Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion, whose reign lasted from 1908 to 1915, was also the first African American pop culture icon. He was photographed more than any other black man of his day and, indeed, more than most white men. He was written about more as well. Black people during the early 20th century were hardly the subject of news in the white press unless they were the perpetrators of crime or had been lynched (usually for a crime, real or imaginary). Johnson was different—not only was he written about in black newspapers but he was, during his heyday, not infrequently the subject of front pages of white papers. As his career developed, he was subject of scrutiny from the white press, in part because he was accused and convicted of a crime, but also because he was champion athlete in a sport with a strong national following. Not even the most famous race leaders of the day, Booker T. Washington, president of Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, and W. E. B. Du Bois, founding member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and editor of that organization's magazine, The Crisis, could claim anywhere near the attention Johnson received. Not even the most famous black entertainers and artists of the day—musical stage comics George Walker and Bert Walker, or bandleader James Reese Europe, or ragtime composer Scott Joplin, or fiction writer Charles W. Chesnutt, or painter Henry O. Tanner—received Johnson's attention. In fact, it would be safe to say that while Johnson was heavyweight champion, he was covered more in the press than all other notable black men combined.
And, like the true pop culture figure, the way Johnson lived his life and, particularly, the way he conducted his sex life mattered a great deal to the public. He was scandal, he was gossip, he was a public menace for many, a public hero for some, admired and demonized, feared, misunderstood, and ridiculed. Johnson emerged as a major figure in the world of sports at the turn of the century when sports themselves, both collegiate and professional, were becoming a significant force in American cultural life and as the role of black people in sports was changing. Johnson arrived at a time when the machinery of American popular culture, as we know it today, was being put into place. Recorded music, which was to change entirely how music was made, sold, and distributed in the United States, came into being at this time. Movies were well established as a popular medium of entertainment at the time when Johnson became a big enough name in boxing to fight for a world title. Indeed, films were an important way for promoters and fighters to make money in boxing by showing the films of bouts in movie theaters. Boxing was, by far, the most filmed sport of its day.
The automobile, which became Johnson's great passion and the most celebrated piece of technology connected with popular culture, was part of the brave new world of the early 1900s, replacing the bicycle. And, along with this came the rise of spectator sports, which changed how Americans spent their leisure time: baseball was a long-standing craze, college football was growing in popularity, basketball had been invented. There was also track and field, the modern return of the Olympic Games, golf, tennis, bicycle racing, race walking, horse racing, and probably the most popular of all sports at the time, professional boxing or, as it was commonly called, prizefighting.
Boxing was created in 18th-century Regency England. It was largely performed by working-class men who were often sponsored by upper-class gentlemen, many of whom had a passion for the sport. Boxing arose in a society where masculine honor was an important facet of a man's ego and where a skillful display of self-defense was useful and appreciated. Some saw boxing as a less lethal form of dueling. Both gentlemen and poor men learned the art or the science, as some called it. However, what primarily drove the sport was betting on the outcome, which still largely attracts many people today to professional boxing as well as other sports, although these bettors were usually connoisseurs of the sport as well. Gambling has always been a particular stigma for boxing as it, because it is sport that involves a contest between only two men, can easily be fixed to produce a particular outcome favorable to a certain set of bettors. Boxing has been burdened by the specter of fixed fights, dishonesty and corruption, almost since its beginnings.
Blacks had an early presence in the sport. Ex-slaves Bill Richmond and Tom Molyneaux were both high-caliber boxers in England in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. At this time, boxers fought without gloves, rounds were of indeterminate length, ending when a fighter was knocked down. A fighter was then given 30 seconds to recover and return to "scratch," a mark in the center of the ring where the two fighters met to resume the contest. There were few punches thrown in these matches because the bare hand, which can be easily broken, is not well-equipped as a fist to be a durable weapon. The bouts mostly consisted of wrestling and pummeling.
