Black Excellence

28 DOBE- Day 14: The Beast, Jack Johnson

Jack Johnson was so bold, so critical of the politics and racism he saw in the society he called his own, he openly dated white women.

 

28 Days of Black Excellence

An ongoing series for the entire 28 days of Black History Month that showcases the inventions, the people, and culture that makes people of the African diaspora so excellent.

[/vc_column_text][vc_separator color=”green” border_width=”3″][vc_column_text]Jack Johnson was so bold, so critical of the politics and racism he saw in the society he called his own, he openly dated white women. A decision that ultimately got him jailed  twice under Jim Crow, during a time in 1912 when he was on top of the world, the heavy-weight boxing champion.   

Jack Johnson, later known as “The Galveston Giant,” was born in Texas, in 1878, to former slaves. He spent his teenage years working on the docks of the port city and honing his boxing skills. Then, in 1901, he was recognized for his size and talent. The 6’1”, 225 pound Johnson was arrested that year, as prizefighting was illegal in Texas.

Johnson moved to California, where he rose swiftly through the prizefighting ranks. In 1903 he became the unofficial “Negro heavyweight champion,” and he had set his sights on the world title. But the current champion at the time, James Jeffries, refused to fight him.

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Instead, after declaring that he’d defeated “all logical challengers,” Jeffries announced that he would retire to his alfalfa farm after overseeing a fight between two other prominent boxers. Whoever won could claim the world champion title.

Five years would pass before Johnson found a challenger who was willing to box him for the undisputed title designation: Tommy Burns, who only agreed because of the $30,000 prize—a $777,000 dollar price tag in 2016 dollars. So handily did Johnson best Burns, police officers had to jump in the ring to break up the 14-match fight, as Burns was nearly unconscious.

A well-seasoned Johnson handily beat the Canadian to obtain the title, on Boxing Day. So swift was the backlash in the white world, Jack London, author of the now-required classroom novel “The Call of the Wild,” told James Jeffries to come out of retirement and wipe the golden smile off of Johnson’s face.

To make matters worse, Johnson loved challenging the mores of the time. He was, as screenwriter John Ridley once wrote, “a guy who basically lived his life with a metaphorical middle finger raised in the air.” He had fast as hell race cars and often got speeding tickets. Owned his own nightclub, owned a pet leopard, and rolled with white women while drinking champagne like a rockstar.

He even earned enemies within the black community. Booker T. Washington once wrote: “it is unfortunate that a man with money should use it in a way to injure his own people, in the eyes of those who are seeking to uplift his race and improve its conditions.” Of course, it should be noted as a little aside that Washington was always considered an Uncle Tom, despite his many great contributions to the black community as a whole. I honestly believe that Johnson wasn’t hurting anything but white people’s feelings. Which would shortly catch up to him.

After a series of marriages to white women, which was naturally illegal under the Mann Act, he fled America with his second wife and had to put on mini matches throughout Europe to support the two of them. Eventually traveling back to the Americas, he was bested by a 6’6” boxer in Cuba in a 26th round finish. He finally surrendered at the Mexican border and spent a year in prison.

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The boxer Jack Johnson with his first wife, Etta.. [Library of Congress.]

In 1946, he died in a car crash at age 68.

As the first black heavyweight champion, Johnson unlocked the door to years of success for many. He would go on to inspire Joe Louis and even Muhammed Ali, who both paid homage to him. Yet, clearing this massive hurdle would also heft onto the big man a series of massive masses, as what should be expected for an African American—the first may also be seen to get the worst. Hate mail. Death threats.  How could this one man, this beast, beat the best of the best white men to the “punch”? Surely there was an excuse. It was impossible for this “inferior” to best the perfect race. Ha! Yeah, right.

Recently, Johnson’s great-great niece asked for a pardon from Donald Trump for Mr. Johnson’s unfair, and now unconstitutional, conviction for “immorality” in one of his relationships with a white woman—which is, surprisingly—a measure that Senator John McCain has been pushing for for the past 14 years! Whatever the outcome, Johnson will forever live on as a great example of black excellence, and no police or border control agents will ever take that away. [/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]

Alex Miller

Alex Miller is a freelance writer living in Harlem. His work has appeared in Forbes, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other places.