|Born||in Galveston, Texas, USA|
|Died||in Franklinton, North Carolina, USA (automobile crash)|
|Birth Name||Arthur John Johnson|
The Galveston Giant
|Height||6' 1½" (1.87 m)|
Mini Bio (1)
Jack Johnson, one of the greatest professional boxers in history and the first African American to wear the world's heavyweight championship belt, is one of the seminal figures in sports and American social history as he was both a mirror on and lightning rod for racism. Many white Americans could not accept the fact that an African American occupied the cat bird's seat in the world sports hierarchy as the world's heavyweight championship then, as it was throughout most of the 20th Century, was the ultimate athletic accomplishment. In his prime, Johnson was as tough and indomitable in the ring as the young Mike Tyson (the last great true undisputed champ before the title fragmented into a kaleidescope of competing titles) and as controversial as Muhammad Ali, the Black Muslim convert who won the title under his birth name Cassius Clay and was stripped of his title after refusing to be inducted into the U.S. military. It took a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court to keep Ali out of jail while many states enacted laws to prevent the recognition of mixed-race marriages due to Jack Johnson, who married three white women, violating one of the ultimate taboos in America.
Born on March 31, 1878 in Galveston, Texas, Jack was the son of former slaves. He dropped out of school after only five or six years to take a job as a stevedore. Johnson supposedly learned to box from the white boxer Joe Choynski after the two were incarcerated after a fight; at the time, prize fighting was illegal in Texas. Choyinski had fought some of the top heavyweights of his era, including future champs "Gentleman Jim (1942)" Corbett and James J. Jeffries. Jeffries would later come out of retirement to try to retake the heavyweight title from Johnson in a July 4th, 1910 title match that was dubbed "The Fight of the Century".
Eighteen months earlier, on Boxing Day 1908, Johnson had wrested the heavyweight title from Tommy Burns when he was awarded a TKO in the 14th round. The victory came five years after Johnson had won the World Colored Heavyweight Championship. Jeffries had refused to meet Johnson in a title match at the time, keeping the color bar in tact even though it already had been broken at a lower weight class. Joe Gans had become the first African American to win a title belt when he became lightweight champion in 1902, but Johnson becoming the heavyweight champ was different. Racist white Americans were outraged and the hunt for "The Great White Hope" was on.
Uninterested in assuming "The Great white Hope" mantle, Jeffries was not an avowed racist and really did not want to fight any more. However, the undefeated former champion was goaded into coming out of retirement to face Johnson by such people as the writer Jack London. Sources say he was offered an unprecedented $120,000 (approximately $2.8 million in 2012 dollars) to fight Johnson. The former champ was out-of-shape and had to burn off 100 lbs. to get down to fighting trim. In their match up on the Fourth of July in Reno, Nevada, Johnson knocked him to the canvas twice, something that had never before happened in his illustrious his career. Jeffries' corner threw in the towel at the start of the 15th round to prevent the former champ from the humiliation of being knocked out.
Johnson won a $65,000 purse (approximately $1.5 million in 2012 dollars) in his title defense. News of his victory touched off celebrations among black folk across the country and sparked race riots in 50 cities in 25 states. ("Race riot" at the time meant a white-on-black conflict, "riots" that were initiated by lynching-minded whites.) Twenty-three African Americans and two whites perished in the riots, and hundreds more injured.
A movie made of the match, "Jeffries-Johnson World's Championship Boxing Contest, Held at Reno, Nevada, July 4, 1910 (1910)", received wide distribution, but many local politicians stepped in to ban the movie from being shown in their bailiwicks, lest there be more violence. Even former President Theodore Roosevelt, a sports enthusiast, came out against the distribution of the movie in particular and boxing movies in general. (T.R. was friendly to the aspirations of colored people; at the time, the Republican Party -- the Party of Abraham Lincoln -- was the political home of African Americans.)
The political action taken against the Fight of the Century movie was a harbinger of things to come. For Jack Johnson was an unapologetic and boastful black man who did not hide the fact that he was a lover of white women. He violated what was, in most parts of the country, the ultimate taboo. Miscegenation and intermarriage was outlawed by many states (and would be until the Supreme Court struck down such laws in 1967) and many states had on their books the "one drop of blood" rule to determine a person's racial classification. Under the "one drop of blood" rule, if a person had one African American ancestor, even unto the fifth or sixth generation (or beyond), meaning they were only 1/32nd or 1/64th "black", they were classified as black and treated as third-class citizens, denied fundamental rights such as the franchise.
