Jack Johnson. The name barely rings a bell in this century or even in the last twenty-five years of the previous century. If one were to look up the fights of Jack Johnson on YouTube, some grainy, clearly vintage film exists, taking the viewer to another age, another time, but not much more than that. As has been made rathar apparent this week, mention the name Muhammad Ali, and nearly everyone will mention the great fighter without hesitation. They will recall, most vividly the “Thrilla in Manilla”, his duets with the irracible Howard Cosell, and they will recall his controversies over induction into the United States military resulting in the Supreme Court upholding his right to refuse induction on the basis of his Muslim faith and the accompanying status of a contientious objector. I would dare say that the last portion of my statement will be remembered by older readers, say, fifty and above rather than the younger ones. Many people will recall the stirring moment at the Olympics where a stricken Ali held the Olympic torch as it shook in his left hand just prior to its lighting, a moment that anyone who witnessed it will not soon forget. Primarily, he is remembered morso than Jack Johnson as a result of his being alive during the great age of television, being an activist during the Civil Rights movement, and simply by virtue of being alive until his passing this week. There are innumerable references to Ali’s outspokenness, his willingness to engage just about anyone or any cause he deemed worthy, to be a showman, and create a spectacle by his very appearances in venues across the world. He was the first to use the media to his benefit, to mass market his fights and his personality, his very existence. He is the one that created showtime, with apologies to Magic Johnson and his Laker teams of the 1980’s. While all of the previous may be true, historically, the journey to Ali was quite different, with rather different results for the first truly great black showman…the first true showman…Jack Johnson. Jack Johnson laid the groundwork for Muhammad Ali in a time much different and immenesly more difficult for people of color than Ali’s in just about every imaginable way. So, while the world mourns the loss of a great champion for all of the reasons mentioned, let us take a look back at the road traveled to get to Muhammad Ali.
Jack Johnson was reviled in his time. During a period in which boxing may have been as popular or even arguabley more so than baseball, Jack Johnson was king. He was the heavyweight champion from 1908-1915, and every year of his reign was one of controversy. There were two primary reasons for the issues that surrounded him, and by his own admission, due to him alone and his refusal to kowtow to the social norms of the day. Johnson once said about his plight, “For every point I’m given, I’ll have earned two, because I’m a Negro.” He was right, but it was statements like these that enraged white society at the time, and Johnson gave no quarter. He spent money, loved fast cars, often paying officers with cash on the spot when caught speeding. Most of all, “L’il Abner” as he was called, enjoyed the company of white women. At the turn of the century, this practice was not only unheard of, but so infuriated the white community that there were active campaigns to end his reign as heavyweight champion by every segment of the white community. Much as he did in the ring, Jack Johnson evaded almost every attempt with a simple concept. He lived his truth. He didn’t apologize for his dalliances or his mariage to white women, but rather seemed almost to relish the controversies that were the result. He suffered the slings and arrows of a society that was not color blind, but he lived it truthfully. He did not hide that fact, and he did not run, until he was accused of violating the Mann Act which forbade “interstate or foreign transportation of an individual with the intention of engaging such individual in sexual activity or prostitution.” This statute was enacted in 1910, and while not directly aimed at Jack Johnson, provided a convenient opportunity to hold him responsible for his actions with white women. It was bald faced revenge, hatred of a black heavyweight champion and a simple dislike of the man himself and how he conducted his life. Like all things, Jack Johnson faced his issues head on. He made fun of what he thougth were innane questions, just as he taunted opponents in the ring. When asked why white women were attracted to black men, he responded tongue and cheek with answers that belied his great intelligence saying that black men, “eat cold eels and think distant thoughts.” Eventually, to avoid prison for a charge that was clearly trumped up to entrap him, take the heavyweight title away and remove him for good, he fled the United States and fought many of his fights, including those for the championship, abroad. He wanted to come home, and fought for much of his time as champion to return, all the while defeating every opponent that he faced with relative ease. He chased then champion Tommy Burns half way around the world to try and get a title shot. When he finally caught up with Burns in Australia, Burns insinuated that Johnson was “yellow”. Johnson’s response? “Who told you I was yellow? You’re white, Tommy–white as the flag of surrender.” Brash, supremely confident, and yes…a trash talker, Johnson said what he meant, and meant what he said. Think of it…in that time, in that day, a brash, unapologetically talented black man saying what he wanted, regardless of the consequences. He taunted his opponents in the ring, often talking to them during the fight, giving them tips on how they might have a chance to defeat him. He gave exhibitions on vaudville tours and talked to corner men during championship fights. He mocked ring legend “Gentleman” Jim Corbett for yelling racist names at him during the Fight of the Century against an aged Jim Jeffries (the latest White Hope who had been retired five years before he was coaxed and bullied into the ring with Johnson) by saying things like “You’re next, Mr. Jim” or “Come on in, Mr. Jim”. The confidence, swagger, and outright disdain that Johnson had for the social schackles that were placed on him were evident at every turn. His response? He embraced those limitations and fought against them as hard as he fought in the ring. He was the heavyweight champion of the world, and could lick any man set before him. There would be no limitations on his life, black man or not. His was a life of, as the title of Ken Burns’ seminal documentary on Johnson states, Unforgiveable Blackness.
