Jack Johnson: Remember I was a man…

Image© Library of Congress

Legal Eagle

Of course some people pretend to object to Mr Johnson`s character but we have yet to hear in the case of White America that marital troubles have disqualified prize fighters or ball players or even statesmen. It comes down then after all to this unforgivable blackness…WB Dubois.

The campaign to posthumously pardon one of the all time greats of world boxing, Jack Johnson is gathering pace in the USA. Johnson was the first African-American to win the World Heavyweight Championship in 1908, a sporting victory of incredible social and cultural significance. Jack defeated Tommy Burns in Australia, Burns lured by a $30,000 pay day. Jack held the title until 1915, he was defeated in dubious circumstances in a contest which pitted him against Jess Willard, a gruelling fight held in the blazing heat of Cuba. Willard knocked Johnson down in the twenty-sixth round (when Johnson was ahead on points). It was later suggested that the fight was a fix (an opinion sanctioned by Johnson). This view granted credence when Johnson was famously photographed protecting his eyes from the sun as he lay on the canvas, awaiting the referee to count him out. Whatever the merits of this sporting event (the defeat probably genuine), it appears beyond doubt that Jack Johnson`s criminal conviction under the Mann Act, was a travesty of justice. It is this issue that has brought Johnson back into the news, allowing a review of his treatment at the hands of the Jim Crow criminal justice system.

Johnson was a contemporary of WE DuBois and Booker T Washington and has been placed on equal footing with these considerable figures. Jack a highly intelligent and articulate man demonstrated his verbal skills of advocacy during occasional disputes with Booker T Washington. Jack with only five-years of schooling saw himself as someone special, a dangerous perspective given the climate of the time. But this self appraisal appears perfectly justified after he easily defeated the `Great White Hope`, James Jeffries in Reno, Nevada July 4, 1910. A victory heralding race riots all over the country, with at least nineteen people dying and many others seriously injured. The defeat of Jeffries today appears unremarkable but in the context of the time it was an incredible event, putting a big dent in the notion of white supremacy. Johnson became what Gerald Early has called the `Emperor of Masculinity`. As existentialist angst gripped racist America a feeling compounded by Johnson`s relationships with white women.

They couldn’t defeat Johnson fairly in the boxing ring, so they decided to destroy him outside by misapplying the law, in much the same way as the racist establishment used the law against African-Americans after Reconstruction. The Mann Act also known as the White Slave Act was designed to halt the transportation of women across state lines for immoral reasons. As Roberts points out ‘it was never aimed at individuals having a liaison but designed to end commercialised vice. When the Attorney General was brought this case against Johnston he knew this was a travesty` although it led to Johnson`s conviction and later imprisonment. This Progressive Era legislation written ambiguously was applied to interracial relationships. Jack Johnson was forced to justify his preference for white partners, declaring he was not a slave. Again, this appears an insignificant issue today but a dangerous position for Johnson to take at a time when Congress was presented with a bill to outlaw interracial marriages.

Such has been the demonization of Johnson over the years, that until recently, it was common for boxing journals to refer to him as the `most hated man in boxing` a jaundiced appraisal given that millions adored him, vicariously sharing his victories and sadly his humiliations too.  `Whatever you write about me` Johnson told a reporter shortly before he died, `remember I was a man`. Indeed, Jack Johnson was a remarkable man, born in 1878 (the child of former slaves) in Texas just as the Reconstruction movement in the South was on the retreat. Three years before Jack`s birth the Supreme Court declared the 1875 Civil Rights Act to be unconstitutional. And he made his professional boxing debut in 1897, the year after the landmark Supreme Court judgement of Plessy v Ferguson  which enshrined into the law the Jim Crow concept of `separate but equal`.

Sport of course was subject to this legal framework and John L Sullivan, the first gloved Heavyweight Champion of the World faced thirty-five all white opponents, the `Boston Strong Boy, stating he would never fight an African-American. This was the America of Woodrow Wilson, a President who sympathetically viewed Griffith`s `The Birth of a Nation` in the Whitehouse, at the very time when the American authorities were pursuing Johnson. For Jack Johnson the dice was always loaded against him but he managed to reach the highest high in the most incredible circumstances and it is for this reason he is loved by many today.

Johnson`s introduction into boxing via the horrific route of the so called `Battle Royale`. These spectacles involved young African-American men fighting each other, blind-folded for money, until the last man standing and that last man was often Jack Johnson. It is in this horrendous environment, that he learnt his craft enabling Johnson to take boxing to a different level in terms of defence and attack. Any boxer, who survives such a cruel apprenticeship in full heath, is an extraordinary individual. Such a person will in a fair match be a formidable opponent, which proved to be the case, as Johnson defeated all before him.

Boxing is a martial art and one that has gradually developed into the `sweet science` an occurrence closely identified with a white man – James J. Corbett. This earned him the nickname `Gentleman Jim` but when Jack Johnson took the science of boxing further he was labelled duplicitous and sneaky. If a black man fought like Corbett he was lazy and if he was a smart boxer then there was something dishonest about him. Likewise, if an African-American fighter was aggressive and relied on power he suffered from other racial slurs. What Johnson was able to do was make something difficult look easy doing so while under incredible pressure from both the crowd and opponent. The racial abuse heaped on Johnson during the Burns fight is a good example of this. Johnson claimed that if he had killed Burns for the language used against him during this bout then he would have been justified in doing so. But Jack went about his business with a golden smile. Many an over matched opponent had cause to thank Johnson for his kindness in the ring, as the recollections of Oscar winning tough guy actor and former boxer Victor McLaglen testify.

It was many years after Johnson`s tenure as World Champion that an African-American would be allowed to ascend to the heights that he reached. Jack Dempsey while Heavy Weight Champion of the World never fought an African-American – while admitting the only man he feared was Sam Langford (cited in his memories although ignored in the index). Ironically, African-Americans were frozen out of the Heavy Weight Championship scene by Johnson himself (he defeated Langford narrowly in 1906 and refused to fight him for the championship) indeed he refused to fight any African-American in a championship bout.

Joe Louis after many years followed Johnson a brilliant boxer who did his best to accommodate himself to the racist establishment in the USA at the time. Louis dedicated his hard won prize money to charity but was hounded for the back taxes – forcing him to make an unedifying comeback. But the spirit of Papa Jack was to return much later when the Louisville Lip entered the world stage `flouting like a butterfly and stinging like bee` but that is another important story…


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