Editor’s note: The National Constitution Center celebrates African American History Month with a variety of programs and exhibits that spotlight the story of the African American experience and the struggle for equality, including a close look at the Center’s rare printing of the Emancipation Proclamation, signed by Abraham Lincoln.
Arguably no athlete in American history has engendered the extremes in emotions that Jack Johnson–“The Galveston Giant”–created. He was either loved or reviled, and the choice was mainly determined by the shade of one’s skin. At a time when prizefighting was the sport of champions, Jack Johnson had the audacity to dominate and become the first African American heavyweight champion. Johnson’s rise to the top had repercussions that extended beyond the ring and shook the social foundations of early 20th-century America.
While boxing may have since lost much of its luster, in the early decades of the 20th century boxing was the premier sport, and the heavyweight division was the premier competition in that sport. The heavyweight champion had a legitimate claim to the title of first among all men–and prior to 1908 that title had always belonged to a white man. Then came Jack Johnson.
The son of former slaves, Johnson built a reputation as a dominating fighter who punished his opponents with a rare blend of speed and power. When Jack Johnson defeated Canadian Tommy Burns in 1908 to win the heavyweight crown, the search for a “Great White Hope”—a white boxer who could defeat Johnson—began almost immediately. Writers and fans alike turned en masse to retired champion Jim Jeffries to save all that was good with athletics (at least from some people’s perspective) from Jack Johnson and his “unforgiveable blackness.” It would take almost two years and a succession of failed challenges before Jeffries took on the task of finally putting Johnson in his place.
PBS developed a series of lessons on Jack Johnson and the issues surrounding his story to complement Ken Burn’s documentary, Unforgivable Blackness. These interdisciplinary lessons dive into the debate about race, athletes as role models, interracial relationships, intersection between law and morality, role of the media, and more.
On July 4, 1910, nearly 20,000 fans crowded a Reno, Nev., arena for the highly anticipated bout between the black champ and the white challenger. Johnson’s 15-round victory touched off riots in cities across the country. Progressive activists successfully passed a bill through Congress that prohibited the interstate transportation of the Johnson-Jeffries fight films. Georgia Representative Seaborn Roddenberry called the fight “the grossest instance of base fraud and bogus effort as a fair fight between a Caucasian brute and African biped beast…No man descended from the old Saxon race can look upon that kind of a contest without abhorrence and disgust.”
Jack Johnson immediately became public enemy number one in the eyes of many and he did little in or out of the ring to temper that image. In the ring, Johnson had a reputation for stalking his opponents for several rounds and almost toying with them for much of his fights. He occasionally sought to punish a fighter physically rather than knocking them out immediately, and he often left spectators and opponents alike with the impression that he had more to offer than he displayed.
Outside of the ring, Johnson reveled in his celebrity and wealth and flouted the social norms of the day in a manner that some would still find controversial almost a century later. Johnson was regularly seen driving expensive sports cars, and driving them fast. He was reportedly stopped once and given a $50 speeding ticket. Johnson reached into his wallet and gave the police officer $100. He stated simply, “I’m planning on coming back the same way.” He frequented nightclubs and other places of ill repute, and bought expensive clothing, jewelry and furs for himself and his regular harem of women, almost all of whom were white.
In 1912 Johnson was arrested for violating the Mann Act and “transporting women across state lines for immoral purposes.” The accusation stemmed from his relationship with Lucille Cameron, his second wife, who was a reported prostitute. After the first case fell apart because of Cameron’s refusal to cooperate, Jackson was again arrested because of his relationship with another prostitute, Belle Schrieber, who testified against him. Johnson was convicted and sentenced to a year in jail in 1913. He was the first person prosecuted under the law. He promptly skipped bail and fled to Canada and spent the next seven years in exile before returning to the United States and surrendering to federal authorities. Johnson was released from prison in 1921. While incarcerated, he modified a wrench to help loosen the shackles that he found to be too tight. The patent for his improvements was granted in 1922.
Even in today’s racial climate, Jack Johnson’s behavior would not be popular, and it remains illegal even with recent modifications to the Mann Act. However, it is not hard to imagine, that were he prosecuted today for similar crime, the outcome would be different. Since death in 1946, Jack Johnson’s family has sought to have his conviction overturned on the grounds that his prosecution was motivated in large part by racism. They have found an ally in Arizona Sen. John McCain, who sponsored a congressional resolution calling on President Barack Obama to pardon Johnson. The measure failed to pass through Congress and the president has yet to issue a pardon. Thus the question remains; after almost 100 years, is it finally time to forgive unforgivable blackness?
Michael Simzak is the Youth Programs Coordinator at the National Constitution Center and the official sports writer for Constitution Daily.