I know I’m a little ahead of myself in terms of the MLK, Jr. national holiday and Black History Month, but I feel compelled to educate a new generation about one of the genuine black pioneers of the past two centuries; a man who, at best, remains a footnote.
I’m speaking of Jack Johnson, boxing’s first black heavyweight champion of the world.
I recently rediscovered Johnson through an amazing, three-part podcast series called “History on Fire.” Anyone, and I mean anyone, who cares about what once was, and how it shaped what is today, should listen to Doneli Bonelli’s podcasts (This is a link to the third, and most inspiring, of the three Johnson podcasts since it describes in detail the outrage of, and backlash by, white society at the time).
But, I digress.
Jack Johnson was the Rosa Parks of sports.
Long before Jackie Robinson, Tommy Smith, Jim Brown, Kareem Jabbar, Ali and Colin Kaepernick, there was Jack Johnson.
Johnson redefined racial stereotyping in a Jim Crow era when people of color were still routinely being lynched, denied their basic civil rights and, frankly, tolerated as a necessary evil by the white establishment (as long as they readily accepted their second-class status and dutifully respected whites as their racial superiors).
Johnson not only challenged conventional wisdom, he blew it to hell. He was far and away the best heavyweight boxer of his time. And Johnson was also a party animal to the max.
As might be expected, the white aristocracy refused to acknowledge his nonpareil prowess. Johnson fanned the flames by flouting every existing “rule” for black behavior in a white supremecist society. He dated countless white women, owned his own wildly successful “sporting” club in Chicago, drove the hottest, fastest cars and, to put it mildly, lived life entirely on his terms.
Johnson’s amazing string of knockouts over one contender after another not only frightened white society but raised a universal cry for Jim Jeffries, the last undefeated white heavyweight champion, to come out of retirement. Jeffries was coerced to prove that, once and for all, the best black fighter couldn’t possibly beat a now-aging, badly out-of-shape but nonetheless, undefeated white heavyweight champion.
On a brutally hot July 4th day in Reno, Nevada, in 1910, Johnson not only destroyed Jeffries but, he also taunted him (and the overwhelmingly white audience as well).
Johnson became the first black heavyweight champion of the world. And, that’s when the shit really hit the fan.
The existing powers-that-be made it their business to find reasons to sue Johnson, arrested him for violations of the Mann Act (which prohibited white slavery). Johnson was arrested for driving his girlfriend of the time from Illinois to Indiana. He was sentenced to a full year in federal prison and a fine of $1,000. All because he happened to cross over from one state to another to take his girlfriend to dinner. Amazing, no?
Johnson was forced to flee to another country and prevented from defending his title. These obvious attempts to rid the nation of an individual who defied and upended every norm ate away at Johnson.
It fueled his own self-destructive lifestyle to the point where the once great boxer became a shell of his former self.
A beaten-down, 37-year-old facsimile of what once was Jack Johnson eventually lost the heavyweight championship in 1915 to a mediocre boxer named Jess Willard.
Johnson exited the boxing scene, but never stopped defying the White establishment.
My favorite Jack Johnson story occurred when he was at his absolute peak.
He, and a friend, were barreling down a Mississippi highway at god knows what speed (and, naturally, driving a state-of-the-art auto) when a local cop pulled him over and fined him $50 on the spot.
Jackson pulled out a wad of $100 bills and handed one to the cop. The latter said, “I don’t carry that much money on me. I can’t possibly give you the change.” To which Johnson replied, “Keep it. I intend to return on this road driving at the very same speed, so consider it payment in advance.”
As we remember and salute everyone from Sojourner Truth to Rosa Parks, let us not forget Jack Johnson. I’ve always adored Ali but, frankly, he was testing the barriers and stereotypes that Jack Johnson had already attacked. R.I.P. Jack Johnson.