Jack Johnson, unforgivable blackness, and the racist colour line in sport

Jack Johnson, the first African American to hold the boxing heavyweight championship, not only confronted racism in the sport, but rebelled against the pervasive white supremacy of his time. His battle, and the attitudes of white superiority he fought against, have contemporary lessons. His life is eloquently told in the fascinating documentary by Ken Burns, called ‘Unforgivable Blackness: The rise and fall of Jack Johnson.’


The documentary itself is an absorbing and detailed examination of the life and times of Arthur John ‘Jack’ Johnson (1878-1946), the first ever black American man to win the boxing heavyweight title. There were several African American contenders for boxing championships at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries; several had won the crowning titles in their respective weight divisions, lightweight, cruiserweight, bantamweight and so on. However, the biggest prize in boxing, the heavyweight title, remained the preserve of the white man. The colour line was firmly drawn and established; only white contenders could win the heavyweight category, to maintain the pervasive white supremacist perspective that infected all facets of capitalist America, including sports.

This was an era of legalised segregation; where black and white were strictly separated in health care, education, employment, and in sport. This was a time when a black man could be lynched for even looking romantically at a white woman, where black people were only the subject of news reports in the media when they were perpetrators of a crime. The first African American man to graduate from Harvard University with a doctorate, the great sociologist W E B Du Bois, wrote in 1903 that the main problem of the twentieth century is the colour line.  The presence of the African American was portrayed as a threat, a menace to the racial purity of white civilisation, and miscegenation – race mixing – was considered a traumatic evil to be avoided at all costs.

Boxing in the late nineteenth century

It was into this world, that Jack Johnson was born and raised. Coming from Galveston, Texas, Johnson learned how to box in his teens, and developed the pugilistic skills that were to serve him so well in later years. The Galveston Giant, as Johnson became known, fought his way to the top to become the boxing heavyweight champion – in the coloured division. Boxing between Negro fighters was commonplace – as entertainment for white audiences. The boxers received prize money – the change that was thrown into the ring as appreciative reward by the predominantly white crowds.

The late 1800s were a time of great changes in boxing; gloves were introduced, rounds were timed and limited, rest periods in between rounds were made compulsory, and prize-fighting became more ‘respectable’. The first dominant American boxing heavyweight champion, John L Sullivan, was title-holder from 1882 to 1892. Known as the Boston Strong Boy, he was intimidating, physically strong, knocked out all contenders, and was the last of the major bare-knuckle-era champions. He also was a white supremacist, who refused to fight a black man.

Johnson’s undeniable skills as a boxer, his talent for hitting and avoiding getting hit, were his contribution in the development of defensive boxing. His reflexes were superb, and in an era when heavyweight boxers were supposed to take the punches of the opponent, Johnson used not just his muscles but his mind to outwit his competitor. Johnson was not the first exponent of defensive boxing – former heavyweight champion James ‘Jim’ Corbett used precisely that defensive technique to defeat the previously unbeatable John L Sullivan. Corbett earned the nickname ‘Gentleman Jim’, and he became a respected champion and boxing trainer. However, when Johnson adopted and developed the same technique in his career, he was denounced as a coward, a shifty, deceitful coon for dodging the punches of his opponents. Johnson was not the only serious black contender for the heavyweight championship. He fought other black fighters – and defeated all of them too.

Ken Burns’ documentary is fascinating for so many reasons, and one of them is the rare archival footage he has included of Johnson’s fights. He recreates the mood and music of the times Johnson was a rising black athlete, and includes the commentary of Johnson biographers and boxing commentators. But there are specific episodes in Johnson’s life that are emblematic of the simmering racial tension of the era. White supremacy was a virtually unchallenged philosophy in the media culture of the early 20th century, where blacks were infantilised, portrayed as grown-up children, unable to control their lustful appetites, and sometimes caricatured as half-human, half-ape. But what if a black athlete won the boxing heavyweight championship? What would happen to the ostensible superiority of the white race, and the entire historical viewpoint predicated on that belief, if a black man were to prove himself the equal, indeed individually superior, to a white man?

