John Arthur Johnson (March 31, 1878 – June 10, 1946), better known as Jack Johnson and nicknamed the "Galveston Giant," was an American boxer and arguably the best heavyweight of his generation. He was the first black Heavyweight Champion of the World, 1908-1915 and became infamous for his interracial relationships with white women. For more than a decade, Johnson was probably the most famous, and certainly the most notorious African-American in the world.
From 1902-1907 Johnson won over 50 matches, some of them against other African-American boxers such as Joe Jeannette, Sam Langford, and Sam McVey. Johnson's career was legendary—in 47 years of fighting, he was only knocked out three times—but his life was full of problems. Johnson was not fully accepted as champion and white supremacists searched methodically for what they termed a "great white hope" to take the title away from him. They arranged for ex-heavyweight champion James Jeffries to fight Johnson in Reno, Nevada, in 1910, in what was billed at "The Fight of the Century." However, their "hope" was dashed in the fifteenth round. The aftermath of the fight left at least 23 blacks and two whites dead in racial incidents around the country.
Johnson had the quality to endure, both inside the ring out outside of it. As a boxer, some of his greatest victories came after he himself had been knocked down and appeared to be nearing defeat. Outside the ring, he took the worst that America's racists could give him and gave it right back to them by his haughty attitude and public breaking of racial taboos.
After his career in boxing, Johnson, an amateur cellist and fiddler who was a connoisseur of Harlem night life, eventually opened his own supper club, Club Deluxe, at 142nd Street and Lenox Avenue. He died as the result of an automobile accident near Raleigh, North Carolina, in June 1946. The play, The Great White Hope, by Howard Sackler, which was also made into a movie starring James Earl Jones, is based on his life. Johnson was admitted to the Boxing Hall of Fame in 1954.
Jack Johnson was born in Galveston, Texas on March 31, 1878, as the second child and first son of Henry and Tina "Tiny" Johnson, former slaves and faithful Methodists, who both worked blue-collar jobs to earn enough to raise six children (the Johnsons had nine children, five of whom lived to adulthood, and an adopted son) and taught them how to read and write. Jack Johnson had five years of formal education. He rebelled against religion, however, and was kicked out of church when he stated that God did not exist and that the church dominated people's lives.
Johnson fought his first bout, a 16-round victory, at age 15. He turned professional around 1897, fighting in private clubs and making more money then he had ever seen. In 1901, Joe Choynski, small but powerful Jewish heavyweight, came to Galveston and fought a match with Johnson, knocking him out in round three. They were both arrested for "engaging in an illegal contest" and jailed for 23 days. (Although boxing was one of the three most popular sports in America at the time, along with baseballand horse-racing, the practice was officially illegal in most states, including Texas.) Choynski began training Johnson in jail and helped him develop his style, especially when fighting larger men.
Professional boxing career
Johnson's fighting style was very distinctive. He developed a more patient approach than was customary in that day: playing defensively, waiting for a mistake, and then capitalizing on it. Johnson always began a bout cautiously, slowly building up over the rounds into a more aggressive fighter. He often fought to punish his opponents rather than knock them out, endlessly avoiding their blows and striking with swift counters. He often gave the impression of having much more to offer and, if pushed, he could punch quite powerfully.
Johnson's style was very effective, but it was criticized in the white press as being cowardly and devious. However, World Heavyweight Champion "Gentleman" Jim Corbett, who was white, had used many of the same techniques a decade earlier, and was praised by the white press as "the cleverest man in boxing."
By 1902, Johnson had won at least 50 fights against both white and black opponents. He won his first title on February 3, 1903, beating "Denver" Ed Martin over 20 rounds for the "Colored Heavyweight Championship." His efforts to win the full title were thwarted as World Heavyweight Champion James J. Jeffries refused to face him. Blacks could box whites for other titles, but the heavyweight championship was such a respected and coveted position that blacks were not deemed worthy to compete for it. Johnson was, however, able to fight former champion Bob Fitzsimmons in July 1907, and knocked him out in two rounds.
