Jack Johnson and the Great White Hope
Posted on 8th October 2021
Jack Johnson battered white men in the ring, drew their blood and knocked them out. He was the first black Heavyweight Boxing Champion of the World and demanded recognition and respect for his achievements. He was to receive neither and instead became the focus of vilification and a subject worthy of law enforcement.
The Heavyweight Boxing Championship was the premier sporting title in the world but in 1908 it was not permitted for a black man to fight for it but the finest boxer in the world was a black man, Arthur John Johnson, better known as Jack.
Jack Johnson was born in Galveston, Texas, on 31 March 1878, the son of former slaves.
Educated for the most part by his mother he lacked any formal qualifications and so at a time of strict segregation in the South he was reduced to scrambling for any available manual labour in the city’s docks and boxing at night to supplement his meagre income. This would often be in what were known as Battle Royals where young black men would be placed in the back room of a bar, blindfolded, and told to lash out at each another with the last one standing taking the winnings. The predominantly white audience for whose benefit they were fighting would in the meantime place wagers on the outcome.
Johnson won more often than he lost but was little interested in making a few cents here and there and so decided to turn professional at the first opportunity, intent on going as far as he could. On 25 February 1901, he was knocked out in the Third Round of a fight against the Polish born John Choynski. Boxing was illegal in Texas at the time and both men were later arrested and made to share a prison cell together where they talked boxing late into the night with Choynski telling Johnson, despite his quick victory earlier in the day: “A man who can move like you, Jack, should never have to take a punch.”
He took it upon himself to teach Johnson the art of defence becoming both his sparring partner and trainer helping him develop his distinctive style. Upon his release Johnson continued to fight but now he would win.
He soon earned the name the “Galveston Giant” and few doubted that he was one of the finest boxers of his generation but this cut little ice with the men who ran the sport. They were not about to tarnish the jewel in the sporting crown by allowing a black man to fight for it. So he was forced to be patient and bide his time, especially as the Champion James J Jeffries had already declared publicly that he would not defend his Title against a Negro. But Johnson was a difficult man to ignore, particularly after he knocked out the previous Champion Bob Fitzsimmons in just two rounds.
When the opportunity did at last come for Johnson however it was to be all of his own making. James J Jeffries, the last great champion had retired in 1904 and his crown had been inherited by the Canadian Tommy Burns, who at only 5’7″ was the shortest ever Champion in the Heavyweight Division. His diminutive stature saw him held up to frequent mockery but he was a good fighter who regularly beat much larger men, and coming from an impoverished background he was also one of the busiest Champions determined to milk his Title as often as he could and for as much money as he could.
Tommy Burns was to defend his Title eleven times in just over two years and unlike previous Champions he did not draw the colour line, he would defend it against all-comers, at least that’s what he said, but he would not defend it against Jack Johnson.
Johnson, who was not in the least bit intimidated by his inferior social status, followed Burns all over the country harassing him at every turn, name calling and bad-mouthing him, demanding that Burns give him the Title shot everyone knew he deserved.
Burns refused saying that he would only fight Johnson for a purse of no less than $30,000, a sum it was thought that no one would be willing to put up. One man was to do so however, an Australian sports promoter Hugh “Huge Deal” McIntosh who could see the money to be made in having the fight filmed and then sold around the world. Burns now had little choice but to accept.
Johnson was to receive just $5,000 of the $30,000 on offer but in truth he would probably have taken the fight for nothing.
The former Champion John L Sullivan wrote that Burns had shamed himself and the sport by putting his Title on the line against a black man and there was talk in the United States of not recognising the winner but this was difficult as there was no question that Burns was the legitimate Title holder.
The fight between Burns and Johnson took place at Rushcutters Bay in Sydney, Australia, on 26 December 1908, and it was to be an embarrassingly one-sided affair. Knocked down twice in the First Round, Burns and his corner took to racially abusing Johnson in the vilest terms in an attempt to make him angry and become reckless, but Johnson remained calm, smiling throughout, though he was later to say: “Burns used language that it would be impossible for me to report. If I had killed Burns for the language he used to me I would have been fully justified.”
Instead, he chose to hold him up in the ring so he could continue the beating and the hostile white crowd could soon be heard shouting for the fight to be stopped. As the punch was landed that was to send Burns crashing to the canvass for the final time the cameras were switched off and the police entered the ring.
The fight had lasted Ten Rounds though it could have finished much earlier and it proved a traumatic experience for the viewing white public as the much larger Johnson threw Burns around the ring like a rag doll. Worse still he seemed to be enjoying himself mocking the Champions corner and smiling for the crowd but at least they were spared the humiliation of the ex-Champions final moments.
