04 July 2010

Jack Johnson - 1st Black Heavyweight Boxing Champion of the World



We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.


~ The Declaration of Independence July 4, 1776





I hope everyone has a wonderful and safe holiday today. I've got several memorable July 4th holiday celebrations, but this year will be a tad bit more calm for me. It always particularly special for me when my kids were younger and we'd do whatever fireworks we bought and grill some meat...steak or fish, out back. Actually, this July 4th is a bit more special this year for another reason, though. Today is the 100th anniversary of "The Fight of the Century" where Jack Johnson's defeated James Jeffries in a Mega-fight. He had already become the first Black Heavyweight Boxing Champion of the world two years before. Jeffries was the last "Great White Hope" to stand a chance at regaining the Title and restoring it to the white race. The fight even took place here in Nevada, but not in Las Vegas as you might think. I don't think Vegas was the capitol of the world for boxing venues at the time, although I could be wrong. The fight took place in Reno, instead. It was an NPR segment which brought the significance of the date to my attention.

"Tripartition"


He was already a star at this point, but on July 4, 1910, Jack Johnson became the first black SUPER celebrity. Lots of controversy surrounded this man. He collided with White-America, Congress, the media, and even some of his Black constituents who never saw him as a pioneer, role model, or civil rights activist. They contended that he was more on the look-out for the advancement of himself, much less colored people and Johnson gave them plenty of reasons to hold to those opinions. He frequently consorted with prostitutes and had a strong penchant for white women, which many-a-white people could not stand. Remember this is the early 1900's and his victories in the ring, his open flings with white women, and his tendency to flash is cash drove white people crazy. If I recall correctly, I think I read that he got $65,000 for that fight. Jeffries had already retired from boxing with an undefeated career. With one win after another, Jack London, (yeah..."The Call of the Wild, Sea Wolf, White Fang"...THAT Jack London) had finally had enough. I know he is widely celebrated, especially among literary academics, but the dude was a racist from where I stand. His argument and fear of Asians taking over the world was just as distasteful and evident in his essay, "The Yellow Peril".  London, I believe, coined the term "Great White Hope", in his pleads for a white man to step up and beat Johnson. He helped persuade James Jefferies to come out of retirement and return to the ring. Now in his defense, I don't know why Jefferies took this fight. He hadn't fought in 6 years and it was reported that he had to lose 80 pounds to get back to fighting weight. He was beaten badly and soundly. I believe I read one ESPN analyst state that he might have gone down as one of the best fighters ever had he NOT fought Johnson.

"This fellow, Johnson, is a fair fighter, but he is a black. And for that reason, I will never fight him. If I were not champion, I would as soon meet a negro as any other man, but the title will never go to a black man, if I can help it." 
- James Jeffries, before he was finally persuaded to regain the Title


"Theoretical Brickhouse"


It was the federal government that finally came to the aid of white supremacists. And mind you, this isn't just white supremacists like the KKK. These are white people who would be outright offended if you were to call them racists. They simply did not see themselves that way. Johnson operated outside the norm and the regular societal hierarchy of the times and this simply could not be allowed. I may need to check this fact out, but the race riots that were as of a result of the fight was second in its wide-spread effect only to the Martin Luther King assassination. (Nat Turner led a slave revolt...not so much a riot.) Most of these riots were as of a result of police trying to quell African-Americans celebrating in the streets. Wikipedia has a death toll of 23 blacks and 2 whites across the nation with untold numbers injured. But back to the feds... Congress initially pass a bill banning interracial boxing films from crossing state lines which was a source of Johnson's income. This severely limited his earnings power. But the next blow was a loose interpretation of the Mann Act (Anti-White Slavery Act), which forbade crossing state-lines with women for immoral purposes. Jack Johnson made a living criss-crossing the U.S. and frequently did so with white prostitutes. He was tried and convicted even before the bill became law. Johnson, once convicted, fled the US and lived abroad through much of his prime fighting career. He finally returned serve his year+1 day jail sentence. President Obama is being pressed right now to posthumously grant Johnson a pardon. A bill to pardon him in 2008, under Pres. Bush passed the House but SOMEHOW failed in the Senate. Why? Who knows... So, for this Independence Day, I think is appropriate to give props to Jack Johnson. I plan on watching the 2005 PBS documentary, "Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson", tonight. Enjoy these shots of Melissa.

John Arthur ("Jack") Johnson 
(March 31, 1878 – June 10, 1946) 
World Heavyweight Boxing Champion (1908-1915), 
73 Wins (40 knockouts, 30 decisions, 3 disqualifications), 
13 Losses (7 knockouts, 5 decisions, 1 disqualification), 
10 Draws, 5 No Contests


2 comments:

unbearable lightness said...

Hey, love your new biopic!

OK. I am familiar with James Earl Jones in "The Great White Hope." Even so, I didn't realize that phrase came from Jack London. What you say makes great sense, knowing the story of that great film! It is true Jack London is studied in colleges and universities English departments. I never read him or had any special desire to read him. I would have if I had been assigned any of his work, but I wasn't. Now I am glad I wasn't.

Thanks, T.

Photo Anthems.com said...

Yes, indeed. I started to include James Earl Jones' role in that movie and just forgot to mention it. Its based off of Jack Johnson. And I do believe London coined that phrase, but he otherwise was part of it. Somebody pointed that out to me a while back when I was assigned to read him in school, so I refused to do it. I was all excited about reading this book and even the name "Jack London" sounded cool. My whole demeanor about the guy changed after that. So, I felt I'd rather take the zero for the assignment.