He eventually won the World Heavyweight Title on December 26, 1908, when he fought the Canadian world champion Tommy Burns in Sydney, Australia, after following him all over the world, taunting him in the press for a match. The fight lasted 14 rounds before being stopped by the police. The title was awarded to Johnson on a referee's decision as a T.K.O, and he had severely beaten the champion. During the fight, Johnson had mocked both Burns and his ringside crew. Every time Burns was about to go down, Johnson would hold him up, punishing him more.
After Johnson's victory over Burns, racial animosity among whites ran so deep that even a socialist like novelist Jack London called 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. As title holder, Johnson thus had to face a series of fighters billed by boxing promoters as "great white hopes," often in exhibition matches. In 1909, he beat Victor McLaglen, Frank Moran, Tony Ross, Al Kaufman, and the middleweight champion, Stanley Ketchel.
The match with Ketchel was keenly fought by both men until the twelfth and last round, when Ketchel threw a right to Johnson's head, knocking him down. Slowly regaining his feet, Johnson countered by throwing a straight to Ketchel's jaw, knocking him out, along with several of his teeth. His later fight with middleweight star "Philadelphia" Jack O'Brien was a disappointing one for Johnson: though scaling 205 pounds to O'Brien's 161, he could only achieve a six-round draw.
The "Fight of the Century"
In 1910, former heavyweight champion James J. Jeffries came out of retirement and said, "I am going into this fight for the sole purpose of proving that a white man is better than a Negro." Jeffries had not fought in six years, and had to lose around 100 pounds to get back to his championship fighting weight.
At the fight, which took place on July 4, 1910 in front of 22,000 people, at a ring built just for the occasion in downtown Reno, Nevada, the ringside band played, "All coons look alike to me." The fight had become a hotbed of racial tension, and the promoters incited the all-white crowd to chant "kill the n-gger." Johnson, however, proved stronger and more nimble than Jeffries. In the fifteenth round, after he had been knocked down twice for the first time in his career, Jeffries' people called it quits to prevent Johnson from knocking him out.
The "Fight of the Century" earned Johnson $225,000 and silenced the critics, who had belittled Johnson's previous victory over Tommy Burns as "empty," claiming that Burns was a false champion since Jeffries had retired undefeated.
Riots and Aftermath
The outcome of the fight triggered race riots that evening—the Fourth of July—all across the United States, from Texas and Colorado to New York and Washington, D.C. Johnson's victory over Jeffries had dashed white dreams of a finding a "great white hope" to defeat him. Many whites felt humiliated by the defeat of Jeffries and were incensed by Johnson's own haughty attitude during and after the fight.
Blacks, on the other hand, were jubilant, celebrating Johnson's great victory as a triumph for their entire long-suffering race. Black poet William Waring Cuney later highlighted the African American reaction to the fight in his poem, "My Lord, What a Morning."
Around the country, blacks organized spontaneous parades, gathered in prayer meetings, and purchased goods with their newly won, gambling earnings. These celebrations often drew a violent response from white people. Some "riots" were simply African Americans celebrating in the streets. In certain cities, like Chicago, the police allowed the celebrants to continue their festivities. But in other cities, the police and angry white citizens tried to subdue the celebrations. Innocent black people were often attacked on the streets, and in some cases, gangs of whites entered black neighborhoods and tried to burn down apartment buildings. Police interrupted several attempted lynchings. In all, riots occurred in more than 25 states and 50 cities. At least 23 blacks and two whites died in the riots, and hundreds more were injured. A few white people were also injured when they tried to intervene in a crowd's beating of a black man.
Some states reacted by banning the filming of Johnson's victories over white fighters. African-American newspapers stated that white people were afraid to circulate images of obvious black superiority, and argued that the white press was hypocritical by condemning fight films while allowing lynchings to occur without criticism. The Washington Bee wrote, "The white man cannot expect always to be in the front rank without competition, and we all should look at things this way."