Johnson versus Tommy Burns

Johnson wanted a chance to fight for the heavyweight title. Tommy Burns, the then-reigning champion, refused to fight a black man. He had to be coaxed, cajoled and bribed in order to be convinced to step into the ring with Johnson. The media began to whip up racial hatred, with commentators demanding that Burns, the white man, put a stop to this annoying, uppity coon. The Australian entrepreneur Hugh D Mackintosh, sensed an enormous financial opportunity from promoting a ‘race war’. Burns had come to Sydney in 1907 to fight other boxers – Johnson turned up as well, and challenged the white champion.

In the early 1900s, Johnson literally chased Tommy Burns around the world for a chance to fight – for two years, Johnson attended every fight in which Burns participated, taunting him, challenging Burns for a fight. Burns came up with all sorts of excuses, and demanded a hefty 30 000 dollars pay cheque to fight Johnson. Finally, Burns relented, and it was agreed that he would be paid 30 000 dollars – Johnson received 5000. The fight was set, white versus black – for December 26, 1908, in Sydney, Australia.

In the Museum of Sydney, there is a photographic exhibit detailing the fight – Burns versus Johnson. The race war had come to Sydney, and it would take place in Rushcutters Bay.

The heavyweight fighters
The heavyweight fighters

It is difficult to comprehend the level of hostility against Johnson, and the revulsion that greeted him wherever he went. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the United States was emerging as an imperialist power in its own right. While the usual imperialist states – Britain, France, Germany and so on – were pursuing empire-building in Africa, the United States was conquering territories from the non-white peoples of the world.

European imperialism had a long history of racism towards the subjugated peoples, and now the United States, the latest white power to embark upon carving out a colonial empire, began its record of abuse and violence towards the coloured people. Cuba, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Hawaii – all these people were conquered, or at least claimed, by the United States. Combine that with internal laws restricting non-white immigration to the United States, barring Eastern Europeans, Jews, Slavs and other non-Anglo-Saxon people from reaching the US, and this demonstrates the depth of white racism in the United States. While black Americans were subjected to a system of racial segregation, the United States was also importing the perverted doctrines of ‘social Darwinism’, falsely categorising people into biologically distinct and entrenched ‘races’, where it was held that the coloured people, the ‘lesser breeds’, were doomed to extinction by a superior white race. Jack Johnson, the son of former slaves, used his sheer talent, energy and persistence to fight his way to the top of a sports profession long associated with gangsterism, exploitation and corruption.


Burns, the heavyweight champion, faced off with Johnson at the old Sydney Stadium in Rushcutters Bay. The fight can be viewed in the documentary. They fought in front of 20 000 people. The crowd yelled racist abuse at Johnson as he entered the ring. Johnson bowed to the crowd in all directions – and smiled.

The opening bell sounded, and the fighters walked out of their respective corners. “Here I am Tommy” Johnson yelled out to his opponent, “who told you I was yellow?” Johnson was the bigger man, stronger, with a longer reach and faster reflexes. He knocked Burns down in the opening round – twice. To his credit, Burns got up – but the fight was dominated by Johnson. As Burns wobbled, his legs buckling, Johnson would pull him back up – and continue pummeling Burns some more. Burns’ corner-men kept up a stream of racist abuse. Johnson kept boxing, chatting with fans sitting at the ringside, dominating the match – and smiling. Round after round, Burns was battered into a bruised, bloody mess. Johnson was quite simply the better boxer, stronger and more agile.

Round 14 – Johnson moves in to finish off the white man once and for all. The local police, acting on orders, move in and stop the fight. As Burns is about to be knocked out, the filming stops – the grainy black-and-white footage simply ends, and there is no existing film of the end of that bout. The police stopped the film, because white audiences could not stand the sight of a black man successfully beating a white man. Burns was comprehensively defeated – in 1908, Johnson became the heavyweight champion:

Jack Johnson
Jack Johnson

Great white hope

In the aftermath of the fight, the American media began clamouring for a white man to emerge and win back the heavyweight championship for the white race. The Detroit Free Press wrote at the time:

Is the Caucasian played out? Are the races we have been calling inferior about to demand to us that we must draw the color line in everything if we are to avoid being whipped individually and collectively?

