It was 1912, and Jack Johnson was king.
He was the world’s heavyweight champion — the first black man to ever hold the title. He hadn’t lost a match in four years, despite repeated challenges from high-profile white competitors and calls across the country for a “Great White Hope” to unseat him. He was rich off of endorsement fees and the prize money from all those matches he refused to lose. And he was in love with an 18-year-old white woman named Lucille Cameron.
And then he was arrested, twice, for violating a law that made it illegal transport a white woman across state lines for any “immoral purposes” — including, under the racist strictures of Jim Crow, an interracial relationship. Johnson was convicted by an all-white jury and wound up spending a year in prison. His story was the basis of a movie, “The Great White Hope,” starring James Earl Jones,
More than a century later, the movement is growing to get him posthumously pardoned.
There’s the play that opened in New York on Thursday, “Dare to be Black,” which examines Johnson’s “battle of the century” fight against a famous white opponent, James Jeffries. There’s a Change.org petition started by heavyweight champion Mike Tyson. In December, language recommending that Johnson be pardoned was slipped into a 1,000-page education bill and then signed into law.
But a suggestion from Congress that Johnson’s record be wiped is not the same thing as a pardon. Only President Obama has the power to give that — and so far, he hasn’t.
“I know he’s passed away, but this is more about the need for an apology,” playwright Tommie J. Moore, who wrote and stars in the one-man show “Dare to be Black,” told the New York Daily News. Moore said that a pardon would bring attention to the largely forgotten boxer and the racism that dogged him throughout his career.
John Arthur “Jack” Johnson was born in Galveston, Texas in 1878 to parents who were former slaves. He spent his teenage years working on the docks of the port city and honing his boxing skills, according to the Ken Burns documentary “Unforgivable Blackness,” and in 1901 his size and raw talent finally got him noticed. After being arrested during a match with veteran boxer Joe Choynski — prizefighting was illegal in Texas at the time — Choynski offered to coach him during their stay in jail.
“A man who can move like you,” he said, according to “Unforgiveable Blackness,” “should never have to take a punch.”
Johnson moved to California, where he rose swiftly through the prizefighting ranks. In 1903 he became the unofficial “Negro heavyweight champion,” and he had set his sights on the world title. But the current champion at the time, James Jeffries, refused to fight him.
Instead, after declaring that he’d defeated “all logical challengers,” Jeffries announced that he would retire to his alfalfa farm after overseeing a fight between two other prominent boxers. Whoever won could claim the world champion title.
Five years would pass before Johnson finally found a white world champion willing to fight him: a Canadian named Tommy Burns. According to ESPN, Burns only agreed to the gig because he was promised $30,000 to participate.
Johnson battered him for 14 rounds, until police jumped in to help a practically-unconscious Burns. Johnson was declared the world’s new heavyweight champion.
The response was vehement and venomous. White commentators began calling for a “Great White Hope” to challenge Johnson and take his title. The novelist Jack London, of “Call of the Wild” fame, urged Jeffries to come out of retirement and “remove that golden smile from Jack Johnson’s face.”
“Jeff, it’s up to you,” London wrote, according to NPR. “The White Man must be rescued.”
It did not help matters that Johnson was known for flamboyantly flouting turn-of-the-century America’s restrictive social mores around race and class. He was, as screenwriter John Ridley once wrote, “a guy who basically lived his life with a metaphorical middle finger raised in the air.” Johnson owned a night club, acted on stage, wore gold teeth, and reportedly walked his pet leopard while sipping champagne. “Unforgivable Blackness” recounts an incident when Johnson handed over a $100 bill to pay a $50 speeding ticket. Told by the police officer that he couldn’t make change, Johnson just flashed a smile — he planned on speeding on the way back too.
His behavior earned Johnson some critics in the African American community, including Booker T. Washington, who said “it is unfortunate that a man with money should use it in a way to injure his own people, in the eyes of those who are seeking to uplift his race and improve its conditions,” according to the book “Race on Trial.”
But above all, Johnson was excoriated for dating white women — an inviolable taboo at the time. His romantic entanglements got him boos and death threats. Whites in the South actively called for him to be lynched.
Finally, in 1910, Jeffries agreed to a fight. He would come out of retirement, he announced, in order to “reclaim the heavyweight championship for the white race.”
The fight, billed as “the battle of the century,” was held in Reno, Nev. in front of some 20,000 fans screaming for Johnson’s defeat. They were disappointed: after 15 rounds, Jeffries threw in the towel.
“I could never have whipped Johnson at my best,” he later said. “I couldn’t have hit him. No, I couldn’t have reached him in 1,000 years.”
Far from settling the question of inequality in sports, the result set off riots around the county that left dozens of people dead — most of them black.
That same year, the Mann Act was passed, making it a crime to transport women across state lines “for the purpose of prostitution or debauchery, or for any other immoral purpose.” Aimed at preventing prostitution, it could also be manipulated to criminalize interracial relationships. Almost as soon as the law went into effect, the Department of Justice began investigating Johnson for a possible violation, according to “Unforgivable Blackness.”
Johnson had married Brooklyn socialite Etta Terry Duryea, who was white, in 1911. Their relationship was turbulent and she committed suicide a year later. Three months after her death, he married his second wife, Lucille Cameron.
Cameron’s mother, aghast that her daughter had married a black man, complained to authorities that Johnson had kidnapped her. Johnson was arrested and prosecutors began to build a Mann Act case against him, but Cameron refused to cooperate with the case against her husband, according to “Unforgivable Blackness.” Ultimately, the charges were dropped.
But not for long. Agents ultimately dug up an old relationship with a young woman named Belle Schreiber. She agreed to testify against Johnson, and he was swiftly brought to Chicago federal court. It took less than two hours for an all white jury to convict him in 1913.
Before he could be sent to prison, Johnson skipped bail and fled the country along with his wife, according to ESPN. They spent the next several years traveling around Europe and South America, Johnson participating in small-time matches for measly purses. He held onto his world title the whole while.
Then he encountered 6-foot, 6 1/4-inch, 230-pound Jess Willard in a boxing ring in Havana in 1915. Even aging and out of practice, Johnson was able to hold his own until the 26th round, when Willard delivered a knockout punch. Johnson was no longer champion — perhaps intentionally. Rumors swirled after the fight that Johnson lost intentionally in hopes that it would get the Justice Department to drop its case against him.
But he had no such luck. After seven years on the lam, Johnson surrendered to federal authorities at the Mexican border, according to “Unforgivable Blackness.” After serving his year-long prison term, he emerged to a much quieter existence than he’d had as champion. His public life was limited to small exhibition matches and a campaign to promote war bonds during World War II.
Meanwhile, boxing’s color barrier fell back into place, as impenetrable as ever. It would be another 16 years before Joe Louis defeated James Braddock in Chicago in 1937, making another black man the world’s heavyweight boxing champion.
Johnson died like he lived — in the fast lane. He was killed in a car crash in 1946. And aside from the occasional tribute or scholarly reference, his legacy was largely forgotten, eclipsed by the successes of athletes like Louis and Jackie Robinson.
But momentum to change that has been building. There was Burns’s documentary in 2004. Four years later, a bill asking President George W. Bush for a pardon was passed by the House of Representatives, but failed in the Senate. Similar legislation finally made it through Congress in 2009, and then again late last year.
“Jack Johnson should receive a posthumous pardon to expunge a racially-motivated abuse of prosecutorial authority of the federal government from the annals of criminal justice in the United States,” it reads, “and in recognition of the athletic and cultural contributions of Jack Johnson to society.”
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