It’s always dangerous getting involved in an online argument on any of the various social networks. No matter how empirically wrong someone might be, obstinance and a healthy dose of internet courage kicks in and there goes an hour of your life having a back and forth that will lead you to nowhere but frustration. Sometimes you can’t help yourself though, and when some Facebook sage claimed that Jack Johnson was not held back by his race, well, I felt compelled to explain a few things.
It all started when a friend of mine posted an article about the misfortunes of African-Americans in the United States and the influence of white privilege in our society. A gentleman chimed in on the post arguing that no one is or has ever been held back by their race, post-slavery. He then used Johnson as an example. Which I found flabbergasting.
Maybe it’s easy to overlook the losses of someone who accomplished so much. Johnson didn’t just have to knock out white guys and face down racial hatred from his fellow citizens, he also had to fight the United States government. As the first black man to ever hold the heavyweight championship (1908-15), Johnson endured under the American form of apartheid known as Jim Crow.
Under Jim Crow, the good ‘ol states of the former confederacy mandated the separation of the races when it came to any and all public facilities, leaving the black members of the population with inferior access to services. The law coined the bilious term “separate but equal,” but conditions were anything but.
Johnson began fighting in 1898 and it took him 59 fights and ten full years to get a title shot even though he had been the World “Colored” heavyweight champion for five years. He defeated Canadian Tommy Burns by 14 round decision in 1908. Johnson went on to hold the title for the 3rd longest stretch of anyone in the history of the fight game.
In 1910,the former heavyweight champion Jim Jeffries ended a six year retirement to take on Johnson and, as he put it, “I am going into this fight for the sole purpose of proving that a white man is better than a Negro.” The media dubbed Jeffries “The Great White Hope” and the contest became known as “The Fight of the Century.” Johnson dominated the fight and in the 15th round, Jeffries’ manager entered the ring and ended the fight after his charge had suffered two knockdowns, one that sent him sprawling through the ropes, resulting in Jeffries needing help from a fan to get back into the ring.
Race riots broke out all across the United States after Johnson’s victory. Ironically, the fight took place on the 4th of July.
Johnson carried his burdens with a surprising level of fearlessness. He had grown up in Galveston, TX and was a stranger to segregation. He even spoke of running with “white boys” and seldom felt the sting of racism as a child. He would learn.
Johnson finally lost his title on April 5, 1915 to challenger Jess Willard. Johnson was dominating the fight, but tired in the later rounds and was knocked out by the Pottawatomie Giant in the 26th(!) round. Many believed that Johnson threw the fight due to his prosecution by the United States government for violating the Mann Act—also known as the White-Slave Traffic Act. The law stated that it was a felony to engage in interstate commerce by transporting “any woman or girl for the purpose of prostitution or debauchery or for any other immoral purpose”. How did Johnson violate this law? By taking his soon to be second wife, Lucille Cameron, across state lines. Sounds ridiculous, right? Except for one thing. Lucille was white (as were all three of Johnson’s wives). The case fell apart largely because Cameron would not testify against him. However, a second woman named Belle Schreiber (also white), whom Johnson had also a had relationship with, did testify at a later hearing and Johnson was convicted in the courtroom of noted racist—and future Major League Baseball Commissioner and enforcer of the color barrier—Judge Kenesaw “Mountain” Landis, by an all-white jury. Perhaps even more astonishing is the fact that Johnson was found guilty of a law that did not exist at the time of his “crimes.” Johnson jumped bail and fled to Europe, living abroad for seven years before surrendering to the feds in July of 1920. Johnson served three months in Leavenworth for his infraction.
So, as you might imagine, I find it fascinating that anyone could state that Johnson was not held back by his race. He had to wait for a decade and wade through nearly 60 fights before he could be found fit to fight a white man for the most prestigious title in all of boxing. He labored under horrendous racism, may have thrown the title in the hopes this would somehow curry favor with judge and jury for violating a federal law that had not even passed at the time of his supposed transgressions–leading to a seven year exile and a prison sentence.
What all of the institutional and quite legal racism of his era cost him was time. Lots of it. How much more could Johnson have done had he not suffered under such conditions? Would he not have fought for more years as the champ? Would he not have made more money? Would he not have had to live on the run and eventually give up his own personal freedom? My goodness, would he not have simply been happier? Johnson’s accomplishments were certainly more extraordinary because of his race. However, on the most personal of levels, he was not able to do all he could because all he was capable of was not available to him. And that is tragic.
Johnson died on June 10, 1946 at the age of 68 after speeding recklessly away in anger from a diner that refused to serve him, for what Ken Burns’ amazing documentary called his “Unforgiveable Blackness.”
I rest my case.