Johnson finally loses
On April 5, 1915, Johnson lost his title to Jess Willard, a huge working cowboy who did not start boxing until he was almost 30 years old. With a crowd of 25,000 at the Vedado Racetrack in Havana, Cuba, Johnson was K.O.'d in the twenty-sixth round of the scheduled 45-round fight, which was co-promoted by Roderick James "Jess" McMahon and a partner. Johnson found that he could not knock out the giant Willard, who fought as a counterpuncher, making Johnson do all the leading. Johnson began to tire after the twentieth round, and was visibly hurt by heavy body punches from Willard in rounds preceding the twenty-sixth-round knockout. Johnson is said to have spread rumors that he took a dive, but Willard is widely regarded as winning fairly. Willard said, "If he was going to throw the fight, I wish he'd done it sooner. It was 105 degrees out."
Johnson was an early example of the celebrity athlete, appearing regularly in the press and later on radio and in motion pictures. He earned considerable sums endorsing various products, including patent medicines, and indulged several expensive hobbies such as automobile racing and tailored clothing, as well as purchasing jewelry and furs for his wives. Once, when he was pulled over for a $50.00 speeding ticket (a large sum at the time), he gave the officer a $100.00 bill, telling him to keep the change as he was going to make his return trip at the same speed. Johnson was also interested in the opera, (his favorite being Il Trovatore) and in history—he was an admirer of Napoleon Bonaparte, believing that he arose from similar origins as the French dictator.
Johnson flouted conventions regarding the social and economic "place" of African Americans in American society. As a black man, he broke a powerful taboo in consorting with white women, and would verbally taunt men (both white and black) inside and outside the ring. Johnson was not shy about his affection for white women, nor modest about his physical prowess, both in and out of the ring.
Johnson married Etta Duryea in late 1910 or early 1911. She committed suicide in September of 1911, and Johnson quickly remarried, to Lucille Cameron. Both women were white, a fact that caused considerable controversy at the time. After Johnson married Cameron, two ministers in the South recommended that Johnson be lynched. The couple fled via Canada to France soon after their marriage to escape criminal charges in the U.S.
In 1920, Johnson opened a night club in Harlem; he sold it three years later to a white gangster, Owney Madden, who renamed it the Cotton Club.
After fighting a number of bouts in Mexico, Johnson returned to the United States on July 20, 1920 and surrendered to federal agents for allegedly violating the Mann Act against "transporting women across state lines for immoral purposes" by sending his white girlfriend, Belle Schreiber, a railroad ticket to travel from Pittsburgh to Chicago. This prosecution is generally considered an intentional misuse of the Act, which was intended to stop interstate traffic in prostitutes. He was sent to the United States Penitentiary, Leavenworth to serve his sentence of one year, and was released on July 9, 1921. There have been recurring proposals to grant Johnson a posthumous Presidential pardon.
In 1924, Lucille Cameron divorced Johnson on the grounds of infidelity. Johnson then married an old friend, Irene Pineau, in 1925, a marriage which lasted until his death.
Johnson continued fighting, but age was catching up with him. After two losses in 1928, he participated only in exhibition bouts.
In 1946, Johnson died in a car crash near Raleigh, North Carolina at age 68, just one year before Jackie Robinson broke the "color line" in Major League Baseball. He was buried next to Etta Duryea at Graceland Cemetery in Chicago. His grave is unmarked, but a stone that bears only the name "Johnson" stands above the plots of him and two of his wives. Johnson had no known children.
Johnson's skill as a fighter and the money that it brought made it impossible for him to be ignored by the white establishment. In a time when African Americans enjoyed few civil rights, and in which lynching was an accepted, extra-legal means of social coercion in many parts of the United States, his success and defiant behavior were a serious threat to the racist status quo.
In the short term, the boxing world reacted against Johnson's legacy. Joe Louis, later, was not able to box for the heavyweight title until he proved he could "act white," and was warned against gloating over fallen opponents or having his picture taken with a white woman. Johnson foreshadowed, in many ways, perhaps the most famous boxer of all time, Muhammad Ali. In fact, Ali often spoke of how he was influenced by Jack Johnson. He identified with him because he felt white America ostracized him in the same manner because of his membership in the Nation of Islam and his opposition to the war in Vietnam. In his autobiography, Ali relates how he and Joe Frazier agreed that Johnson and Joe Louis were the greatest boxers of old.