Sunday, April 02, 2023  |



Johnson-Jeffries: A flashpoint in U.S. race relations

Fighters Network

The virulent racism early last century in the United States was a festering, plainly exposed sore on society. African-Americans were reminded of their place every day by oppressive Jim Crow laws and regular lynchings, which served as a terrifying deterrent to those who dared step out line.

The majority of white citizens at the time had no doubt whatsoever of their superiority and weren’t about to tolerate any uppity black man who suggested — or, in this case, demonstrated — otherwise.

Thus, the emergence of a bigger-than-life black boxer from Galveston, Texas, who publicly rejected every existing racial convention struck a sensitive nerve among the white majority. When he won the most-coveted title on earth — the heavyweight championship — the outraged power brokers of the time set about taking him down.

The pathetic nature of that effort peaked on July 4, 1910, 100 years ago on Sunday, when then-champion Jack Johnson fought the greatest of the Great White Hopes, James J. Jeffries, in the original “Fight of the Century” — the first monumental sporting event in the U.S. with profound social implications.

“It’s a hugely important anniversary,” said renowned documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, whose “Unforgivable Blackness” laid bare the ugliness of the era. “The fight was at the heart of the American experience, the massive subtheme of race. It’s there today in presidential politics. It was there at the beginning, when Thomas Jefferson said all men were created equal even though he owned 100 people and never saw the hypocrisy. ÔǪ

“Here was a man [Johnson] living life as he saw fit who legitimately won the heavyweight title. And the undefeated ex-champion, overweight and over aged, is brought in to win back the title for the sake of the white race. It was a microcosm of the tragic and fascinating history of race.”

Author Jack London reportedly coined the term “Great White Hope” after watching at ringside in 1908 as Johnson knocked out Canadian Tommy Burns in Australia to become the first black man to win the heavyweight championship, a title akin to athletic royalty.

London, speaking for many around the world, was aghast that a non-white sat on the throne and supported a nationwide recruiting effort to find a white man to reclaim that which rightfully belonged to his race, or so many seemed to believe. Four white men tried, four failed, leaving the white supremacists desperate.

Meanwhile, Johnson further rankled racist whites by the way he carried himself, smiling as he beat up his opponents and living his life as he pleased in spite of the strict limitations placed on African-Americans. Most notably, he consorted publicly and unapologetically with white women.

The rage percolated.

“Johnson had shaken up white folks all over the world by beating Burns,” said historian Geoffrey Ward, author of the book “Unforgiveable Blackness” that followed the film. “You have to remember that the world was run entirely by white people at that time. It was toward the end of the imperial age. This guy was a threat to everything, so frightening, for instance, that the British Empire forbade films of the fight against Burns within the empire.

“It seemed to turn the world upside down. If he could beat Burns, that would mean black people weren’t intrinsically inferior to white people. ÔǪ The champion was the man, the greatest athlete in the world. The fact that man was black was confusing to people; it challenged assumptions.”

That Johnson’s enemies would turn to Jeffries made sense. “The Boilermaker,” now 35, was the former champion who had retired undefeated, having beaten almost all of the best men of his time. He hadn’t been in the ring for almost six years, his wide girth evidence of that, but it didn’t matter.

The prevailing thought was that Jeffries was unbeatable. Surely he would reclaim the belt, they believed, from someone of an inferior race.

Jeffries, who had retired to an alfalfa farm in Burbank, Calif., was reluctant. He knew the fight game. He knew such a comeback, particularly in light of his reported 325 pounds, would be difficult. And he knew Johnson was an exceptional fighter even if he couldn’t say it out loud.

The pressure applied to him by members of his race and the promise of big money from promoter (and referee) Tex Rickard, however, broke him down. He really had no choice but to give it a try.

“I feel obligated to the sporting public,” Jeffries reportedly said, “at least to make an effort to reclaim the heavyweight championship for the white race. ÔǪ I should step into the ring again and demonstrate that a white man is king of them all.”

Jeffries trimmed down to 227 pounds, near his fighting weight during his prime. The white world was anxious but confident leading up to the fight, which took place in a temporary wooden arena before a predominantly white crowd of around 20,000 that was certain Jeffries would set things right once and for all.

Alas, the onlookers would be crushed. Jeffries proved to be no match for the fresh and skillful Johnson, who toyed with his aging foe as he slowly and seemingly effortlessly broke him down. “Stop the fight! Stop the fight!” yelled members of the crowd, who didn’t want their fellow white man to suffer the indignity of a knockout when it became clear that Jeffries was helpless.

All the while, Johnson taunted Jeffries. He said things like “Now stop loving me like that, Mr. Jeff,” a reference to Jeffries’ desperate clinching, or “How do you like this jab, Mr. Jeff,” according to author Bert Sugar.

Jeffries would go down three times, the final time seated with his right hand on the bottom rope as a Johnson stood over him, an image as famous as any in boxing history. Rickard stopped the fight in the 15th of a scheduled 45 rounds, spoiling the hopes of an increasingly frustrated white world.

The violence didn’t end there, though. Johnson’s victory set off riots across the nation, as angry white people took out their frustration on jubilant black people who took their celebrations into the streets. Police reportedly tried to keep the peace in some places — even stopping attempted lynchings — but let it happen in other places.

In all, as many as two dozen people died — almost all of them black — and many more were injured in the worst sports-related violence in U.S. history.

“Two events set off wide-spread rioting throughout the country,” said Purdue University history professor Dr. Randy Roberts. “The second was the assassination of Martin Luther King. The first was the Jack Johnson and Jim Jeffries. It doesn’t get bigger than that.”

Dr. Gerald Early, a well-known culture critic who teaches African-American studies at Washington University in St. Louis, Mo., said the aftermath was predictable.

“This was more than just somebody losing an athletic contest,” Early said. “Whites were very concerned with the idea of blacks getting uppity, jumping out of their place. I think it was a combination of both anger and fear. They might’ve been thinking, ‘Oh wow, Johnson won this fight. There is no telling how these black people will react or what this will cause.’

“In some ways, I think they wanted to remind people that they were still in charge. It was bound to happen. There was so much tension built up over that fight. I can’t think of any other event that had that kind of racial tension.”

The authorities would ultimately get their man. Johnson, still champion, was convicted in 1913 on trumped up charges of violating an obscure law that prohibiting transporting women over state lines for immoral purposes.

The unduly disgraced fighter fled the country rather than go to prison. He lived in Europe until 1920, when he surrendered to U.S. authorities in 1920 and served a year in prison. And during his exile, in 1915, a Great White Hope — 6-foot-6 Jess Willard — finally was able to wrest the championship from a 37-year-old Johnson in Cuba.

Johnson never cared much about race relations. He simply wanted to enjoy his life his way, which we now take for granted, and somehow he managed to get away with it even though so many would’ve liked to have seen him dead. Still, although he didn’t intend to play the role, he remains a significant figure in American race relations.

And he was never more at the center of the storm than he was that day in Reno.

“If we move forward 50 years [from Johnson-Jeffries] we could be talking about Muhammad Ali,” Burns said. “ÔǪ The government went after him too and derailed a successful career. Now, he’s celebrated as one of the greatest human beings of all time. Johnson was more interested in living his life his way but he had monumental courage because he did this in a decade that wasn’t dedicated to civil rights.

“He was hounded by his own government, his own people, yet he defended his title. It was huge, huge moment in race relations.”

Michael Rosenthal can be reached at [email protected]