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Jack Johnson: Black Prophet?

jack johnson

 

“And they took offense at him. But Jesus said to them, ‘A prophet is  not without honor except in his hometown and in his own household.’ And he did not do many mighty works there, because of their unbelief” (Matthew 13:57-58).

 

Just as Jesus Christ encountered triumph and nonbelievers, Jack Johnson, an American black boxer in the early 1900’s, made immense strides in his career and social status despite the tribulation many black Americans faced at the time. To become the world heavyweight champion meant taking down Jim Jeffries, the former titleholder who retired in effort to sustain the title’s “rightful” whiteness. Progressing through his career involved confronting the well-established color line that white boxers used in order to fortify anti-black institutionalized racism. Even though blacks obtained legal rights such as the right to education, jobs, and status in the eyes of the federal government, the white supremacy of the time created a dichotomy between law and practice, between the “ideal” and the real. Though he faced adversity —such as lynchings, violence, and prejudiced legal charges— he remained adamant in pursuing his dream. By Johnson’s day, boxing had become a transnational, multi-million dollar business that was a significant part of the emerging global economy (Runstedtler 660). As Johnson crossed the Atlantic to live out his dream he inherently became a controversial figure who polarized societies, creating racial division. Although the influence of his celebrity was controversial during his lifetime, as it was widely debated by black and white  Americans and in the scholarship that engages with his work and its meaning, beyond the U.S. context, Johnson emerged as a global black leader who radically challenged white supremacy, posing a striking threat to both American Jim Crow racial segregation and British imperialism and colonization.

While black people faced the dangers of  hostile white Americans, there were different views on how African Americans should act in order to best serve their race. For example, Booker T. Washington, a profound educator and leader, argued that black people should accept segregation and at the same time educate themselves and learn practical skills for self-sufficiency in order to prosper under their immediate conditions (Ayers 509). In 1895, Washington gave his Atlanta Compromise speech to white Americans to soothe their concerns about “arrogant” black Americans after emancipation. He protects racial segregation in stating, “we [black Americans] may overlook the fact that the masses of us are to live by the productions of our hands,” by promoting black vocational skills (Washington).  At the same time that Washington was advocating to black communities to take up vocational-industrial education, Jack Johnson was training underground in the “battle royal,” a highly disturbing practice which involved black boys and men being blindfolded and told to fight one another while white people threw money at them (Burns). As boxing became more legitimate and Johnson built a reputation for himself, he increasingly deviated from the teachings of Washington and the widely accepted social practices. Following a similar tack, Theresa Runstedtler demonstrates discussion about power and racial hierarchy that was taking place in more than just the U.S., but also overseas in Britain. She cites an English journalist who declared 52 years after Washington’s address that, “The boxer who undoubtedly did the greatest disservice to the coloured races was the late Jack Johnson. He prejudiced the chances of negro boxers both in this country and the United States” (Runstedtler 657). This journalist is just one proponent in the global racial discussion that was sparked by Johnson’s legacy. Runstedtler brings our attention to the importance of recognizing Johnson’s eminent “global importance for racial debates within the context of imperial expansion…and the rise of transnational networks of mass consumer culture” (658). Though it can be disputed that in Johnson’s pursuit for the world heavyweight champion title he stained the black race, I believe he opened up doors to crucial race discussions that were vital in enabling black power. In the wake of Johnson’s win against Jim Jeffries, the former white titleholder, 20 black people were killed from race rioting (Mitchell), however, his determination and perseverance for his dream proved the potential achievement and mobility of black Americans while increasing black solidarity across the Atlantic. In fact, Runstedtler makes it clear that Britain’s leaders and white sportsmen demonstrated an “urgent need for white Anglo-Saxon solidarity around the world” (660). Because boxing adopted a Social Darwinistic view in which “survival of the fittest” entered the mainstream, Johnson’s abilities, as a black man, were a threat to white “fitness” and possessed the power to subvert it. As Runstedtler reveals, “the same things that made the sport so enticing also made it dangerous…it always posed the potential to disclose the hypocrisy of white authority”(662).

