Unforgivable Blackness: The Lingering Legacy of Jack Johnson

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”The reason Jack Johnson was so beset by his own
country, a country ironically which had only recently
reaffirmed that all men were created equal, was
because of his Unforgivable Blackness.”
—W.E.B. DuBois
Jack Johnson was an African American boxer during the
early 1900s. Johnson was overtly proud of his abilities and
his heritage, refusing to acquiesce to the deep-seated
racism in American society. His illustrious career was consistently
hampered by overt racial discrimination including
a criminal charge that is still on his record—being
guilty of bringing a white woman, across state lines for
“immoral purposes.”
Professor Gerald Early wrote about the era in which
Johnson boxed: “By the turn of the century, institutionalized
racism had shut blacks out of baseball. They were
forced out of jockeying for the same reason, indeed, virtually
all sports. Blacks were largely confined to professional
boxing.” However, boxing matches were also utilized to
reinforce the culture of discrimination. Often, promoters
had African American boxers fight one another to the
applause of the crowd. In cases where an African American
boxer fought a white fighter, promoters did their best to
ensure either a victory for the white or a draw if the
African American was on the verge of winning.
In February 1903, Jack Johnson won the World Colored
Heavyweight Championship. After Johnson’s victory,
the white World Heavyweight Champion—James Jeffries—
refused multiple opportunities to fight Johnson. Jeffries
continued to duck Johnson and retired in 1905. New
champion, Tommy Burns, agreed to a match against Jack
Johnson in Australia in December, 1908. Burns only
agreed to the fight after months of Jack Johnson publicly
taunting Burns to step into the ring. Johnson dominated
the entire match while openly mocking Burns’ crew and
holding Burns up to continue throwing punches when he
was about to fall to the mat. After Johnson’s decisive victory,
a vicious animosity from whites ran so deep that the
white public began searching for, as author Jack London
quipped, a “Great White Hope” to defeat Johnson and
reclaim the heavyweight boxing title. In the succeeding
title defense matches, Johnson’s opponents were all billed
as “great white hopes” and he defeated every last one of
them. Whites were infuriated further when he had relationships
with white women and ultimately married one.
At this time, miscegenation was both illegal and deadly.
Johnson was unapologetic in response to the conflict
surrounding him. In a classic example, when being hassled
by police for a $50 speeding ticket, Johnson handed
the officer a $100 bill and told the cop to keep the change,
as he would be returning later at the same speed. Due to
this assertive and bold attitude, James Jeffries, who had
previously ducked Johnson’s challenges came out of retirement
in 1910. Jeffries stated “I am going into this fight for
the sole purpose of proving that a white man is better than
a Negro.” In response, Johnson was quoted in the newspapers
saying, “I honestly believe that in pugilism I am Jeffries’
master, and it is my purpose to demonstrate this in
the most decisive way possible… The tap of the gong will
be music to me.” Johnson’s declaration of being Jeffries’
master, at a time when people who had been slaves and
masters still lived in the US, only added more fuel to the
focal point of race and politics within “The Fight of the
Century.” As David Remnick wrote in King of the World,
the ringside band played a song called, “All coons look
alike to me,” and crowds of whites chanted, “kill the nigger.”
Johnson destroyed Jeffries and toyed with him for the
entirety of the match. The race riots that followed rocked
several major metropolitan cities. Celebrations of African
Americans were met with violent outbursts from white
mobs with over 150 blacks killed. As film footage of the
fight was distributed, Congress banned prizefight films
from 1912 until 1940. Congress even debated banning
boxing itself.
Johnson’s open defiance to and rejection of the secondclass
citizenship afforded African Americans in society led
to his criminal prosecution. In 1912, Johnson was convicted
under the Mann Act on charges that he had taken a
white woman across state lines for immoral purposes. The
white woman in question was his wife. He fled to Europe
but ultimately served a year and a day in Leavenworth for
the supposed crime.
This summer, both the Senate and the House passed
resolutions urging President Obama to posthumously pardon
Jack Johnson. Senator John McCain (R-AZ) and Rep.
Peter King (R-NY) sent a letter to President Obama to
request action on Johnson’s pardon on October 16. The
letter stated, “regrettably, we have not received a response
from you or any member of your administration… [We
hope the White House will] right this wrong and erase an
act of racism that sent an American citizen to prison.” In a
so-called ‘post racial society’ rife with institutional racism,
the posthumous pardon of Jack Johnson would be a positive
action to combat racism and might provide an impetus
to have a legitimate discussion about the continuing
realities of institutional racism, privilege and discrimination.
With the current attacks, it is important to remember
the lesson of Johnson: he stood tall and fought back.

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3 Responses to Unforgivable Blackness: The Lingering Legacy of Jack Johnson

  1. Pingback: Jack Johnson – Heavyweight history maker – The Hurt Game

  2. Pingback: This is Jack Johnson, the first ever black heavyweight champion – DKX-Universe

  3. Pingback: Black History Figure Of The Day: Jack Johnson | Fear Our Upcoming Rise

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