Henry Lawson, the great Australian poet, wrote a poem that succinctly summarised the anxieties of the empire-builders:

It was not Burns that was beaten-for a nigger has smacked your face.
Take heed-I am tired of writing-but O my people take heed.
For the time may be near for the mating of the Black and the White to Breed.

Note that the main fear of the white community was not so much concern that Burns had been outmatched and outgunned by Johnson, but by the encroaching possibility of race-mixing. As the New York Times commented on the fight:

If the black man wins, thousands and thousands of his ignorant brothers will misinterpret his victory as justifying claims to much more than mere physical equality with their white neighbours.

Jack London, the famed American correspondent and novelist, coined the phrase ‘Great White Hope’; a man of the white race who would emerge, take on Johnson, and restore the heavyweight championship to its rightful owners. London was a committed socialist and dedicated to unionisation. He was also a white supremacist. He desired that workers of the world should unite – but only if those workers were white.

London wrote that it was indisputable that Johnson totally dominated the fight, in fact, calling it a fight was a travesty. It was a case of a grown man toying with a smaller opponent. The ‘Ethiopian’, as London referred to Johnson, was never in any doubt. Burns was a helpless and hapless victim of the stronger, faster Johnson. London now called for the heavyweight champion prior to Burns – Jim Jeffries – to come out of retirement and wipe that smile off Johnson’s face. London wrote for the New York Herald:

The fight? There was no fight. No Armenian massacre could compare with the hopeless slaughter that took place today. The fight, if fight it could be called, was like that between a pygmy and a colossus….But one thing now remains. Jim Jeffries must emerge from his alfalfa farm and remove the golden smile from Jack Johnson’s face. Jeff, it’s up to you! The White Man must be rescued.

One by one, contenders for the great white hope emerged; boxers, cattle ranchers, manual labourers, somebody, anybody who could take on the champion. They all filed into the ring – one by one, Johnson battered them all into submission. Stanley Ketchel, the middleweight champion and a white man, was convinced to step into the ring with Johnson in 1909. Ketchel was knocked unconscious with one right-hand punch from Johnson; another great white hope was extinguished. Johnson was still fighting, winning…….and smiling.

As Ken Burns explains in his documentary; “To most whites and even to some African-Americans, Johnson was a perpetual threat, profligate, arrogant, amoral – a dark menace and a danger to the natural order of things.” The white supremacist view had to be restored. Jim Jeffries, the former champion, retired undefeated. He was coaxed out of retirement for one reason – to fight Johnson. A white saviour had to be found, and Jeffries fit the bill.

Jeffries trained for the fight, lost weight and built up his muscular bulk. Updates about his training progress became almost daily news fare, and white America rallied behind him. The media, the boxing promoters, the gamblers and speculators, all were banking on a Jeffries win, because the alternative was too horrid to contemplate.

The latest installment of the ‘fight of the century’ took place in July 1910, in Reno Nevada. John L Sullivan, the former heavyweight champion now ringside boxing commentator, described the Jeffries-Johnson confrontation in this way:

“It was a poor fight as fights go, this less than fifteen-round affair between James J. Jeffries and Jack Johnson. Scarcely ever has there been a championship contest that was so one-sided.

All of Jeffries’s much-vaunted condition and the prodigious preparations that he went through availed him nothing. he wasn’t in it from the first bell tap to last, and as he fell bleeding, bruised weakened in the twenty-seventh second of the third minute of the fifteenth round no sorrier sight has ever gone to make pugilistic history.

Johnson solidified his hold on the heavyweight championship. The great racial contest was a bust – Johnson emphatically battered his opponent. While Jeffries himself was philosophical in defeat, rioting crowds of enraged whites took to the streets in American cities, assaulting and killing black Americans. White mobs hunted down African American persons, and the country was shaken by nation-wide race riots. Even film of the Jeffries-Johnson fight had to be stopped from being shown, for fear it would incite more rioting.