Burns was to say after the bout that the fight had been stopped too soon, that the nigger was tiring. Johnson just laughed, and so did the rest of the world.
The reaction to the news in America that the world had a new Heavyweight Champion and that he was a black man was one of shock. How could this have happened? But then Burns was not a real heavyweight, he was too small, and he had never really won the Title in the ring. The cry went out for a white man to put the black man in his place. Even such a prominent liberal as the novelist Jack London asked: “Where was the Great White Hope?”
In the meantime, his white opponents came and went as Johnson defeated in quick succession, Jack O’Brien, Tony Ross, ’Big’ Al Kaufmann and even in an exhibition bout the future actor and Oscar winner Victor McLaglen. When John L Sullivan trained a fighter specifically to beat Johnson the Champion crushed him in a single round.
In October 1909, with no white heavyweights left to beat Johnson agreed to fight the Middleweight Champion Stanley Ketchel considered by many to be the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world.
The size difference between the two men was so noticeable that whenever the two men were seen together to promote the fight Ketchel would wear an oversized coat with extra layers of clothing and built up shoes. But the two men knew each other well, a friendship forged in the local whorehouses, and they agreed to treat the fight as little more than an exhibition bout which they could later sell to the cinemas and make a great deal of money.
For much of the fight Johnson joked with the crowd and could be seen to laughingly carry his much smaller opponent around the ring but in the 12th Round Ketchel strayed from the script and seeing an opportunity seized it. Lunging forward he put everything into a punch that sent Johnson sprawling to the canvass. A shocked and furious Johnson struggled to his feet but as Ketchel closed in for the kill he unleashed a tremendous right hook, a pulverising blow that rendered Ketchel unconscious before he even hit the canvass. So hard had Johnson hit him that some of Ketchel’s teeth had stuck in his glove.
Following the defeat of Ketchel the clamour for the return to the ring of James J Jeffries to reassert the racial superiority of the white man was deafening.
Jeffries who had not fought for six years was evidently enjoying his retirement and with his weight having ballooned to 320 pounds clearly wasn’t much interested in returning to the brutal business of pugilism. In the end however, it wouldn’t be white pride that convinced him to return to the ring but money with the promoter Tex Ricard offering an unprecedented purse of $110,000, a percentage of the movie rights, and a $10,000 signing fee. At last, in early 1910 he announced his return to the ring declaring somewhat disingenuously: “So I can prove that a white man is better than a Negro.”
The public were in little doubt that he would win. After all, he was unbeaten and had never been sent to the canvass, though some worried that he had not fought for so long. Then again, Johnson was a coward surely anyone who had watched him fight could see that.
His style was based on speed and movement, using his jab to wear his opponents down before moving in for the kill and no one should be fooled into thinking that he did not have the armoury to finish the job. But whereas other fighters such as “Gentleman” Jim Corbett had been praised for their technical skill in the ring when Johnson did similar it was considered cowardly and deceitful.
Soon dubbed the Fight of the Century the white people of America and around the world anticipated seeing the Negro being put in his place by a true Champion.
Boxing analysts doubted that Jeffries could ever be the fighter he once was but the rigorous training regime that saw him lose 110 pounds in just a few months won over even the doubters. John L Sullivan visited him at his training camp to wish him luck and Tommy Burns declared that Johnson was a coward only able to beat up on little guys like himself and that he didn’t have a prayer against the real Champion. Jeffries would crush him in just a few rounds. Gentleman Jim Corbett declared: “I don’t want Johnson to lose because he’s a nigger but because he’s one of those fresh niggers who thinks he’s as good as or even better than a white man.”
The much anticipated fight took place in Reno, Nevada, on 4 July 1910, in a specially built arena filled to capacity with a sell-out crowd of 22,000, and racial tensions ran high.
Prior to the start of the fight the band played “All Coons Look Alike To, Me” and the crowd chanted “Kill the Nigger.” But the white heat of racial hatred did not seem to affect Johnson at all. As he entered the ring he was greeted with silence only punctuated by boos and the occasional shouted insult but Johnson just smiled and joked with his corner men.
The crowd erupted however when Jeffries stepped over the ropes and there was an audible gasp as he stripped to show off his newly re-sculptured body. As the two men met in the centre of the ring to receive their pre-fight instructions Jeffries declined the request to shake hands.
