Raise your hand if you’ve heard of Jack Johnson.
Okay, now put your hand down and hang your head in shame if you thought I was talking about the soft rock/acoustic musician (the rest of you can just put your hands down). Why would I be talking to you about someone who’s still alive? Come on.
I’m talking about John Arthur “Jack” Johnson, also known as the Galveston Giant, and the first African-American heavyweight world champion, a feat accomplished during the height of Jim Crow. Ken Burns (the documentarian) has described Johnson as, in his time, “the most famous and the most notorious African-American on Earth.” Sounds like someone you’d like to know more about, right? So let’s do it.
Johnson in 1908, the year he won his Championship bout
Johnson was born in 1878 in Galveston, Texas, the son of former slaves who worked menial jobs in order to support their nine children. He attended five years of school while working for the milkman and helping his father out with his janitorial job. When describing his life later, Johnson never remembered feeling particularly discriminated against as a child, as Galveston was a poor city and no one felt much superior to anyone else (AND, as you will remember if you read my post on Garfield and the Nadir of race relations, segregation and Jim Crow laws didn’t really start taking hold until Johnson was very nearly a teenager). This upbringing, wherein he considered every man he met no more than his equal, and often his inferior, would be with him forever, especially whenever he stepped into the ring. Jack Johnson was a man who refused to be intimidated or cowed.
Once he quit school, Johnson worked several odd jobs until he discovered boxing. He got a job as a janitor in a Manhattan gym owned by a heavyweight fighter, while living with a welterweight fighter. His life, from that point on, would revolve around fighting (well, fighting, gambling, drinking, and women… Bender from Futurama would have gotten along just fine with Jack Johnson).
He began fighting as a professional in 1898 and quickly rose to prominence. His style of fighting, which was somewhat unique for the time, involved defensive fighting in the early rounds, which gradually grew more aggressive in the later rounds as his opponents tired. The press of the day excoriated him, calling his style “cowardly,” despite the fact that Jim Corbett, heavyweight champion only a few years earlier, had fought in much the same style, and was beloved by the press as “the cleverest man in boxing”; I’ll give you one guess as to what the difference between Johnson and Corbett was.
Anyway, I’m not going to give you the full blow-by-blow of his boxing career (pun most definitely intended). He won the World Colored Heavyweight Championship in 1903 and immediately turned his ambitions towards winning the overall world heavyweight championship. This was no easy task, however, as the champion at that time, Jim Jeffries, refused to face him. In 1908, after two years of literally following the then-reigning world champion, Tommy Burns, around the world, sitting ringside at every one of Burns’ fights, and taunting him, Johnson finally got his chance. He and Burns (who, it is said, only agreed to fight Johnson after being guaranteed $30,000 by the fight’s promoters) faced off in Sydney, Australia on December 26, 1908. The fight lasted for fourteen rounds before being stopped by the police, and Johnson was declared the winner. Novelist Jack London, who attended the fight and wrote about it for the San Francisco Call, opened his article with the words, “The fight; there was no fight. No Armenian massacre could compare with the hopeless slaughter that took place in the Sydney stadium today.”1
While there was already a black lightweight champion (Joe Gans) in 1908, and no one batted an eyelash at that, the idea of a black man being the heavyweight champion, which was considered the pinnacle of boxing achievement, rattled and enraged people. It wasn’t just that Jack Johnson was black that bothered people, though; it was also his lifestyle. Jack Johnson lived fast and loud while being black. He loved fast cars, he loved easy women (especially white women), he gambled away most of his winnings, and he had very little use for humility. I think that his approach to life is pretty well summed up in this quote attributed to him: “I’m black. They’ll never let me forget it. I’m black, all right! I’ll never let them forget it!”
With the boxing world in an uproar over Johnson’s championship, calls went up from far and wide for a “Great White Hope,” to defeat Johnson and return the title to someone of a somewhat less African-American persuasion. Johnson had to fight many of these Great White Hopes while he held the title, and he handily defeated each of them. In 1910, former heavyweight champion Jim Jeffries came out of retirement on his alfalfa farm to be the ultimate Great White Hope in the “Fight of the Century.” The fight went for fifteen rounds, ending when Jeffries’ corner threw in the towel in order to spare his record from having a knockout on it. After the fight, Jeffries was humbled, admitting that he couldn’t have beaten Johnson even when he was at his best.
The outcome of the fight – which even the harshest critics admitted was fairly won by Johnson – led to race riots all over the United States.
A political cartoon from the L.A. Times, July 7, 1910, commenting on the aftermath of the fight
This is getting way too long, and I haven’t even gotten to his personal life, which was… complicated. When asked the secret of his stamina, after a steady stream of women were observed coming and going from his hotel room, Johnson allegedly replied, "Jellied eels and distant thoughts." He was married three times, each time to a white women (miscegenation was illegal at that time); he was arrested for violating the Mann Act, which prohibited transporting a woman across state lines for immoral purposes (she was a purported prostitute, and he was black), fled the country for several years upon conviction, and served almost a year in jail upon his return in 1920; he continued to fight throughout most of the rest of his life; he died in a car crash in 1948. He was the world’s first African-American pop culture icon and it's absolutely a travesty that so few today have any idea who he was.
Before I close, I’d like to leave you with a short story I heard about Jack Johnson. Whether it’s true or apocryphal, I have no proof, but I choose to believe that it’s true:
Jack Johnson was driving through town, going well over the speed limit. When the policeman who pulled him over stuck him with a $50 speeding ticket, Johnson didn’t even blink before handing over a $100 bill. The officer protested that he couldn’t accept $100, only $50.
“Keep the change,” Johnson replied coolly. “I’ll be coming back through the same way later.”
For more on Jack Johnson (because really, I cannot do the man justice in such a short blog post) here is some additional reading/viewing:
Burns, Ken, David Schaye, Paul Barnes, Geoffrey C. Ward, Keith David, Samuel L. Jackson, Stanley Crouch... Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson. Alexandria, Va.: PBS Home Video, 2005. (also a book by Geoffrey C. Ward, if you prefer…)
The War on Jack Johnson: Boxing’s First Black Heavyweight Champion vs. the World. Accessed at: http://fightland.vice.com/blog/the-war-on-jack-johnson-boxings-first-black-heavyweight-champion-versus-the-world (this website includes a .gif of the Burns-Johnson fight!)
Johnson, Jack. My Life and Battles. (Jack Johnson’s memoir, translated from French by Prof. Christopher Rivers, available in paperback.)
Richard K. Fox Publishing Company. The Life and Battles of Jack Johnson, Champion Pugilist of the World. (This 1912 primary source book is available online at https://knowledgecenter.unr.edu/digital_collections/exhibits/johnson_jeffries/documents/lifebattlesofjac00foxr.pdf.)
1 San Francisco Call, Volume 105, Number 27, 27 December 1908, accessed at http://cdnc.ucr.edu/cgi-bin/cdnc?a=d&d=SFC19081188.8.131.52.1