Jack Johnson

[I didn't get to do the columns I planned for Black History Month--I'll make up for it in June and July, but I did want to do something. This is a column I wrote back in 2001. It's a bit formal and simplistic, but odds are you have never heard of the guy, so all the better that you learn. - H]

#53 A Civics Lesson

Most of us are aware of the history of black people in America. We know many of the struggles—from the Ku Klux Klan to Jim Crow, from Segregation to the Mississippi Riots. We know of the people—from Abraham Lincoln to Booker T. Washington to Martin Luther King, who all in their own way led the fight for equality. However, there are events and people, less well known, which had as large an impact as any. One such was Jack Johnson.

I won’t give a full biography here—you would be doing yourself a favor to go read about Johnson yourself—but what you need to know is this: Jack Johnson grew up poor and black in Galveston, Texas. He eventually became a professional boxer and by 1904, he was 26, and more than ready to challenge for the Heavyweight crown.

America in 1904 was a different place, for many reasons. Boxing was the reigning sport in the U.S., in the entire world for that matter. Baseball had yet to hear of Babe Ruth, and there was no basketball or football; boxing was it. The problem was that Johnson was black. Now you have to understand the way of thinking in that era. It is not so much that blacks were hated or feared; they were discounted almost entirely. White America was firmly convinced that the black man was utterly inferior, both mentally and physically. For a white champion to fight a black man—in the thinking of the day—would be like the Yankees playing a Little League team.

So, Johnson chased the champion all over the world—literally. Finally, he got his chance.

In 1908, in Australia, in front of 20, 000 screaming men, with another 40,000 milling around outside the arena, Johnson finally got his chance against the champ Burns who had eluded him for so long. Johnson had a lot of anger pent up. For every time he had to tip his cap, for every time he had to move off the sidewalk, for every restaurant, school, store, and train depot he couldn’t enter—Johnson was angry. All of the anger came out against Burns. You have to imagine the scene: 60,000 people, every one of them who hated Johnson for who he was; what he represented. Johnson taunted Burns—and the whole crowd—for thirteen rounds, before ending the fight in the 14th round with a knockout to become the heavyweight champion.

The world was enraged. This was not supposed to happen. Many thought the flight was a fluke, as it happened in a small corner of the world. Jack London, the famous writer, had been there, and he took up the call to find the “Great White Hope” who would restore the white man to his proper place of ascendancy. Numerous challengers came forth—Johnson even fought a few of them—until the white establishment finally found their man. Jim Jeffries—himself a former champion who had walked away from boxing—would restore order.

The fight took place on July 4th—appropriately enough—in 1910, in Reno, Nevada. All the smart money wagered on Jeffries; there was no way this great white champion could lose to a black man. Again, every living sole was rabidly against Johnson. They hated him for his color; they hated him for his arrogance and showiness. Mostly they hated him for not acting as they thought a black man should—quiet and meek. Johnson was easy to despise. Besides the sin of being black, Johnson was loud, brash, and worst of all, consorted with white women. Later in his life the government would go after him repeatedly for these transgressions, even passing laws aimed specifically at Johnson. There was an act passed banning white slavery (of all the ironies), which the government claimed Johnson engaged in when he took his white girlfriends across state lines. But all that would come later. On July 4th, White America was looking to take back their crown.

From the beginning of the bout, Johnson was in complete control. He taunted Jeffries, he taunted well-known people in the crowd; he taunted everyone. Finally, in the 15th round Johnson repeatedly knocked his foe into the ropes. Finally, Jeffries’s man stepped into the ring illegally, so the fight would end without Jeffries knocked out by a black man. But everyone knew who had won the match.

Now the aftermath. Almost immediately, there were riots all over country, where both black and white mobs took to the streets, looking for vengeance against their counterparts. Moreover, though, there were cultural changes that came from this fight. For black Americans, there was a tremendous sense of pride. For the first time one of their own had triumphed over the White Man; beaten Him at His own game. For the White world, the change was also of attitude. No longer could they claim superiority in every phase of life. They had to face the fact that despite every obstacle, a black man had beaten their best. It was this first chink in the armor of white racism, which would eventually lead to other radical thoughts; that not only were whites not superior, but they should not be treated as if they were. In many ways, the Civil Rights’ movement, the advancements that have been made, owe a debt of gratitude to a man that knocked back an entire race, a whole way of thinking, with a single blow.

August 2, 2001


Sea Hag said...

"Every living sole was rabidly against Johnson"? People hated them so much that their shoes did, too?

Hyperion said...


It is a little known fact, but all shoes in the early 1900s were white. Another case of the Man trying to keep people down.

That's why today, you can't wear white after Labor Day. It's a whole Slavery/shoe thing.

Anonymous said...

Wow, I didn't know that! Tell me more!

Anonymous said...

Sea Hag- You funny! Hyperion- Tell me more!!