"Boxing has fallen into disfavor. . . The reason is clear: Jack Johnson . . . has out-sparred an Irishman. He did it with little brutality, the utmost fairness and great good nature. He did not "knock" his opponent senseless. . . Neither he nor his race invented prize fighting or particularly like it. Why then this thrill of national disgust? Because Johnson is black. Of course some pretend to object to Johnson's character. But we have yet to hear, in the case of White America, that marital troubles have disqualified prize fighters or ball players or even statesmen. It comes down, then, after all to this unforgivable blackness."
--W.E.B. DuBois, The Crisis (1914)
By David Whettstone
For the Afro-Netizen Newswire
Jack Johnson, the first African American to become Heavyweight Champion of the World, was born in Galveston, Texas in 1878. He held his title from 1908 to 1915. His ascendancy put an indelible mark on the landscape of American history and sport. It came with the great price of persecution, adversity, and violence -- some of it federally sanctioned.
Some skeptics would not initially assume that Senator John McCain (R-AZ) and Representative Peter King (R-NY) would be part of the cause to right the wrongs the barrier-breaking boxer endured. However, they have together (as in previous sessions of Congress since 2004) introduced a resolution calling for the posthumous presidential pardon of the racially motivated conviction of Johnson in 1913 under the Mann Act.
They are both motivated to repair national reputation and by their life-long love for boxing. Representative King still works out in the ring.
They join the call of Mr. Johnson's family (grandneice Dorothy Cross, great grandniece Linda Haywood, and others) and filmmaker Ken Burns, director of the PBS documentary, Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson for justice. Burns has in the past petition Congress for such a resolution.
At the April 1, 2009 press conference, Ms. Haywood said, "For years our family was deeply shamed." She continues, "He simply wanted to live his life."
(Photo credit: David Whettstone. Pictured from l to r: Linda Haywood, Ken Burns, Dorothy Cross, Johnson's grand niece, seated)
In its early American history, boxing was established as the exclusive domain of White men. Black men were considered unworthy of competition. They were not permitted to vie for the title. In 1903, Johnson had defeated "Denver" Ed Martin to win the "Colored Heavyweight Championship". He then secured his world crown in 1908 by defeating Tommy Burns in Sydney, Australia and capturing an unmatched purse of $30,000 for the 14-round fight. The previous heavyweight champion, Jim Jeffries, had retired rather than fight Johnson.
With Johnson's new reign, and shock to the psyche of most White U.S. men, came the counter-punch of deeply embedded racism. Calls went out from media -- especially from writer Jack London -- and many sectors of society for a "Great White Hope." Jeffries was eventually coaxed to engage Johnson in "The Fight of the Century" in Reno, Nevada on July 4, 1910.
Before a crowd of 12,000 mostly White men, Jeffries met defeat in 15 rounds of brutal physical punishment. Johnson won a hefty record-breaking sum of $101,000. Race riots ensued, and numerous African Americans met with harm and death. And Congress acted.
It banned the interstate distribution of fight films which would not be lifted until 1940. "The Fight of the Century" became part of the National Film Registry in 2005.
Johnson's romantic engagement of White women and subsequent controversial marriages met with the consternation and alarm of many.
Earlier in June 1910, President Taft had signed into law the White Slave Traffic Act, also known as the Mann Act. The legislation was a result of the wave of social concern and hysteria. It prohibited the interstate transportation of women "for the purpose of prostitution or debauchery, or for any other immoral purpose." The U.S. Department of Justice soon sought to apply the law to Johnson though no viable case was developed until 1912. By 1913 a conviction was gained.
Also in 1912, Georgia Congressman Seaborn A. Roddenberry introduced a constitutional amendment that would ban marriage between whites and "any and all persons of African descent or having any trace of African blood." The bill failed.
After being sentenced, Johnson fled the country, but voluntarily returned in 1920 to serve a year in the United States Penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kansas.
Forces of the established order were clearly against him. However, he continued to have an active life: he received a patent for an invention while incarcerated; established a nightclub in Chicago and sold another in Harlem which evolved into The Cotton Club; raced cars; and continued fighting into the 1930s. He met with a tragic auto accident near Raleigh, North Carolina in 1946.
Representative Peter King believes a pardon of Jack Johnson is long overdue and is part of fully restoring his reputation. "Despite the accusations, he became a heavyweight legend who inspired and paved the way for future African American athletes." He rightly understands the champion as a trailblazer.
"The resolution to pardon Jack Johnson would not right this
injustice, but would recognize it, and shed light on the achievements
of an athlete who was forced into the shadows of bigotry and prejudice,
" said Sen. McCain. "Taking such actions would allow future
generations to grasp fully what Jack Johnson accomplished against great
odds and appreciate his contributions to society unencumbered by the
taint of his criminal conviction."
The senator believes that President Obama has the greatest respect and admiration for Jack Johnson and plans to talk to him. He was fully confident that the President would sign the resolution into law.
When he released his documentary, Ken Burns said:
"Johnson in many ways is an embodiment of the African-American struggle to be truly free in this country — economically, socially and politically. He absolutely refused to play by the rules set by the white establishment, or even those of the black community. In that sense, he fought for freedom not just as a black man, but as an individual."
Often Johnson has been quoted as stating he simply wanted to be respected as a man.
The embrace of Mr. Johnson in the heart and minds of many African Americans -- whether athlete or not -- is already well established. Undoubtedly, he foreshadowed Muhammad Ali. Both he and Joe Frazier have talked and agreed that Johnson was one of the greatest of all time. For folks like them, oppression and injustice have not marred Johnson's reputation. His representation and legacy are nothing short of iconic -- a mystical conveyance of unrelenting determination, unremitting power, and triumphant agency.
"He made us very proud," said Linda Haywood. "Out of all the people on the face of the earth, God gave him to us, our family."
David M. Whettstone is a Washington, DC-based public policy advocate and writer, who works on national and local issues (including civil rights and criminal justice) and with religious and community-based organizations.