From the first bell Jeffries came looking for his opponent in his familiar style, his left arm outstretched searching for that one big punch that would finish the fight. But Johnson boxed superbly on the defensive, tying up Jeffries inside and using his jab and short crisp right hooks, and wearing down his opponent with vicious punches to the body. As the fight wore on it became evident to everyone that this was not the Jeffries of old, his movement was laboured and his hand speed slow and he appeared incapable of landing a significant blow.
Gentleman Jim Corbett shouted racial insults from Jeffries corner and demanded that Johnson should come out and fight like a white man would. Johnson looking over Jeffries shoulder shouted back: “I’m just fighting like you did, Mr Corbett.”
Johnson was booed and jeered throughout and the cry of coward rent the air but it made no difference to the outcome of the fight, the almost entirely white crowd feared the worst and for good reason. A silence began to descend and Johnson could be heard taunting Jeffries with shouts of: “How do you like it Jim, how does it feel? Does it hurt, Jim?”
As Jeffries came out for the Fifteenth Round his nose was broken, both of his eyes nearly closed, and his massive and impressive frame spattered with his own blood. Johnson knew the time had come to finish the fight.
An exhausted but still determined Jeffries again tried to take the fight to Johnson but though his heart remained strong his body had failed him. He had simply been out of the ring too long, he was too old, and he was being beaten by the better man. As he advanced Johnson caught him with a right hook that sent him down for the first time in his career. As he rose to his feet another punch sent him sprawling through the ropes and Jeffries had to be helped to his feet by his corner men but before he could steady himself he was knocked across the ring and down once more. Anguished cries could now be heard: “Don’t let the nigger knock him out. Please don’t let the nigger knock him out.”
Jeffries corner men responded, jumping into the ring they threw in the towel to save the ex-Champion from the humiliation of a knock out. The Fight of the Century as it had been dubbed had been won by the Negro, who had danced and jabbed his way to a resounding victory.
The fight over Johnson’s people formed a protective ring around their fighter to prevent any harm coming to him but most of crowd simply filed silently out of the stadium, sullen and angry, tearing up their betting slips as they went. Jeffries was helped from the ring and returned to his alfalfa farm his reputation tarnished but a much richer man.
The Fight of the Century had made Johnson a rich man too and overnight one of the most detested on earth. White America did not take the outcome well and as news of the result filtered through race-riots broke out in many cities which were to leave 23 black and 2 white men dead with hundreds more injured. In the meantime, the search for the next “Great White Hope” continued.
But Johnson was to remain Champion for the next seven years. And if the white boxing establishment could not find a solution to the problem of Jack Johnson then law enforcement would.
Jack Johnson had two great passions, white women and fast cars – the former would ruin his life, the latter end it.
In 1911, he met and married Etta Duryea and their relationship scandalised America for Etta was not just white but a socialite who mixed in the best social circles. The marriage however, was to be a stormy affair rarely out of the gossip columns as they rowed in public and it was suggested that Johnson wasn’t shy in taking his fists to her. Suffering from depression, Etta was to take her own life barely a year into their marriage.
Within three months of her suicide Johnson had remarried, this time to a white prostitute named Lucille Cameron.
Johnson had regularly cavorted with prostitutes and at one time even bankrolled a brothel but it wasn’t this but the seemingly callous lack of respect for the memory of his previous wife that appalled an entire country both white and black.
This was the Johnson that dominated the public imagination, the black brute, the feral beast, and it was an image that he did little to mollify but then he was Heavyweight Champion of the World, the best at his profession. He had the money, he had the fame, and he would enjoy both putting them on display for all to see. Why not, he’d earned it. But this only played into the public perception of him. No one cared less about his love of music, his literary ambitions, his keen interest in history and his generosity to others. They only saw a black man living above his station, one who would not bend to the demands of white society or even those of his own community.
So he wore expensive clothes, he dated beautiful women, he dined with the rich and famous – he would do as he damn well pleased.
Johnson was arrested a number of times but always released without charge but even so the Law Enforcement Agencies continued to harass him and were determined to get him on a charge that would stick.
On 18 October 1912, he was arrested for violation of the Mann Act, or transporting a woman across State lines for immoral purposes. That woman was Lucille Cameron, who was soon to be his wife and she refused to testify against him so the charges were dropped but they had at last found a law that they knew he would infringe in the future.
A little over a month later he was arrested for violation of the same law and this time the prostitute involved, Belle Schreiber, did testify against him. He went to trial and found guilty by the all-white jury was sentenced to a year and one day in prison.
Johnson skipped bail and fled abroad and for the next five years he and Lucille led a celebrity lifestyle in Europe and South America. But the money was running out and he needed to fight.
