The unforgiveable blackness of Jack Johnson

PBS will broadcast on Jan. 17-18, 2005, a two-part series on Jack Johnson, the heavyweight boxing champion, whose achievements and life shocked the white-dominated society of early 20 th century America.

The film is titled “Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson.” Johnson is the first black man since the era of Reconstruction 30 years before to conquer any part of white society. During that time, African-Americans had been systematically excluded from almost every part of white society in America. They were accepted as servants and occasionally artisans by white but as little else. They were denied education, opportunity and justice. That denial extended to sports, except for boxing, which was after baseball the second most popular sport in the nation.
As usual with any of its program, PBS has developed an excellent web site to accompany this program. It is well worth spending some with.

By any standard, Johnson was a remarkable man of great courage and flawed judgment. He was born in 1878 in Galveston, Texas. He learned to read and write and developed an ambition larger than the confines of that port city. He entered the tough and brutal world of boxing, and his size (he was six feet tall and 200 pounds – a large man for his time) gave him a natural advantage. He had the goal of becoming the best, and he trained and fought to achieve that goal.

While blacks could participate in the sport to a limited extent, they were barred from the heavyweight division – the division recognized as the best. As Johnson began to make a name for himself in other divisions, the heavyweight champion was Jim Jeffries. The champ eventually retired undefeated, having never even been knocked down in the ring. Tommy Burns emerged as the next champion, and Johnson openly challenged him to a fight. Burns tried to avoid Johnson, but Johnson followed him to many locations, always issuing his challenge. Burns could not ignore it and finally gave in. They met on Dec. 28, 1908, in Sidney, Australia, and Johnson easily won the 14 round match.

White America was stunned and appalled – not just by the fact that Johnson had won but by the flamboyance of the new champion. He bragged about his victories, taunted his opponents and, worst of all, consorted openly with white women. Johnson’s victory over Burns began a search for “the great white hope,” someone who could beat Johnson. Jeffries was coaxed out of retirement, and a match was set for July 10, 1910 in San Francisco. Political pressure forced a move to Reno, Nev. The newspapers shown on this page tell the story of what happened.

Newspapers by and large reflected the thinking of their readers. There were few racially progressive voices among the press even during this time known as the Progressive Era. After Johnson beat Jeffries, the Los Angeles Times printed this virulent editorial titled “A Word to the Black Man”:

Do not swell your chest too much. Do not boast too loudly. Do not be puffed up. Let not your ambition be inordinate or take a wrong direction. Remember you have done nothing at all. You are just the same member of society you were last week. You are on no higher plane, deserve no new consideration, and will get none. . . .

(In the Burns film, these words are read by actor Billy Bob Thornton. The Washington Post reports that Burns took Thornton into the studio and told him, “’Just put your arm around the fellow and put a knife to his throat and now read the quote,’ because that’s what the quote is: total, violent intimidation.”)

White America simply could not stand to have Johnson towering over it in any area. Three years after the fight, Johnson was convicted on a trumped up morals charge and sentenced to a year in prison. He jumped bail and lived in Europe for several years. He eventually returned to America, served his sentence and tried to resume his old life. By this time, he was old (for a fighter) and out of shape, and no one really cared. He had an obsession with automobiles and died in a car crash in 1946.

(Posted Jan. 16, 2005)

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Jim Stovall, a retired journalism prof, is now a novelist, self publisher, watercolorist, gardener, woodworker and beekeeper -- among others things.

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