Jack Johnson married three white women and consorted with others. Six months after the Jeffries fight, he married Etta Terry Duryea, a Brooklyn socialite whom he physically abused and who killed herself in a fit of depression in September 1912. This was intolerable to bigots, and they moved against Johnson. They arrested him that October for violating the Mann Act, an anti-prostitution edict that forbade the interstate transportation of women for immoral purposes, for his relationship Lucille Cameron, a white woman who became his second wife in December. That a white woman would have a relationship with a black man equated in the bigot's eye with a harlot and Lucille was characterized as a prostitute. Her refusal to cooperate with the authorities led to the collapse of their case, but they tried again.
He was soon arrested after his second marriage, charged with violating the Mann Act yet again. This time, they had the right "witness", Belle Schreiber, an alleged prostitute whom he had allegedly had an affair with in 1909-10 who was cooperating with the feds. His relationship with Schreiber actually predated the passage of the Mann Act in 1910, but despite the Constitution forbidding ex post facto laws, an all-white jury convicted him in June 1913. One of the ironies of the trial was that the judge was himself to become a major figure in professional sports and a seminal figure himself in American racism. For the federal judge who oversaw Jack Johnson's trial was none other than the famed bigot Kenesaw M. Landis, a native Georgian who would, as the first Commissioner of Major League Baseball, keep African Americans out of the sport by enforcing the color bar.
Before being sentenced to a year and day in federal prison, Johnson skipped bail and fled the country with Lucille. In April 1915, in Havana, Cuba, he defended his title against the white 'giant' Jess Willard, a 33-year-old Kansas farmer who stood nearly 6'7" tall. Willard was six inches taller than Johnson, almost four years younger, and a counter-puncher of enormous power who in 1913 had killed Jack "Bull" Young with a blow to the head. Since Willard was a counter-puncher, Johnson was forced to do all the leading in the fight, and he tired in the heat of Havana after 20 rounds. Willard knocked him out in the 26th round and the reign of the first black champion was over.
There would not be another African American heavyweight champion until Joe Louis beat Jimmy Braddock (the Cinderella Man (2005) in 1937. Louis was careful to comport himself with what his handlers considered "dignity" (not being a rowdy, boastful stud like Jack Johnson, who verbally and physically abused white and black men alike and was fabled for his sexual prowess) so as not to incur the wrath of white bigots. (Though popular with whites, Louis was frequented caricatured on sports pages as an ape or monkey, common racist visual tropes employed in the mass media of his time.) And there would not be another transgressive black champ until Sonny Liston, the Mafia-owned heavyweight champ of the early '60s, who was bested in his transgressions by Muhammad Ali, the man who took his title belt away from him.
By the time Ali (then called Cassius Clay) beat Liston in 1964, Jack Johnson had been dead for 18 years. He died in a car crash in North Carolina on June 10, 1946, after allegedly leaving a restaurant in a huff after it refused to serve him for being a Negro. In the 31 years between the loss of his title and his death, Johnson had returned from his exile to the United States and served his prison sentence. He kept boxing far past his prime, into his 60s, in exhibition bouts, sanctioned fights, and unsanctioned smokers. During World War II, he used to fight exhibitions as part of the War Bond drives. (He had divorced Lucille in 1924 and married his third wife Irene Pineau in 1925. She told a reporter at his funeral, "I loved him because of his courage. He faced the world unafraid. There wasn't anybody or anything he feared.")
By Muhammad Ali's time, Jack Johnson was a symbol of black pride and black power to African Americans like Ali and Miles Davis, who put out an album in 1971, "A Tribute to Jack Johnson", inspired by his spirit. That the same year James Earl Jones was nominated for an Oscar playing a watered-down, white-washed version of Johnson in the film version of Howard Sackler's Pulitzer Prize-winning play The Great White Hope (1970), which was criticized by many, including critic Pauline Kael as trucking in white liberal clichés. Comedian Redd Foxx, who had been befriended by the elderly Jack Johnson, turned down a role in the film as its caricature of the great fighter bore little resemblance to the man he had known. Even in death, Johnson remained controversial, seemingly robbed again of his legacy by the white establishment.
- IMDb Mini Biography By: Jon C. Hopwood
|Irene Pineau||(August 1925 - 10 June 1946) ( his death)|
|Lucille Cameron||(4 December 1912 - 1924) ( divorced)|
|Etta Duryea||(18 January 1911 - 11 September 1912) ( her death)|