Monday, December 27, 2010

Jack Johnson: Boxing For Equality


“I made a lot of mistakes out of the ring, but I never made any in it.”
Jack Johnson

“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.”

Ken Burns, documentary filmmaker, 
Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson (2004)

Jack Johnson, the Galvaston Giant, won the heavyweight boxing championship title on December 26, 1908, becoming the first African-American to do so.
Credit: George Grantham Bain Collection; 1915
Credit: Source: Library of Congress: George Grantham Bain Collection.

Jack Johnson, the Galvaston Giant, was the first African-American heavyweight boxing champion of the world, winning that distinction on December 26, 1908, after battering Tommy Burns, a Canadian, in a 14-round match in Sydney, Australia, in front of 20,000 spectators. Johnson, 30, standing 6′- 1½″  and weighing almost 192 pounds with a reach of 74", won by a technical knock-out, or TKO.

He held the title for almost seven years until losing to a much-larger Jess Willard in Havana, Cuba, on April 5, 1915, reports  "At age 37, Johnson had a noticeable paunch and looked anything but ready for the scheduled 45-round bout. Still, he dominated the fight until the 20th round."

Johnson was a true pop-culture figure. He was constantly photographed and written about. He was outspoken and articulate. His life served as a role model and inspiration for other African-American boxers, paving the way for future champions like Joe Louis and Muhammad Ali. Johnson didn't live as a saint. But he lived by his convictions and fought for equality, freedom and individual dignity.

Undoubtedly, his actions rankled the sensibilities of many, particularly when he thumbed his nose at convention and Establishment thinking. But he did so to preserve his dignity, freedom and sense of equality. That made him a hero to some and a public menace to others. He married three times, all to white women. As the modern expression goes, "He worked hard, and he played hard."

Johnson was born in Galveston, Texas, on March 31, 1878, the third child and first son of Henry and Tina "Tiny" Johnson, former slaves who worked at blue-collar jobs to support their family of six children. Johnson began boxing as a young teenager in the Jim Crow-era South. Johnson fought his first bout, a 16-round victory, at age 15. He turned professional around 1897, fighting in private clubs and earning a lot of money.

Boxing then was a relatively new sport in America, and was banned in many states, explains the fine 2004 documentary by Ken Burns: Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson:
African-Americans were permitted to compete for most titles, but not for the title that whites considered their exclusive domain: Heavyweight Champion of the World. African-Americans were considered unworthy to compete for the title — not for lack of talent, but simply by virtue of not being white.
Johnson's boxing record is impressive: 68-10-10 with 49 knockouts, in his 41-years a professional boxer. His fighting style went against the conventions of the time. Instead of hammering away at his opponents, Johnson fought defensibly, seeking to block, slip, and parry his opponents punches before striking offensively.

After gaining the title as first African-American heavyweight champion of the world, racial animosity rose to the surface. For example,  Jack London, the noted American author and socialist, called out for a "Great White Hope" to take the title away from Johnson. In his view, it was natural that a white man would want another white man to be the champion, and had nothing to do with racism. Such were the mores of the period.

That set the scene for The Fight of the Century in Reno, Nevada, a desert town, on July 4, 1910, in front of 12,000 mostly white people. The excitement was palpable. It was played up in the media across the United States. Johnson's challenger was James J. Jeffries, an undefeated champion lured out of a six-year retirement for the fight, ostensibly for reasons of honour. As he put it: "I feel obligated to the sporting public at least to make an effort to reclaim the heavyweight championship for the white race. . . . I should step into the ring again and demonstrate that a white man is king of them all."

Well, it was not to be. Johnson proved stronger and quicker than Jeffries. In the 15th round, after Jeffries had been knocked down twice for the first time in his career, his handlers called it quits to prevent Johnson from knocking him out. The "Fight of the Century" earned Johnson $100,000—a princely sum for that time.

The Fight of the Century, between James J. Jeffries (L) and Jack Johnson was won by Johnson in 15 rounds. The fight took place in Reno, Nevada, on July 4, 1910.
Source: Wikipedia

The outcome, however, did not please everyone. Race riots took place in more than 25 states and 50 cities. The result was hundreds of people injured and the death of 23 blacks and two whites. Equally telling, Johnson has had many fights outside the ring, including with a a far more formidable opponent—bigotry and racism. It eventually led to his death. Even so, Johnson lived his life undeterred by what was taking place around him, including opening a nightclub in Chicago and living as the pop-culture icon he was.

