When I was a kid, I was fascinated by boxing. I think this was a function of my paternal grandfather’s interest in watching it on television; boxing was on primetime TV from 1946 to 1964 on four different networks, including Dumont. It was a mix of admiration and horror, I think. I knew all the heavyweight boxing champions, and their approximate reign from John L. Sullivan to Jersey Joe Walcott to Joe Louis – the Brown Bomber to the undefeated Rocky Marciano to
Cassius Clay Muhammad Ali.
No one, though, intrigued me more than Jack Johnson. Perhaps it was because he was the first black heavyweight champ, but more than likely it was because he seemed to annoy so many with his unforgivable blackness. He won the title in a brutalizing fight; I suspect that he fought that way as payback for being denied even the opportunity to fight for the crown for five years for reasons of race.
From the Wikipedia post: “[R]acial animosity among whites ran so deep that even a socialist like Jack London called out for a ‘Great White Hope’ to take the title away from Johnson — who was crudely caricatured as a subhuman ‘ape’ — and return it to where it supposedly belonged, with the ‘superior’ white race.” His 1910 “Fight of the Century” victory over former undefeated heavyweight champion James J. Jeffries lead to riots by the white public, often leading to near lynchings of blacks.
Jack Johnson was the first person
persecutedprosecuted under the United States White-Slave Traffic Act of 1910 which not only prohibited white slavery, but also banned the “interstate transport of females for immoral purposes.” You may know it better as the Mann Act, which was so broadly worded that courts held it to criminalize many forms of consensual sexual activity. Charlie Chaplin and Chuck Berry were charged under it and Eliot Spitzer might have been.
I remember that my girlfriend at the time, her late father and I saw the movie The Great White Hope, starring James Earl Jones and Jane Alexander, both Oscar nominated, when it came out in 1970. We were all mesmerized and enthralled, though like many movies made from plays, it was more like the filming of a play than a true theatrical experience.
Last September, Congress, with the strong support of, among others, John McCain, passed a resolution to recommend that the President grant Johnson a “pardon for his 1913 conviction, in acknowledgment of its racist overtones, and in order to exonerate Johnson and recognize his contribution to boxing.” I can find no record suggesting that such a pardon was ever granted.
There’s an online comic book called The Original Johnson. The description: “Trevor von Eeden introduces the first really free black man.” It was just over a century ago, December 26, 1908– “ironically enough, Boxing Day in many countries– Jack Johnson beat Tommy Burns to become both the heavyweight champion of the world, and the most notorious black man on the planet.”