Friday, January 9, 2009

Jack Johnson

I am not a boxing fan. I have no real interest in catching the latest bout on HBO. I don't know who the current champions are at this moment. But when I took a U.S. Sport History class in graduate school, I learned the story of Jack Johnson. I'd heard of Joe Louis. My grandparents were huge fans, and both could recall listening to the radio as teenagers when Louis beat Max Schmeling (in their second meeting) in 1938 in 124 seconds. But Johnson captured my imagination. He captured it enough that I decided to do a study of white Southern newspaper coverage of his and Joe Louis' championship reigns for my Master's thesis. I thought I would take time in this centennial era of his reign (1908-1915) to give a little history lesson.

During the late 19th/early 20th century, the heavyweight boxing champion was seen as the strongest man in the world. So it should come as no surprise that blacks had been barred from competing for the title. It took the title going to the Canadian Tommy Burns, and a global chase that ended in Sydney, Australia, before Johnson was able to get a legitimate shot. When the fight was announced (set for December 26, 1908), American boxing fans were particularly venomous in their comments about the taint of the whole affair, and they were concerned that if the "big negro" won, that it might send the wrong message to the broader American black population. When Johnson won, as honest followers of boxing suspected would happen, the campaign began to tear down the symbolic importance of the heavyweight boxing champion. White fistic fans felt that the sport lost its luster, and interest in the sport dropped. A few writers were quick to remind black Americans that just because Johnson won, it didn't mean anything was different with regard to their "inferiority." Meanwhile, in black communities around the nation, there was absolute rejoicing. The "talented tenth" and the "remaining ninety" understood that a new barrier had fallen.

There was no denying Johnson's skills in the ring. Current sports writers and boxing historians have argued that Johnson was perhaps the best defensive boxer of all time. He was able to taunt his opponents to the point where they became the aggressor, and then Johnson would cut them to ribbons. However, it was his out of the ring activities that got him in all sorts of trouble. This man was openly consorting with white women at a time when a black man could be lynched just for looking at one. Johnson was getting paid to beat up white men at a time when even the threat of violence to a white man would get a black man killed. It is incredible to consider when you think of the time. And the fact that no one, as far as the record shows, attempted to assassinate Johnson is remarkable.

But it was 1910 that was the high water mark for Johnson's reign. The author Jack London was one who led the call for former heavyweight champion Jim Jeffries to come out of retirement and be the "Great white hope" and restore order to the world by putting Johnson back in his place. Jeffries agreed to this match, and the fight was set for July 4, 1910 in Reno, NV. The major newspapers of the country dispatched reporters to cover the camps of the boxers. It was incredible to see the front page coverage in the lead up to the bout. Booker T. Washington didn't even get continual front page coverage around the nation for his activities, thus belying the claim that he was the most famous black person of the era. Whites were convinced that Jeffries was going to right a wrong.

Sadly for them, that was not to be. Johnson completely demolished Jim Jeffries, and following the announcement that Johnson won, riots broke out in different parts of the country. People lost their lives and were injured that night, all because a black man beat a white hope. It is incredible to consider that now, when people assume that rioting is the dominion of black folks.

Johnson, over time, simply got on the nerves of everyone. Folks, black and white, did not appreciate his marriages to white women (three in total), nor did folks appreciate the fact the Johnson was determined to live his life as any other heavyweight boxing champion would. For that I commend him. He was clear that his stature afforded him a certain lifestyle, and he intended to honor that. His reign, however, came to a close in 1915, though there was a question of whether or not he threw the fight. But Jess Willard got to go down in history as the "great white hope" who defeated the "dark menace."

Johnson's life is really interesting and strangely swashbuckling. I would encourage folks to learn more. You can always start here. He is indeed one of the most fascinating figures in American history.

1 comment:

Curious said...

Actually, Jack Johnson should be every man's hero instead of just a forgotten negro from the past. He lived his life on his terms and was demonized for that and for being black.

They had a really good biography on PBS a couple of years ago about him before during and after his career and I believe Ken Burns has done another one on him coming soon.