More problematic, though, and threatening to the Establishment, was that Johnson flaunted his relationship with white women, dating them and marrying them, then a highly provocative gesture. It was likely no surprise that on October 18,1912, Johnson

was arrested for violating the Mann Act, the statute prohibiting the transportation of women across state lines for unlawful purposes. The woman in question was Belle Schreiber, an old acquaintance of Johnson's. The problem with the charge is that Johnson and Schreiber were an item before the Mann Act became law in June of 1910. "It was a rank frame up," Johnson recalled in his memoirs. "The charges were based upon a law that was not in effect at the time Belle and I had been together, and legally was not operative against me."

That did not stop the courts from finding Johnson guilty in May of 1913, nor did it keep the judge from imposing a sentence of one year and one day in prison, and a fine of $1,000. In the meantime, Johnson had married Lucille Cameron, his 18-year-old white secretary. When the verdict was handed down, Johnson arranged for he and his wife to travel to Canada and, from there, to Paris.
For the next seven years, Johnson was an exile from the United States, living in Europe, Mexico, and South America. His lifestyle overseas was lavish, and his exploits, including bullfighting, racing cars, performing on stage, and boxing, continued to receive worldwide attention. While in exile, his mother died, an event which saddened him very much.
In exile, he wandered the globe before giving himself up to U.S. authorities in 1920. He served eight months in Leavenworth Penitentiary in Kansas. Upon his release from prison on July 9, 1921, he was met by a marching band and many admirers. He returned briefly to boxing, and in 1926, aged 48, he beat an opponent half his age. He fought for two more years, until 1938, but his best days were behind him, and he lost seven of his nine bouts. After retiring from the ring, he did what all ex-athletes do: tried to capitalize on his name.

On June 10, 1946, Johnson left a diner, outside Raleigh, North Carolina, in anger. Johnson was outraged that they refused to serve him, an ordinary and all too common occurrence for that time and place in the United States. Unable to negotiate a curve at high speed, he hit a light pole, and died from his injuries three hours later at a hospital dedicated to African-Americans, Saint Agnes Hospital in Raleigh. Johnson was 68.

Almost 100 years later, some are trying to seek justice on behalf of Johnson, for what many say were false trumped-up charges levied  against him in 1912. This time he is getting help from unexpected sources. In 2004, the Committee to Pardon Jack Johnson, which filmmaker Ken Burns helped form, and included the signatures of Senator John McCain, Senator Edward Kennedy, and New York Attorney-General Eliot Spitzer, filed a petition for a pardon with the Justice Department. It was never acted on.

Yet the case for a pardon persists. In April 2009, U.S. Senator John McCain, along with Representative Peter King, filmmaker Ken Burns and Johnson's great-great niece, Linda Haywood, requested a presidential pardon for Johnson from President Barack Obama. Around the same time, the U.S. Congress passed a resolution on July 29, 2009, calling on President Obama to issue a pardon.

As Senator McCain told the Associated Press: “I know the president, once he looks carefully at this issue, would want to correct a grave injustice done.”
The petition for a posthumous pardon of Jack Johnson has so far been denied. The Justice Department has cited a policy of not processing posthumous pardon requests, though two were given in the past. The only recourse for justice for Jack Johnson, then, is that President Obama issue the pardon directly, without any intermediaries informing his decision, as it is in his power to do.

There is a delicious irony at play here. America's first African-American president has in his power to right the wrongs of the past. The pardon can`t bring Jack Johnson back. But it would do much to give a fuller sense to the overarching ideas of freedom and dignity that is part of the American identity.

Jackson's story begs for a happy ending. As filmmaker Ken Burns said: "Johnson's story is more than the story of a tremendous athlete, or even one who broke a color line. It is the story of a man who forced America to confront its definition of freedom, and that is an issue with which we continue to struggle."

Addendum to Jack Johnson story: President Trump issued a pardon to Jack Johnson (NYT; May 24, 2018).

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