Last week I found myself sitting in an auditorium on the UNC campus listening to an undergraduate lecture on American history since the Civil War. Both the course and the lecturer, Matt Andrews, had come highly recommended, and on this day, Andrews was doing one of the things he does best — using sports to illustrate the history of race relations in the United States.
This particular lesson focused on boxing.
Prizefighting, Andrews explained, became popular in the mid-1800s as a white man’s sport, one that pitted native-born Americans against Irish immigrants. As it evolved through the post-Civil War years, white boxers, especially those at the heavyweight level, refused to get in the ring with a black opponent.
Against this backdrop, a man named Jack Johnson emerged as a heavyweight contender through a parallel world of African American fighters. Born and raised in Galveston, Texas, Johnson was a stubborn man who flaunted conventions in every possible way.
He taunted white fighters in the ring, Andrews said. He had open relationships with white women, including his three wives; dressed in expensive suits; wore diamond jewelry; and drove fast cars.
According to filmmaker Ken Burns, Johnson “was everything that a black man of his era was not supposed to be: outspoken, articulate, intelligent, powerful, wealthy, good-looking and charming.”
Burns directed a 2005 PBS documentary about Johnson called “Unforgivable Blackness,” a phrase coined by NAACP founder W.E.B. Du Bois to describe the backlash Johnson faced throughout his life as he attempted and increasingly succeeded in demonstrating that as a prizefighter and a human being he was the white man’s equal.
Much like the film, Andrews’ lecture illustrated how Johnson, with his stubborn refusal to play by society’s rules, was able to break through the “color line” that once existed in heavyweight boxing.
Johnson’s first triumph came after he spent two years stalking, taunting, and challenging then heavyweight champion Tommy Burns, who ultimately relented and agreed to fight Johnson on Boxing Day (Dec. 26) 1908 in Sydney Australia.
Johnson knocked burns out in the 14th round, becoming the first African American heavyweight champion in U.S. history.
Retaining that title, however, would prove to be his biggest battle.
Unwilling to accept a black man as the world’s greatest prizefighter, boxing enthusiasts convinced former heavyweight champion Jim Jeffries, aka the “Great White Hope,” to come out of retirement and fight against Johnson. The duel took place on July 4, 1910, in Reno, Nevada, and once again, Johnson was the decisive winner.
While Johnson’s victory was a major triumph for African Americans and a major defeat for white supremacy, it also sparked deadly race riots and led to a concerted effort to knock him out, so to speak, in an arena where his boxing skills and bravado were of little use — the courtroom.
In 1912, Johnson was charged and convicted of violating the Mann Act, which prohibited the transportation of women across state lines for “amoral purposes.” Upon his conviction, Johnson fled the country, returning eight years later to serve a year-long sentence. Ultimately living to the age of 68, Johnson continued to fight into his 60s but never regained the acclaim he once had.
As Andrews noted, Johnson was able to make great strides in the world of boxing by winning individual battles inside the ring, but he couldn’t beat “all white men” when they banded together and took the fight outside the ring.
In the past several years, Johnson’s legacy has been revived by filmmaker Burns and others, including bipartisan lawmakers, who feel the former heavyweight champion deserves to be recognized for what he achieved. They have repeatedly petitioned for a presidential pardon, initially asking George W. Bush and more recently Barack Obama.
So far, Andrews noted, the petitions have been ignored.