The first great American champion was John L. Sullivan, who was champion from 1882 to 1892. He presided over the dramatic shift in boxing when it was transformed from bare knuckles to gloves. The Marquis of Queensbury rules changed boxing entirely, making it a more rational and disciplined sport: by the time Jack Johnson was a major fighter, it was a commonplace for fighters to use gloves (to protect their hands and enable them to punch more often). Wrestling was virtually eliminated from prizefights. Rounds were now timed at three minutes. Regular rest periods of one minute separated the rounds. Fights now had a determinate lengtha specified number of rounds, for the most part, instead of being a contest that went on until one of the two men was unable or unwilling to continue. If both fighters were still standing at the end of a predetermined number of rounds, the fight was awarded to the fighter who showed the best "ring generalship," the best all-around display of fighting skills. These changes gave us the boxing match as we understand it today.
Black participation in any of these sporting endeavors was very limited, although African Americans in the 19th and early 20th centuries were interested in virtually all aspects of sports-playing, coaching, watching, and administrating. Sports did not grow up willy-nilly, but were importantly connected with two significant institutions: colleges and universities, and the workplace (many sports teams and sporting events were organized by employers). Blacks, at the turn of the century, were virtually shut out of both. They were confined largely to rural work in the South where employers had little interest in creatively or competitively organizing their free time for economic gain or for prestige, the major motives for the creation of sports teams. Other than access to a small number of black colleges, there was no way and no reason for a black person to attend college. (Whites, overwhelmingly, did not attend college either at this time.) By the turn of the century, institutionalized racism had shut blacks out of baseball. They were forced out of jockeying for the same reason, indeed, virtually all sports. Blacks were largely confined to professional boxing.
Around the time that Johnson began to develop as a fighter, there were other noted black pugilists: Joe Walcott, who was welterweight champion from 1901-1904; Joe Gans, who was lightweight champion from 1902-1904 and again from 1906-1908, and George Dixon, featherweight champion from 1890-1897 and 1898-1900, and bantamweight champion from 1890-1892. But the most prestigious title in boxing, the one that claimed the greatest admiration of both the fans and the general public was heavyweight champion. The rest of it was small potatoes. Blacks were not permitted to fight for this title, as they were shut out of fair competition with whites in most other sports.
It must be remembered that professional and amateur sports emerged as a significant presence in American cultural life at the end of Reconstruction (1877) and developed throughout the age of racial segregation in America, which culminated in the 1896 Supreme Court decision, Plessy v. Ferguson that declared that Jim Crow laws and state-sponsored racial segregation were not unconstitutional. It was, moreover, in the 1890s, the era of white imperialism: so-called Anglo-Saxon dominance over the "lesser breeds" and the "colored races" was seen as inevitable. The United States became, as a result of the Spanish American War of 1898 a true imperial power, claiming control of the Philippines, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Hawaiiall non-white nations whose occupants were seen as inferior by most white Americans. This, coupled with legislation abolishing Asian or "Oriental" immigration and the rampant belief in Social Darwinism or the superiority of the white race over others in the competition for world domination led to probably the most virulently racist period in post-Civil War American history. What is surprising is not that Jack Johnson, considering his times, should have had his ultimate downfall but that he was ever able to rise to the point where he was able to challenge for the heavyweight title in the first place.
Blacks were subjected to a harsh, abject system of racial segregation and second-class citizenship that was often backed up by lynching and white-instigated race riots where scores of blacks were killed. Clearly, during these years, neither the public, nor its leaders, were much interested in seeing any sort of race mixing or even the hint of it. From the time that Sullivan held the title until Jim Jeffries, who was champion from 1899-1905, no white heavyweight champion would even consider fighting a black, although there were many highly skilled black heavyweights at the time, most notably Peter Jackson. Other very good black heavyweights who were Jack Johnson's contemporaries include Sam McVey, Sam Langford, Joe Jeanette and Denver Ed Martin. Most of the time black heavyweights had to fight each other. Sometimes, when they fought whites (in virtually the entire South, mixed race fights were illegal), it was expected that the blacks would lose or else the fight would be declared "no decision"—in other words, a draw. It was when Jeffries retired as champion in 1905 and tried to engineer a successor that a chain of events were set in motion that eventually permitted Johnson to fight for and win the title.
