Sunday, July 4, 2010

Remembering the Centennial of the "Great White Hope" Fight Between Jack Johnson and Jim Jeffries

Here I have been doing the typical Fourth of July things today, bonding with family, serving as grill master, and now listening to all of the illegal (I am in Virginia right now) fireworks going off throughout the neighborhood. But I knew I wanted to do more thing before the close of the holiday.

Today is the 100th anniversary of the first "Great White Hope" fight between Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight boxing champion, and Jim Jeffries, the former heavyweight champion who came out of retirement to reclaim the title. It was in Reno, NV where this fight took place, and it was the talk of the nation. Newspapers across the country followed the fight camps, and the nation listened intently as the fight went on. Once Johnson was declared the winner (and the hopes of whites across the nation were dashed, and the hopes of blacks across the nation were reaffirmed), fights broke out across the nation. More than 20 people lost their lives, and hundreds more were injured.

I enjoyed writing about this event when I was working on my Master's thesis way back in the '90s, and I was amazed by the fact that what was big news back in 1910 is not really well known today. I looked for articles that marked the centennial of this great battle, and I found a fair few. The Reno Gazette-Journal has done a special report (and had a three day celebration) for the centennial, and it is a read that I strongly recommend. There is also an interesting article over at chronicling what happened in the city during and after the fight. The Galveston County Daily News has an interesting article on the legacy of that community's hometown champion (nice quotes Mr. Collins!).

Johnson was indeed a complicated figure, and he was not immortalized as Joe Louis was (Louis' career was created to be the antithesis of Johnson's, and Louis became the second black heavyweight champion with a combination of his huge talent and his lack of Jack Johnson like bravado). And most people little remember that the phrase "great white hope" is directly related to putting a particular black man "back in his place." I think that it is great that a number of outlets have remembered the centennial. I think it helps to show how far we have come (and how far we have not come).

And on a final note, I do hope that President Obama will grant Johnson a well deserved posthumous pardon. The efforts of the Jack Johnson Foundation, as well as Sen. John McCain, should be commended. That pardon would be an excellent way to cap this centennial commemoration.

Happy 4th!!

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