Jack Johnson's fight -- "The Black Peril" vs. "The Great White Hope"

Dan Bryan, April 21 2012

Jack Johnson Portrait

"I am not a slave." - Jack Johnson

Freedom from slavery was one thing. Freedom of the spirit was quite another matter, in the era of Jim Crow. Jack Johnson had both. He was the first black man to win the world heavyweight championship, and his exploits off the ring were mythical.

He may have smiled, but he yielded to no one.

A poor black kid from Texas -- The "Galveston Giant" is born

Jack Johnson was born in Galveston, Texas in 1878. He grew up with five siblings and lived in a small wooden house. Schooled for only five years, he was soon out on the streets, working at whatever jobs he could find. In the Galveston of the 1890s this primarily meant loading bales of cotton onto the ships in port.

Boxing was a way out. Violent and almost animalistic in the 19th century, it was the sport of the lowest classes. It was also the narrow window that gave oppressed young men the hope of escaping their lot, and Jack Johnson had the natural skills to do so.

He honed these skills in local fights. He was also drafted into battle royals, where he pulverized his way to blindfolded victories and earned pocket change. He hopped the rails and snuck onto ships, looking for fights in other towns. Soon he was making more money in one night than his father could in a week.

The underworld of 1900s boxing

There were three sports in the United States of the early 1900s -- baseball, horse racing, and boxing. The last of these was of questionable legality. Gambling and bout-fixing were as much a part of the sport as the jeers and taunts of the crowd.

Boxing occupied a strange space between persecution from the police and admiration from the working men of the country. Fights took place in open fields, on ships, or anywhere else that law enforcement could be evaded. At the same time, famous boxers made it to the front of all the sports pages, and phrases from the sport ("on the ropes", "throwing in the towel", "down for the count") entered the common lexicon.

Jack Johnson's turning point occurred in 1901. In Galveston he fought and lost to an old, technically skilled veteran named Joe Choynski in an illegal fight. Shortly thereafter, Texas Rangers swarmed into the ring and threw men both into jail, where they were kept for twenty-three days in the same cell. During the afternoon they sparred for the amusement of police and local spectators.

Illegal Boxing in a TentA typical venue for boxing around 1900.

Choynski saw the potential in Jack Johnson but also the shortcomings in technique that made him beatable. For these three weeks he tutored Johnson extensively, telling him, "A man who can move like you should never have to take a punch."

This assistance helped turn Johnson from a raw fighter to a great one. By 1903 he was a household name in the boxing world. As he tore through one black boxer after another, his sights became firmly affixed on the Heavyweight Champion of the World.

At that time, the champion was James Jeffries. A former boilermaker, Jeffries was all power. He had broken many a man's ribs and had never lost a fight or even been knocked down. He was the man that Jack Johnson would have to go through to win his crown.

There was only one problem -- Jeffries wouldn't fight Jack Johnson.

The racial conventions of the time would never allow such a spectacle in a world championship bout. In lieu of a title defense against a black man, Jeffries retired undefeated to his farm in Burbank, California and planted alfalfa.

Johnson wins every fight, flouts American conventions

For the rest of the 1900s decade, Johnson fought lesser opponents. To further prove himself, he developed the habit of knocking out white fighters in the first round. He earned up to $3,000 a night.

Without Jeffries around, Johnson beat every boxer he faced -- black or white -- until he became the Heavyweight Champion of the World. Challengers were thrown against him, and he pulverized them all.

White press and white society feared and hated Johnson. Pictures began to appear in the newspapers of Johnson with different white women -- first one, then another, then another. He was a known gambler, fiddle player, race car driver, and generally larger-than-life playboy (with an intellectual bent that included a fascination with Napoleon, and the invention of a new kind of wrench). Outrage grew at the brazenly insouciant manner in which Johnson occupied his championship pedestal.

Jack Johnson and Etta Duryea on a train - c.1910Jack Johnson was one of few who dared to challenge the racial taboos of the early 1900s. The American press went into an uproar.

In this same decade, almost a thousand black people were lynched in the United States. Many people -- both the racist and the well-intentioned -- warned him about the potential consequences of his interracial fornication. Jack Johnson ignored all of them.

For years, the press clamored for a white man who could beat Jack Johnson in a fight with all the ardor of any self-perceived defenders of civilization. The pressure of thousands of letters from across the country and the lure of $100,000 finally lured Jim Jeffries back into the ring.

The date of the epic fight was set for July 4, 1910.

"The Black Peril" and "The Great White Hope" -- Johnson vs. Jeffries

"I was well aware that most of that great audience was hostile to me. These things did not disturb or worry me. I was cool and perfectly at ease." - Jack Johnson (Footage of his victory was banned for decades.)

Nevada was the only state where boxing was legal by 1910 -- the efforts of the Progressives had taken their toll elsewhere in the country. As such the "Fight of the Century" was held in Reno. White men flooded the city from every direction, and it turned into a circus of drinking, revelry, and prostitution. The bookies took bets on Jeffries like there was no tomorrow. All that was left was the coronation.

But instead of a coronation, a humiliation.

Johnson was a very tactical fighter. Jeffries was a brawler. On the day of the fight, it was 110 degrees and Johnson turned the heat to his advantage. In the opening rounds, Jeffries tried to work his way inside and lay some uppercuts and body shots upon the fleeter Johnson, who parried every move. By the middle rounds Jeffries was exhausted. Johnson's punches started to connect at a furious clip. By the fourteenth round Jeffries's nose was broken and blood spilled down his chest. The crowd went silent, suffering from the indignity that the scene presented to them. In the fifteenth round it was over.

Johnson's corner formed a protective ring and escorted him from the scene in the midst of a near frenzy. Across the United States, riots broke out across the major cities and scores were killed, nearly all of them black.

Assertion of the self -- The meaning of Johnson's life

Jack Johnson arrived in Chicago on July 7th, and a parade of thousands greeted him at the station and walked with him all the way to his mother's house.

For years Johnson lived as one of white America's most imposing villains. He was blamed for race riots. He was blamed for the arrogant attitude of other blacks. Judicial plots were hatched against him. The Mann Act was passed by Congress to target him, and was used against him for "crimes" he had committed with white women. He was the very first man in the United States to be prosecuted under that legislation, dubiously, for actions he took before it was even passed. Adherence to the ex post facto protections of the Constitution was a trivial concern. He fled the county to avoid federal prosecution, continued to fight around the world, and was not beaten until 1915 -- by which point he was 37 years old.

Through it all, Jack Johnson never saw himself as a crusader. He didn't see himself as a savior of the race, a spokesman, an advocate, or an enemy of the white people. Through word and deed, Jack Johnson never claimed to be anything except a man. His professed philosophy was equanimity to all, and in the world of gambling and fixing he had many white friends. In a society as racist to the core as America in 1910, the shady world of sports and gaming was one of the only places where anything like equal relations could occur -- shadowed as it was from the "respectable" elements of society.

Jack Johnson driving a car

In the great American tradition, Jack Johnson stepped out in the world with no goal in mind but to be his own person. It is fitting that his ultimate triumph happened on the 4th of July, for his whole life from the first day that he put gloves on was devoted to the pursuit of liberty and humanity in the only way that a man like him could find it. Like any man he had his flaws, but fear was not one of them. He knew that every day could be his last (and there were attempts to kill him), but he lived as if this danger did not exist. By doing so he found the only true freedom that exists in this world.

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About the Author

Dan Bryan

Dan Bryan is the founder and editor of American History USA. He holds a B.A. in American History from the University of Chicago. He has created this site to empower Americans of all backgrounds to increase their historical literacy.

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