Johnson was born in Galveston, Texas in 1878, the year that Reconstruction failed. His father, Henry, was a laborer and his mother, Tiny, a domestic. Johnson, according to his autobiography, learned to read and write, and apparently was always restless as a child. He seemed to have a sense of ambition, that he was destined for better things than the world of the roustabout and the ordinary black laborer. It was in the tough world of manual black labor that Johnson, being a big man for the times, at 6 feet and 200 pounds, learned to fight. The world of boxing was tough; it required a great deal of travel; money was always uncertain as promoters often absconded with funds or simply did not pay what was promised and managers often cheated their fighters. Blacks had no choice but to use white managers, and these men would sometimes take extraordinary advantage of their fighters, many of whom were unlettered. Johnson never let his white managers control him, and he was not above firing them if they failed to do what he wanted them to do. As fighters mostly existed in the sporting world of whores, pimps, hustlers, pop entertainers, drugs, crime, and alcohol, it was difficult for any fighter to maintain his training regimen and his concentration. Many succumbed to alcoholism and venereal disease. Despite its hardships, being a fighter meant one was in a profession; one was a member of a fraternity. It was also, despite its drawbacks, not as difficult as the work of the average black laborer and it paid better, despite the cheating.
Johnson was more than a survivor in this world. He learned to thrive. He made a name for himself in the sporting publications. He practiced his craft and improved as a fighter. He did not allow himself to become dissipated, despite his surroundings. He was intelligent, he was determined, and he had considerable ring skills. And he wanted to be champion.
After Jeffries retired, a set of elimination matches was held. Eventually, out of the confusion, Tommy Burns emerged as the new champion. A tough, fiery-tempered man, small for a heavyweight (he was actually the size of a middleweight), Burns tried to avoid fighting Johnson, who pushed the issue. On Johnson's side was a growing chorus of some influential in boxing circles like Richard K. Fox, publisher of the Police Gazette, probably the most popular sports newspaper in America at the time, who said that Johnson deserved a shot at the title. Burns made enormous demands, which, in the end, by and large, were conceded to by Johnson. Despite being criticized by other champions for giving Johnson a shot, Burns finally submitted—for the money, and because, despite the size difference between the two men, he thought he could win. They fought on December 26, 1908—Boxing Day—in Sydney, Australia. Johnson easily won the match in 14 rounds and became the first black heavyweight champion. It was almost immediate that the cry went up from whites for a "great white hope" who could wrest the title away from Johnson.
What most bothered whites about Johnson was that he openly had affairs with white women—and even married them—at a time when miscegenation of this sort was not only illegal but was positively dangerous. Johnson did not seem to care what whites thought of him, and this bothered most whites a great deal. He was not humble or diffident with whites. He gloated about his victories and often taunted his opponents in the ring. (This behavior was not unique to him as a champion boxer. Many boxers, notably John L. Sullivan, acted this way. It was unique for a black public figure.) He also did not care what blacks thought of him, as some were critical of his sex life. His preference for white women seemed an embarrassment and something that would bring the wrath of whites down on the heads of every black person. Jeffries was coaxed out of retirement to fight Johnson, some arguing that since Jeffries never lost his title in the ring, he was, in essence, the real champion. That fight took place in Reno, Nevada on July 4, 1910. It was the most talked-about, most publicized sporting event in American history. It was seen by nearly the whole country as a symbolic race war. It was also richest sporting event in American history: the two fighters split unevenly—the winner getting 60 percent—a sum of $101,000, a staggering prize for the time. Johnson once again won easily. Jeffries could not overcome a five-year layoff. Moreover, he probably lacked the skills, as he himself admitted after the fight, to have ever beaten Johnson. Since Johnson could not be defeated in the ring, the battle moved to defeating Johnson in the area where he most offended and where he was most vulnerable—his sex life.
If Johnson was born at the end of one major era of social reform—Reconstruction, he lived his years as a competitive boxer under the thrall of another—the Progressive Era. Between 1912 and 1920, the Constitution was amended four times, more than any other eight-year stretch in American history: the imposition of the federal income tax, the direct election of senators, the right for women to vote, and Prohibition were all added as amendments in what was one of the most intense periods of legislative social reform ever. The Mann Act was part of this social reforming zeal, an attempt to stem the tide of prostitution among working class and immigrant women that was plaguing the country, by prohibiting the transport of women across state lines for immoral purposes. Prostitution was a real problem in the United States at the time but the public was given lurid pictures in the taboo press of innocent white women who were lured into opium dens by sex-crazed "Chinamen" who turned these women into prostitutes. (The average white woman who was to enter this trade was not so terribly innocent and was likely to have been introduced to it by a white man.) So, somehow immorality was tied, in the public's mind, to race mixing. Johnson, the rebel who advocated no cause but his own right to be himself, found himself squeezed between temperance and a national sex purity impulse. He was a boxer, so this made him something of an underground figure to begin with. Boxing was coming under attack by reformers at this time as a barbaric sport. He was black, which made him an outcast in his society. Finally, he consorted with white women, which made him a public menace.
