries sparked race riots and the
Texas Legislature banned films of his victories, because of the fear of even
more violence. Johnson would die in a car crash on June 10, 1946 near Raleigh,
North Carolina. As he was being buried, the Heavyweight championship was in
the hands of another black fighter, Joe Louis. Joe Louis was one of
America’s beloved sport figures, and was the first African-American fighter
to be accepted by white sports fans. Johnson, on the other hand, was one of
most feared black athletes for he refused to play by the rules of White
America. While White America would use trumped up charges to force Johnson out
of the country and conspire to take his title, Johnson never surrendered to
Representative James Mann gave White promoters the legal
tool to stop Johnson but they could never take away the fact that a Black man
for seven years was the reigning champion and best fighter in the world.
After his championship days, Johnson was never allowed
any chance to regain his championship and for many white Americans, he was man
soon to be forgotten. His accomplishments could not be ignored but after his
championship reigns, no African-Americans were allowed near the championship
belt for over 20 years. History has judged Johnson and they found him to be a
great champion. No amount of racism could change that.
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