More than 100 years ago, on July 4, 1910, Jack Johnson and James J. Jeffries went head-to-head in an outdoor boxing ring in Reno, Nevada in what would be billed as “The Fight of the Century.”
The two men sought to claim the world heavyweight title but far more remained at stake.
The contest represented “bragging rights” and either a confirmation of white supremacy or the realization and reality that Black people deserved to be treated just like white Americans – as equal members of society.
And so, when the black boxer, Johnson, who had defeated a white Canadian, Tommy Burns, to take the belt in 1908, white America protested with claims that Johnson was totally unfit to hold the title.
As for Jeffries, an undefeated former champion and the boxer best suited to wear the moniker of the “Great White Hope,” he would finally relent to Johnson’s taunting and challenges to put it all on the line.
In the end, Johnson thrashed the former champ – crushing the hopes of those who wanted to see Jeffries regain the white man’s so-called rightful place atop the athletic hierarchy in America.
Today, we would see this as a fight in which the best man won.
But in 1910, the Johnson vs. Jeffries match, both a social phenomenon and an arguably public sensation, ultimately served as an event that galvanized white America and illustrated the hateful, racist ideologies prevalent during the era.
The good news, one might say, has to be that those days have long passed. The good news, one might say, is that Americans have evolved and that racism and notions of white privilege and white supremacy only exist in history books . . . “gone with the wind.” But are they?
In a provocative documentary, “Unforgivable Blackness,” developed by Ken Burns, the life of Jack Johnson comes alive with vintage footage of his fights, photos capturing him during many of his outlandish antics and commentary from those who have studied his life and understand the unimaginable plethora of hurdles he faced during his rise and fall from glory.
Johnson, born in Galveston, Texas, as the son of former slaves, fought on the “chitlin circuit” for years until he was allowed to enter the often brutal world of professional boxing. But as one would imagine, becoming the first Black world heavyweight boxing champion in the height of the Jim Crow era, placed him in the unenviable position of being both revered and reviled.
In some cases, it would be white Americans who hated him and all that he represented.
But because of his refusal to acquiesce to white supremacist notions, because he refused to be treated as any less than a man, because of his sometimes over the edge behavior – from driving too fast or drinking too heavily and finally, because of his insatiable desire for white women, even Black leaders of the day, including Booker T. Washington, looked at him as a threat to the Black community.
Still, Johnson never seemed to care what white America thought about him. He was never one to be modest and rarely exhibited the kind of self-control that leaders like Washington or even W.E.B. DuBois recommended for members of the Black community.
And because of that, and because he remained bound and determined to be treated like a man and not like Black men were routinely “mistreated” during his lifetime, Johnson would play the game with a losing hand.
Jack Johnson, a big, dark-skinned man who frightened both most whites and many “decent,” middle-class” Blacks, would be forced to suffer and would pay the price.
Still, he will always be our first Black champion.
We honor his name, his skills and his determination.
There will never be another Jack Johnson.