Jack Johnson was more than just a pugilist, he was intelligent, knew his craft beyond measure, and was a lover of life. He once stated, “The possession of muscular strength and the courage to use it in contests with other men for physical supremacy does not necessarily imply a lack of appreciation for the finer and better things of life.” I would suggest that this intelligence was as threatening to his time period and the white population just as much as his fists. During a period when schooling was denied black children, or what schooling there was for black children was so substandard that it may well not even have existed. Jack Johnson was well read. He could talk politics, business, literature, whatever the situation demanded. He was not a pug, like so many boxers of that generation, but rather approaching a scholar. This fact also created fear in the white community. How were they going to deal with a man who was physically superior, held the greatest title in the world, and was just as intelligent, maybe more so than most? He owned night clubs in Chicago, famously and successfully where white patrons and black patrons co-mingled without issue. He appeared often at the club where there was no restriction on when alcohol was served, violating local ordinances. He didn’t care. He was having fun, wanted others to have fun, color be damned! In this alone, he was a pioneer. For Johnson, he just didn’t seem to understand why color mattered. As one further studies Jack Johnson, that is the inescapable conclusion. He just could not understand why color mattered and proceeded with his life as though there were no restrictions on him. The problem was not that Johnson could not grasp the time in which he lived, he simply refused to accept it and while color did not matter to him, it did matter to the rest of society. At a time in which he was expected to keep his place, Jack Johnson refused to do so, not willing to understand why he had to. Johnson did have certain built in advantages that the average person of color did not as he was the heavyweight champion of the world. Doors were open to him, despite the fact that society was beyond racist simply because he was the champion of the world. Jack Johson was tired in 1915. He was tired of running from a wholly unjust prosecution, tired of not being allowed to come home as a result said prosecution. He was tired of fighting the powers that be for his very right to exist as a man. Not a black man, but just a man. Even in the black community there was a feeling that that Jack Johnson was putting them under undue pressure because of his behavior and his involvment with white women. There was backlash, especially in the white South with lynchings, beatings, as well as behavior that during our time is considered more than reprehensible. Today, it is not a stretch to say such behavior bordered on crimes against humanity. When Johnson was defeated by a slightly less talented Jess Willard in Cuba (1915), there was joy in the white community and for some in the black community, a sense of relief. For Johnson, the fight itself was controversial. Was he really knocked out by Willard or did the throw the fight? The film seems to show Johnson covering his eyes in the ring suggesting that he simply quit (it’s available on YouTube). He, himself said that he threw the fight. Johnson’s claim is also in dispute as the film also shows Willard hitting him with a fantastic punch as well prior to Johnson hitting the canvas. No matter, as Johnson was getting old and wanted desperately to come home. He did. With significant fanfare, he gave himself up and served eight months of his Mann Act sentence, and resumed his life, fighting exhibitions, performing in Vaudeville, and being…Jack Johnson. He remained outspoken, challenging authority, commenting on boxing, and just being Jack Johnson. Johnson died in 1946 on his way to witness a fight. In typical Johnson fashion, he was driving way too fast and lost control of the vehicle, hitting a pole. The life of Jack Johnson was over. There is a lobbying effort underway with many Senators and Congressmen lobbying current President Barack Obama to pardon Jack Johnson posthumously, for his Mann Act conviction, something the President has not done as of the publishing of this post.
So, what is the connection to Muhammad Ali? If the reader has bothered to read this rather lengthy post, the comparisons are quite obvious. Jack Johnson was Muhammad Ali, way before Ali ever existed, but in a much more difficult time. Yes, Ali faced racisim, difficulty, the stripping of his title due to protest, but eventual acquittal. He was maligned because he was outspoken, but in the end, came to be beloved by the world. Even Ali himself, when asked to compare himself to Jack Johnson (the interview with Howard Cosell is also on YouTube) said that “Jack Johson was crazy” in reference to Jack’s actions in that time period. Jack Johnson died in relative obscurity, while challenging the existing authority as a man trying to live his life as he saw fit, his skin tone being the overriding barrier. Even today, for those that know, Jack Johnson does not evoke pleasant memories, but rather tainted ones. He is acknowledged as a great fighter, but still seen as a rabble rouser. Here’s hoping that Jack Johnson is someday given his due as a pioneer not only for the black community, but for anyone fighting to be who they are, color be damned. Here’s to Jack Johnson.