Jack Johnson: Black boxer who sparked race riots after world heavyweight win
Those riots weren’t sparked by police brutality, but by a boxing match.
In 1908, Jack Johnson became the first Black heavyweight boxing champion of the world, fighting at a time when, despite slavery having been abolished 45 years previously, African Americans were still subjected to widespread segregation and racism.
The bout was fought in Reno, Nevada, at the height of the Jim Crow laws era, when racial segregation in the US South was rigorously enforced.
It wasn’t until the rise of Muhammad Ali — who recognized many similarities between himself and Johnson — and the arrival of the Black Power era that his career and achievements became more widely appreciated, not just for his sporting prowess but for his trailblazing success in an era when racism was widespread and commonplace.
According to Theresa Runstedtler — author of ‘Jack Johnson, Rebel Sojourner: Boxing in the Shadow of the Global Color Line’ — the boxer’s defeat of Jeffries “ripped the veil off of the niceties that were used to cover up the violence of White supremacy.”
“That he had defied social barriers to become the best at something when all of these other barriers were being put up in front of African Americans seeking to improve their social status, symbolically, he was super important.”
Reaching the pinnacle
“To know that somebody in an era of just the most appalling racism decided as a very young boy that he was going to be something unique and special and then set out to do that is, people talk about the American dream, which is largely a myth, but he embodies it,” according to Geoffrey C. Ward, author of ‘Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson.’
However, then-current world heavyweight champion Tommy Burns was more open-minded, promising to defend his title against “all comers, none barred. By this I mean Black, Mexican, Indian or any other nationality without regard to color, size or nativity.”
In 1908, in front of a crowd of 20,000, Johnson was handily beating Burns in Sydney, Australia, before police stopped the fight in the 14th round to prevent Johnson from knocking out his opponent. Nevertheless, Johnson’s victory was secure, making him the first-ever Black heavyweight boxing champion.
‘Fight Of The Century’
The quicker, more agile Johnson easily evaded Jeffries’ lumbering attacks, knocking him down twice. Finally, during the 15th round Jeffries’ corner threw in the towel.
“They basically begged [Jeffries] to come out of retirement, pump up his ego and make him think he’s gonna win, and he just fails miserably at that,” Runstedtler said.
Said Runstedtler, “[They] were terrified about what this film would do to the delicate balance of power in their spaces where, in particular in the British case, often they were outnumbered by people of African descent.
“There was a huge build-up around it and so it wasn’t just the fight itself, and the victory on that day, but the reverberations of it across the rest of the US and the world.”
‘A very flamboyant, ostentatious personal presentation’
“If you’ve looked at any of the photos of him, he had a very flamboyant, ostentatious personal presentation at a time when African Americans were seen by the rest of society as manual laborers or workers,” Runstedtler explained.
“He was known to hang out in the vice districts of Chicago and other cities where he traveled and to cavort with the sporting crowd, the gamblers, the pimps, the prostitutes, etc.”
Johnson’s feud with Joe Louis, world heavyweight champion from 1937 to 1949 and one of the greatest heavyweight boxers of all time, further tarnished his reputation.
“He bet against [Louis], he hoped Billy Conn would beat him, he hoped Max Schmeling would beat him,” Ward noted.
“And after the first Schmeling fight in 1936 (which Louis lost), he went down on 120 Fifth Street in Harlem and showed off all the money that he had won betting against Joe Louis and the police had to rescue him from the crowd.”
It wasn’t until long after Johnson’s death in 1946 that people started to revisit his story and the effect that he had on society, primarily because of the success of Ali and the legendary heavyweight’s own interest in Johnson’s life.
At that time, Ali’s refusal to fight in Vietnam after converting to Islam had resulted in his boxing license being suspended and the government taking hold of his passport. These struggles he faced were the reasons why he saw so many similarities between him and Johnson’s plights.
“People within the Black community, particularly Black men, revisited his image and said: ‘Wow, this guy just did whatever the heck he wanted,'” Runstedtler said. “And he embodied the kind of powerful Black masculinity that appealed to people during the Black Power era.”
Ali’s revisiting of Johnson’s story helped catapult the one-time world champion — who had had his title stripped because of his refusal to be drafted into army service to fight in the Vietnam War — back into the public’s consciousness and also create a lineage of great Black heavyweight boxers.
“Even though Black people were, in some ways, more accepted in American culture, the promoters’ dream became to look for controversy. And Jack Johnson was the first great showman.
“He gave them what they wanted. Look at the time he lived. It was remarkable that he was travelling the world, as a Black man, getting arrested, leaving America, going to Europe. In the end he got old, like we all do, and he got knocked out by Jess Willard.”
And although Trump’s pardoning of Johnson “brought him back into public view,” Runstedtler contends Johnson’s legacy of rebellion against the status quo wasn’t fully acknowledged during the pardon campaign.
“(The White campaigners) don’t actually want to embrace a more subversive legacy that he has, which I think is actually the more complicated one and the one that I would hope that he would be remembered for.
“Certainly the campaign to pardon him has brought him back into public view for mainstream White America and potentially folks who are boxing fans in other countries around the world. But there’s still a kind of underlying or subversive aspect to his legacy, and I don’t think has been fully acknowledged in that pardon campaign.”