On 15 April 1915, he put his Title on the line against the 6’7″ Jess Willard, the “Pottawotomie Giant, a ranch hand from Kansas who was just one of a new crop of Great White Hopes but by no means considered the best one. He had only taken up boxing aged 27, when as an uneducated man he realised that his size alone offered him the opportunity to make more money in the ring than he could ever hope to do on the farm.
Because Johnson could not return to America the fight took place in the sweltering heat of Havana, Cuba.
People were a little shocked at Johnson’s condition for he was visibly overweight and carrying a paunch which for a man famous for the care he took over his appearance surprised many but at his training camp Johnson was his usual sunny self joking with reporters and playing with the local children but his training was intermittent and half-hearted at best.
Still few people gave Willard a chance and perhaps Johnson didn’t either for his attitude appeared carefree and not focused on the business at hand. If this was so then in the 110 degrees heat of a Havana afternoon the fight better end early.
Johnson entered the ring to the usual boos and cat-calls but he didn’t react in the usual way. There were no smiles, no banter with those at ringside, and no jokes with his corner men. He looked sullen and morose. Willard was greeted with cheers as the crowd stood up and waved the little white flags they were carrying to indicate they supported the white man.
From the first bell Johnson abandoned his usual boxing style and stalked Willard looking for the knock out but the younger, fresher Willard absorbed the punishment. After winning many of the early rounds Johnson began to visibly tire and Willard’s own punches were beginning to take their toll.
As Johnson sat on his stool at the end of the 25th Round he asked his corner men to inform his wife that he was getting tired and to make sure she got out of the arena safely. As the bell went for the next Round he rose slowly and unconvincingly from his stool and by now it was Willard who was taking the fight to Johnson. Finally he caught the Champion with a crisp right hook, Johnson clasped briefly at Willard trying to hold himself up before slowly crumpling to the canvass.
As he lay there and was counted out he appeared to shield his eyes from the sun which has led many since to believe that he could have got up had he wished. The referee later said however, that it was clear Johnson was exhausted and at the end of his tether, had he risen to his feet it would only have been to take further punishment.
Nevertheless Johnson later claimed that he had indeed thrown the fight so sick was he of all the hatred levelled at him prompting Willard to respond: “If he threw the fight I wish he’d done it earlier, it was as hot as hell out there.”
The truth was that at 37 years of age he was well past him prime a decline only hastened by his prolonged absence from the ring.
White America was delighted that the man who had for so long undermined their belief in the superiority of the race had been defeated but many in the black community who resented his attraction to white women and his apparent denial of his African roots were delighted also.
After many years abroad Johnson returned to America and surrendered himself to the Federal Authorities to complete his sentence. He was released from Leavenworth Prison on 9 July 1921, having served every day of his twelve month sentence.
Short of money he continued to fight but age had caught up with him and all he had to sell was his name; and with every passing year his appeal at the box office diminished. Even so, he didn’t formally announce his retirement from the ring until he was already in his sixtieth year and was being beaten in unsanctioned fights by men young enough to be his grandson.
By the 1940’s, with Joe Louis dominating the Heavyweight Division, Jack Johnson at last began to be acknowledged as the great Champion he’d been and boxing fans of all races were delighted to shake his hand and request his autograph allowing him to make money from his many public appearances.
He had been making a tour of fairgrounds in the South when on 10 June 1946, he and a friend stopped off at a diner near Raleigh, North Carolina where he was told he could eat there but only in a backroom away from the white clientele. He agreed to do so but was furious at the snub and his anger had not relented when an hour later he drove from the restaurant at great speed.
Not long after he crashed his car near the small town of Franklington. Dragged from the wreckage and taken to hospital he died a few hours later, he was 68 years of age.
For much of his life Jack Johnson had been the most hated man in America merely for the colour of his skin and daring to be successful, but he also courted controversy.
He insisted on maintaining a high-profile, flaunted his wealth, boasted of his physical prowess both in and out of the ring, flouted convention, and defied authority. Once when he was pulled over for speeding and fined $50 he gave the arresting Officer a $100 dollar bill and told him that he intended to complete the return journey in the same manner. He was boastful, arrogant, and cocky and was hated almost as much for that as he was for his colour, but the two put together was a combustible mix.
But then could he have achieved what he did and survived had he been any other way?
When his third wife, Irene Pineau, was asked what she loved about her husband she replied:
“I loved him because of his courage. He faced the world unafraid. There wasn’t anyone or anything he feared.”
Tagged as: Modern
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