The Legacy of Jack Johnson
“It wasn’t just the championship that was at stake; it was my own honour and in a degree the honour of my own race. 'The White Hope’ had failed,” outlined the man who single-handedly sparked a seismic change in boxing and American culture in the early 1900s.
Born on March 31st, 1878 to former slaves at a time in history when racism had a stranglehold on wider society, Jack Johnson would grow up to become one of the most important and influential sporting figures ever.
Becoming a shining symbol of hope for the African-Americans who were not truly free in their own home, Johnson was seen as controversial but was in fact a pivotal athlete well ahead of his time.
Born to be regarded as a second class citizen in his own nation at the beginning of segregation in America, Johnson ultimately ascended to be the most recognisable face on the planet. He remarkably rose from his small beginnings to the highest position of global fame and attraction - being the world heavyweight champion.
To be the heavyweight ruler was to be the most famous person in the world at this time, a role which Johnson embraced to both enrage his oppressors and inspire his own race.
Holding a rebellious spirit throughout his historic life, he was a man who lived without fear; while White America were ironically terrified of the impact and consequences of his eventual endeavours.
Overcoming the colour line
During the Jim Crow era when black citizens were literally being lynched and killed in the US streets, Johnson still remained undeterred in his push for ring success and racial equality.
Showing no trepidation to those who opposed him and wanted his face out of the limelight, he proudly flaunted his audacious smile and flashy suits to those masses regardless of any racial backlash.
The actions of ‘The Galveston Giant’ go beyond just boldness; this was a period in which he had no fair protection from higher powers within the country but carried on his high-profile exploits anyway.
Literally laughing in the face of White America, Johnson caused uproar across the county as riots were sparked in light of the vicious beatings he unleashed on his light-skinned opponents.
Boxing was still a primarily white sport as Johnson was attempting to break on to the scene, with black fighters being heavily restricted and widely prevented from gaining better opportunities - no matter how deserving.
Rising to prominence during this time meant Johnson was another victim of the colour line - when white champions refused to defend their titles against top black challengers. Many suffered this fate and, as a result, never gained their rightful recognition as champions or even gained the chance to try and prove it in their respective divisions.
Sam Langford, a former opponent of Johnson, was the most notable victim of the colour line; still regarded today as the greatest fighter to never get his hands on a world title.
While Johnson himself saw his opportunities delayed, he wasn’t to be denied.
Rising to prominence
As relentless outside of the ring as he was inside it, Johnson pursued the heavyweight title shot he desired for two years. Jim Jeffries had refused to defend his crown against Johnson or any other worthy black challengers, stating it was “too prestigious for black fighters.”
Upon retiring undefeated, Jeffries’ vacant crown was left to be contested for between inferior contenders Jack Root and Marvin Hart (both white men). The retired champion refereed a title clash between the pair in 1905 in which Hart, who had previously beaten Johnson, earned a 12th-round knockout victory to take up the mantle.
His reign lasted until the following year when he was bested by Canadian Tommy Burns, who would be the target of Johnson’s ceaseless pursuit. Wherever the new champion went, Johnson was there, following him from London to Paris and all over America.
Finally, Johnson got his man in 1908, when a wealthy Australian business owner made Burns an offer he couldn’t refuse to face the African-American contender. So the first-ever heavyweight title showdown between black and white combatants was official.
Within moments of the opening bell, it was evident history was about to be made in front of 20,000 spectators and under a scorching Sydney sun.
Taunting Burns, gesturing to the crowd and smirking while in the clinch, Johnson enjoyed every second of his demolition Down Under. After 14 rounds of steadily breaking down his prey and toying with the defending champion, Johnson pounced to finish him off.
Unleashing a brutal barrage of punches, Burns crumbled under the onslaught. As this historic moment unfolded, the police swiftly shut off the recording cameras to avoid the spectacle of a black man knocking out a white man to become world heavyweight champion.
While the world was denied this exact historic feat on film, white superiority had nevertheless been thwarted as Johnson began his unforgettable, culture-shifting reign as champion. This historic win was followed on by other triumphs and title defences against the likes of Philadelphia Jack O’Brien and middleweight legend Stanley Ketchel.
Historic championship reign
Here was a black man who had everything; wealth, fame, flash cars, a white wife, tailored suits and the most illustrious sporting honour in the world. All of which irked the nation which widely held racial prejudice towards him.
Johnson didn’t care; he rightfully lived as a free man and thought nothing of those who opposed him. What he did publicly as champion, other black citizens would have feared doing privately.
Long before the antics and showmanship of Muhammad Ali, Johnson was already living boldly and doing whatever he wanted. This wasn’t acceptable for white society, which saw a call go out to the retired Jim Jeffries to return and dethrone Johnson as ‘The Great White Hope.’
It wouldn’t end well. In their 1910 ‘Fight of the Century’, Johnson again proved his superiority as he brutally dispatched him in a bloody 15th-round beatdown. What was a triumphant moment for Johnson and his legions of black followers was a disaster for their antagonists, as the white spectators slowly left the fight venue as if they were at a funeral; mourning the loss of another white hope.
It was a result that sparked race riots throughout the country, including racially motivated killings as white society took out their defeat and bitter disappointment on the black citizens. A wave of racial animosity swept through the streets, showing exactly how badly Johnson had triggered those in power through his achievements.
With the torment of his people on his mind and following a tough upbringing in that environment, Johnson wasn’t satisfied in simply beating his foes - he had to taunt and destroy them in front of mass crowds that were filled with a burning racial hatred towards him. This made his victories all the more pleasing.
Fighting the system
Unable to beat the seemingly indestructible Johnson inside the ring ropes, they went after him outside of it. After further success over Fireman Jim Flynn, he was put under federal indictment on the grounds that he transported white women across state lines for “immoral purposes”; being known as The Mann Act in 1913.
He was quickly convicted by an all-white jury for violating the act and sentenced to a year in prison. Johnson opted to leave the country and fight abroad, living in exile across South America, Europe and Mexico.
It took over a century before he was eventually pardoned by then President Donald Trump in 2018. Former champions Lennox Lewis and Deontay Wilder were present at The White House alongside ‘Rocky’ actor Sylvester Stallone and Johnson’s remaining bloodline family members, who had rallied for the move for some time.
It was in 1915 that he did eventually lose his crown to another hand-picked ‘white hope’, this time in the form of towering Kansas-native Jess Willard (who would later lose his belt in a vicious loss to Jack Dempsey). The seemingly impossible had happened, Johnson was no longer champion after seven years at the pinnacle.
With his bank account running dry and his previously supreme ring skills eroding, Johnson was forced to return to the United States in 1920, surrendering to the federal agents on the Mexican border.
Having lived a fast-paced life inside and out of the ring, there was a tragic irony in Johnson’s eventual death from a high-speed car crash on June 10th, 1946 - passing away at the nearest ‘black hospital’ at the age of 68.
His colour and actions were deemed “unforgivable” at the time but his legacy remains unforgettable; a fighter and a man who changed the course of sporting and cultural history in a courageous show of defiance against racial oppression.
Header Image: Nevada Historical Society
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