Inside and outside the boxing ring

White America eventually got their revenge on Johnson – both in and out of the boxing ring. In 1915, Johnson fought Jess Willard, a 6-foot 6-inch contender who took to boxing in his late twenties. By this time, Johnson had slackened off on his training; Willard was prepared, a new great white hope. The fight took placed in Havana Cuba over twenty-six grueling rounds. Willard, the younger man, wore down the ageing Johnson. Finally, in round 26, Johnson was knocked down. The black man had been defeated, the heavyweight championship returned to the white man. Race riots broke out, with gloating crowds exacting violent revenge against black communities in cities across America. Johnson was vanquished; the white man could rest easy again. Willard remained champion for another four years, before being defeated by Jack Dempsey. The latter employed the tactics of defensive boxing – a technique developed and refined by Johnson.

While Johnson was defeated inside the boxing ring, outside of it he was pursued by the authorities for that most outrageous of Johnson’s transgressions against white society – consorting with white women. Johnson married white women, had a string of romantic entanglements and extramarital affairs with women who were white. This was scandalous in white eyes – never matter that other boxers, such as Stanley Ketchel whom Johnson boxed, behaved in the same way. A black public figure had no business even being photographed with white women. In the early 1900s, America adopted more strict legislative social reforms, such as enacting prohibition against alcohol. Prostitution, in the white society, was associated with race-mixing; lurid images of Asian opium dens, immigrant opportunists and other non-white extortionists luring innocent white women into a life of prostitution dominated the media at the time. Of course, rich white men were not guilty of luring women, regardless of ethnic background, into providing sexual favours….never.

Johnson was tried and convicted in 1913 under the Mann Act of transporting a woman across state lines for immoral purposes – and received the maximum sentence of a year and a day in prison. The case against Johnson was racially motivated, for the woman he drove was in fact his girlfriend, who had at one time in her past worked as a prostitute. The conviction of Johnson was part of a long campaign by the US government at the time to push him out of his chosen profession.

Public concerns of morality did not seem to matter too much if the transgressor was white. Johnson escaped from the United States as a fugitive, and did not return to his native soil until 1920. By that time, he had lost the heavyweight championship to Willard. Surrendering to federal agents, he was incarcerated in Leavenworth prison, and served out his sentence. The white establishment had its revenge on Johnson. He retired from boxing, and continued to marry white women. But this time, nobody cared. He was no longer a threat. Johnson maintained himself throughout his life; he was an avid reader, an articulate, intelligent man who lived as a defiant black man in white society determined to shackle him.

In 1954, eight years after his death, Johnson was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame. In 2012, Johnson’s home city of Galveston named a park after him, and erected a statue in his honour.

Confronting racism today

Throughout 2014, a groundswell of demonstrations and civil actions protesting the racist police violence of the American justice system has refocused the spotlight on race relations in the United States. While the election of Obama was hailed as a great step forward in overcoming the legacy of racism, it drew a false finish line under an ongoing problem. The campaign of #BlackLivesMatter has shaken US society, and drawn attention to the racism in the North. For while the South epitomised racial injustice, it is the capitalist and industrialised North that must now recognise its own deep-seated racial prejudice, a necessary ingredient of a class-based societal structure. Racism and the colour line are not just confined to another era or geographic region; they are problems on a national scale, part and parcel of the capitalist system that underlies the colour divide. The overt racism of the South is gone, but it has been replaced by a more subtle and insidious version that is, in its own way, erecting walls around the black community. It is impossible to separate the aggressive policing of segregated black communities, from the wider unemployment and poverty that afflicts those communities. National problems require the commitment of the entire nation, black and white, to resolve.

One thought on “Jack Johnson, unforgivable blackness, and the racist colour line in sport

  1. Rupen, thanks for this insight into the life of Johnson and, more importantly, into the deep-seated racism of the United States in his time. In this regard, America has come a long way in some respects, but still has a long way to go.

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