When Jack London opened his ringside report with the famous words, “Once again Jack Johnson sent down to defeat the chosen representative of the white race, and this time the greatest of them all,” I wonder if he knew how significant those words proved to be. It was Monday, July 4, 1910. Promoters billed this as the “Fight of the Century.” In cities throughout the land, fight fans of all races crowded around telegraph offices waiting for word of the outcome, as was the custom in the days before cable tv, the internet, and pay-per-view television. It was little wonder when the news of Johnson’s victory zipped across the telegraph wires that it would be no ordinary Independence Day. The country would see fireworks of a different kind.
The early 20th Century marked what was perhaps the lowest point of race relations in the United States since the end of slavery. These were the days when a black man could expect to be lynched if he so much as smiled at a white woman. Many states banned pugilistic contests between black and white boxers. Jim Crow held sway over the land. The hatred White America had for the Galveston Giant was not simply due to his skin color. Jack Johnson defied the racial conventions of the time. He wore flashy clothes, spent money freely, and he committed the unpardonable sin of the time: Johnson openly consorted with, and indeed would later marry, white women. Truthfully, Johnson behaved in a manner no different from that of white boxers, or athletes who came after him, but different society judged black athletes by a different standard, and Johnson sought to move those standards.
Word of Johnson’s 15th round victory, which came when Jeffries’ corner stopped the fight after the man was knocked down multiple times in the round, spread quickly. In Roanoke, a black man remarked, “Now, I guess the white folks will let the negroes alone.” A white man disagreed and a scuffle ensued. An unknown man fired a bullet which struck the white man in the head. Six black men were beaten senseless and the police took the extraordinary step of closing the bars early, lest alcohol fuel any more encounters. In Little Rock, fisticuffs gave way to flying lead which left one white man wounded and two black men dead. Attacks on black men in Houston and Atlanta resulted in injuries. An angry mob in New York City set fire to a black tenement building. Two black men were gunned down in New Orleans and another in Kansas City.
Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Philadelphia, Pueblo. As the hours passed, the riots spread from coast to coast. They all followed the same basic pattern: Disgruntled white men venting their anger on any black man in sight. In the aftermath, in an effort to avoid such trouble in the future, states and cities started to ban fight films, which were typically shown in theaters after the fight. The Federal Government got involved too and banned the interstate transportation of the films.
Why? What was it about Johnson that so enraged men that they were willing to kill? To put it simply, it was what Johnson represented. He lived his life as if segregation and societal conventions did not exist. He was Jack Johnson, and if you didn’t like it, that was your problem, not his. Johnson was no saint, but neither was he the demon White America made him out to be. We’ve come a long way since the dark days of 1910, but perhaps not far enough. Sadly, racism contributed to Johnson’s death as well. In 1946, he stopped at a roadside diner in North Carolina. They turned him away on account of his skin color. Angry, he jumped into his car and roared away (Johnson always was something of a speed demon on the road). Shortly thereafter, he crashed and died in a Raleigh hospital.
Johnson can teach us all a lesson. Be true to yourself. It won’t be easy, and sometimes you may pay a steep price, but at the end of the day, you can look in the mirror and know who you are. Given his impact on the history of sport, it always amazed me that so many people out there had never heard of him, even in and around Galveston. The miscarriage of justice which led to his conviction was a travesty all its own. I wrote two letters to President Bush, two letters to President Clinton, two letters to President Bush (The younger), and another two letters to President Obama, all urging them to pardon the champ. All those missives went unanswered and I gave up. Yet today, the historic wrong done to Johnson, imprisoning him for falling in love with someone of a different color than he, has been righted. Johnson got his pardon. I suppose you could say that it makes no difference, as Johnson is long dead, but I do think it necessary to correct the record. More people know his name now because of the pardon, and there was an increase in interest and even google searches when the pardon was announced, and I consider that a plus, not just for him, but for the sweet science as a whole.