To my concern, Johnson exercised his inalienable rights as an American citizen throughout his career making him a respectable celebrity and leader, despite the common prejudice he faced. In 1909, Johnson undergoes a white opponent, who is also a close friend, Stanley Ketchel, in a scripted 20 round fight. Deviating from the script, Ketchel knocks Johnson to the ground, and upon returning to his feet, Johnson swings back knocking the fighter out in the 10th round (Burns). The fight was filmed and distributed to black and white audiences, and later found itself amongst an all-black movie circuit. As Bernardi discloses, “Although the MPCC controlled the movie, Johnson used his leverage as champion to obtain prints of the film [to give to] America’s best known black owned-and-operated theater, the Pekin”(179). Along with defeating a white opponent, a victory in and of itself, Johnson managed to make his win more accessible to the black community, in spite of the efforts that were being made to regulate it. Though Bernardi mentions that newspapers fed the public criticism on Johnson, such as critiquing his conspicuous consumption and frequent arrests for speeding, and often “fulfilling the role of the ‘Bad Nigger’”(178), he fails to examine the liberative testament that can be found within Johnson’s rebellion. Johnson’s unruly behavior often caused reactions that reflected the nation’s prejudice towards blacks. No matter what Johnson did, he was destined for scrutiny, just as any other black American. Therefore, by taking on the media’s negative portrayal and refusing to conform he proved to black Americans that despite the accusational vice, they have as much opportunity and freedom as they allow themselves to have. Instead of waiting for equality by abiding the status quo, as Washington suggested, Johnson believed in a different commandment saying, “I have found no better way in avoiding race prejudice than to act with people of other races as if prejudice did not exist”(Burns).  

In the same way Johnson was being publicized in America’s media as a bad influence amongst citizens, Britain held him to a similar opinion. In 1911, Johnson was to fight a British Indian Army man, named Billy Wells. During this time, Runstedtler explains that Britain held a vast imperial rule over South Africa where many African natives and Indian immigrants were pushing for greater recognition, making Britain responsible for more non-white subjects than white colonial officials(664-665). As Johnson was seen as a representation for his race in America, the same occurred in Britain. When Britain recognized that he would fight a British soldier in the ring, the press and religious leaders voiced their concern. An editorial for London’s Daily Chronicle questioned, “Is it from the capital of Britain, from the heart of the British empire, which has so many colour problems and racial difficulties within its orbit, that films are to go forth depicting a fight between black and white—between a black champion and a white soldier?”(Stop the Fight). In response to potential fight film distribution, this writer exposes a fundamental fear of Johnson’s publicity causing national uproar. Again, Johnson’s reputation allowed his actions to influence and open national conversation, while illuminating the  real fear of exposing Britain’s concealed prejudice. In Runstedtler’s report she discusses this fear as it was expressed in Reverend Frederick Brotherton (F.B.) Meyer’s words:

God knows there is horror enough in the Southern States of America, trouble enough between ourselves, the settlers, in South Africa and the black population, difficulty enough and in plenty in India, and we do not want to make more bitter the antagonism between white and black (665).

When  F.B. Meyer mentions America’s domestic issues he deflects from Britain’s own fear of black solidarity. He fails, as a reverend, as a promoter of peace, that the reaction towards black power should not be one of hostility, but one that brings his nation together and gives the colonies the recognition they had been looking for. Though these individuals express their trepidation of Britain turning into total chaos, they fall short in advocating the proper reactions to fight films—that seeing a black man defeat a white man does not prove superiority, but that race does not constitute ability.

In fact, the man who did the most advocacy for black power was Johnson as his publicity debunked Britain’s reputation of being unbiased. Weekly newspapers such as Chicago Defender, alluded to Britain’s seemingly progressive racial mores when headlined on the front-page was “Jack Treated Like Man and Gentleman”(Runstedtler, 663). However, as Britain held power over Afrikaner people, a sense of imperial responsibility held prominent amongst the British. A journalist for London’s Daily Telegraph wrote to readers, “Even if you say that we have but few negroes in this country compared with them [white Americans],” he pressed, “remember that you rule a mighty negro population”(Johnson-Wells Fight). By urging his readers to remember the stakes in allowing Johnson to fight one of their own, the discourse among racial affairs in the country intensified. Even F.B. Meyer was taking action in urging white Anglo-Saxon solidarity by encouraging contemporaries to “abandon their fragile sense of imperial brotherhood in favor of a kind of racial kinship in which color trumped civilization as the basis for inclusion”(Runstedtler, 665). Not only were people betraying their previous racial ideals of being one with those in the colonies, but they reformed them in favor of a kinship that embodied color. Just out of the mere possibility that Johnson would tour Britain for fight against a Brit, and have it taped was enough to make many uneasy. Therefore, Johnson’s presence complicated previous notions that Britain’s attitude surrounding race was impartial, as well as demanded action from the nation’s counterparts to address the colour line.