On September 14, 1912, Johnson's first white wife, Etta Duryea, blew her brains out in the upper floor of his Chicago nightclub (nightclub ownership being another sign of Johnson's immorality). The government was already trying to put together a case against him under the Mann Act with a woman named Lucille Cameron, a white prostitute who had consorted with Johnson. On December 4, 1912, less than three months after his first wife died, Johnson married Cameron. The white public was outraged beyond words. In part, Johnson did this to prevent being prosecuted by the government. Cameron couldn't testify against her husband. (He probably really loved her as well. The fact that she was white and that he had clearly been having an affair with her while his first wife was alive made it seem as Johnson was simply thumbing his nose at the moral and racial conventions of his society. With public sentiment so strongly against Johnson, the government was encouraged to continue its hunt for a witness against him for a Mann Act violation. They found one in Belle Schreiber, a white prostitute who had been Johnson's girlfriend on and off for several years. The case was successfully prosecuted and Johnson was found guilty in 1913 of violating a decidedly bad law. Despite being found guilty of fairly minor offense, he was given the maximum penalty of a year and a day in prison. Johnson jumped bail and fled to Europe. He was to live abroad until 1920, when he returned to serve his sentence.
While he was abroad, Johnson continued to fight. He had to. He needed the money. Unfortunately for him, he was becoming less and less of an attraction and the fact that he had the title belt did not mean very much. The belt had no value because he was a fugitive, and was unable to fight in the biggest market for fights—the United States. In addition, with the start of war in Europe, he had become superfluous. Who cared about an out-of-shape, aging black American fighter who was hanging out in Europe? Eventually, he lost the title in Havana, Cuba in April 1915 to a big, lumbering Kansan named Jess Willard, who knocked out Johnson in the 26th round of their fight. Johnson claimed that the fight was fixed. Johnson probably lost cleanly: he was not in good fighting condition when he fought Willard, who was four years younger. Why would Johnson purposely want to lose the title? It was the only calling card to public notice of any sort that he had left. But whites finally got what they wanted: the return of the title to the white race. No black would fight for the heavyweight title for another 22 years, until Joe Louis did so, winning it in 1937.
After he served his time, Johnson did what many famous ex-athletes do: he tried to live off his name. He fought in exhibitions, told his life story in dime museums, appeared in a few movies in bit roles, and exchanged predictions about upcoming title bouts for meals from reporters. He took out a patent for a wrench in 1922 that apparently never caught on. (Taking out a patent is not an indication that one's invention is a success in the market.) He continued to marry white women, but since he was no longer heavyweight champion, no one cared. He occasionally performed as a musician. There was an aspect of the shabby about his final years, but Johnson was a man of dignity and even of cultural bearing. He was an intelligent man—always a shrewd operator, looking for an angle. And he continued to drive fast, as he had when he was champion. He died in an automobile accident in 1946.
Johnson enjoyed a bit of renaissance in the late 1960s when Howard Sackler's play, The Great White Hope, a thinly veiled fictional version of Johnson's life, was performed on Broadway. But more people at the time thought the play was actually a commentary on then-heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali, who openly identified with Johnson in interviews and in his autobiography, The Greatest: My Own Story (1975). Ali also got into trouble with the government—over the draft. Ali refused conscription on religious grounds, that he was a Muslim minister as a member of the Nation of Islam. Ali was convicted, like Johnson, but instead of leaving the country (he couldn't because the government had confiscated his passport), Ali endured an exile from his profession, being denied a boxing license for three and a half years. But how alike were the two men, really? Not really very much at all, other than being black heavyweight champions who were convicted for violating a federal law. In some ways, the presence of Ali at the time obscured Johnson from view, as Johnson seemed to be important only inasmuch as he adumbrated Ali. Now, the late 1960s are over, as is Ali's era. We can look back at Johnson now and give him the examination he deserves, without someone else getting in the way.