Because Johnson was seen as an uncontrollable figure who held massive potential in influencing the domestic and transnational sphere of black people, leaders of American state government believed the only way to control him was to charge him with a legal offense. Though Johnson held a reputation for driving too fast and collecting speeding tickets, he was never a criminal. However, because Johnson participated in activities as courting white women and going as far as to marry them, hostile white sentiment strengthened. In 1910, congress passed a law known as the Manns Act, also known as the White Slave Traffic Act (Congress Passes Mann Act). Inherent within the name, the law was passed in order to stop white women from being lured into prostitution. Yet, in spite of its good intentions, it was abused to criminalize different forms of consensual sexual activity. In 1913, Johnson was convicted for transporting a white prostitute over state-lines. Though Johnson was one of many who were unjustly accused of violating the Manns Act, he was sought out in a motivated effort. Accused once before in violation with a woman who was bound to be his second wife, the court could not convict him of the crime because she refused to cooperate with officials (Burns). The persistent effort to sentence Johnson to imprisonment was of high priority because of his reputation within the country that continued to threaten white supremacy. It was an effort to dismiss his consistent victories against white men and the white race. In succeeding to convict him, white supremacy made him out to be at the mercy of the government. In The Day Book, a chicago newspaper wrote, “Today, Johnson is at the liberty on $30,000 bonds and is begging the government to give him more time to come up with the money”(1913). Though authorities tried to put Johnson back into his “rightful” place as a “Bad Nigger,” they did so by abusing the law and creating a criminal out of someone who was not one at all. These attempts to attack a black man who proved to be unstoppable was a narrative among other blacks not only in the country but across the globe. For this reason, Johnson faced the universal black struggle—oppressed and beaten down by white societies—forced to revisit his options, fight or flight.  Throughout his life, Johnson reassured the public of his disdain for racial rules, and for that reason he fled the country for seven years after his conviction(Burns). Though some may argue he was a fugitive—validation for a “lesser” race—Johnson fought for his liberty and validation every time he got in the ring, despite white efforts to discount him.  No matter what type of new fighting techniques he brought to the ring that his white opponents utilized as well, only Johnson would be  put under the bias microscope. If he dated a white woman, he was made into a criminal, despite the practice being legal. If a white man fell unconscious to his authority in the ring, filmmakers were ordered to stop the tape, denying Johnson the valor and recognition of his victory(Streible, 176). For this reason, Johnson’s reluctance to serve time for a crime he did not rightfully commit does not make him a disgrace, but a reasonable human being.

Even more, he returned to America after seven years to pay his dues in spite of an unjustified conviction. After living abroad he found himself homesick and called the American government to discuss his return. Johnson would agree to bringing himself to his suffering, and even driving to the prison himself. Once again, he proves to black and white counterparts that he does not fulfill the stereotypical black molding. Instead, he is a man who rights his wrongs even when they are unmerited.

In Havana, Cuba (1915), Johnson met his defeat in a 45 round fight with White Hope,  Jess Willard. The crowd waved their white flags in portrayal of their loyalties. This was the fight that would “restore pugilistic supremacy to the white race,” said a journalist for the New Yorker (Burns). At the age of 37, Johnson was out of shape, untrained, and undergone  26 rounds in 105 degree weather. Tired and dehydrated, the leader fell to the canvas. However, white superiority could not last for long. In 1921, the day of his release from prison, Johnson states, “If I ever felt my life a failure, I changed my opinion, and found myself rejoicing, eager and confident”(Burns). Johnson was greeted by many friends that day. His suffering came to an end. Even when the racial hierarchy took its great swing at Johnson, he rose again, taking another victory. Out of the depths of darkness, he had found light.

Though his contribution to black power remains controversial, Johnson exerted an unnegotiable confidence and willpower as he navigated the prejudice of America and other countries. I believe his success served as an example for black people across the globe to work for their true freedom, rather than waiting for it as Washington had posed. Therefore, acknowledging Johnson’s life in a domestic and transnational frame of reference is important in our efforts to validate and honor the hardships and the conquests he endured. When we examine historical black figures such as Johnson, we realize social constructs such as Social Darwinism, race itself only exists in the minds of those who choose to possess it. Johnson taught people otherwise through close relationships and contact with white people that caused national corruption. He did not stop for anything or anyone, even when they came after him. If Johnson did nothing else, he demonstrated to others that above all else, do not back down in the face of adversity.

Blessed are they who are persecuted for

the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the

kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3-10).

 

Works Cited:

 

Ayers, Edward L., and Samuel S. Wineburg. American Anthem. Austin, TX: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 2008. Print.

 

Bernardi, Daniel. The Birth of Whiteness: Race and the Emergence of U.S. Cinema. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 1996. Print.

 

Dagbovie, Pero Gaglo. “Reflections on Conventional Portrayals of the African American Experience during the Progressive Era Or “the Nadir”.” The Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era 13.1 (2014): 4-27. ProQuest. 5 Apr. 2016 .

 

The Day Book. (Chicago, Ill.), 14 May 1913. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress.

 

History.com Staff. “Congress Passes Mann Act.” History.com. A&E Television Networks, 2009. Web. 14 Apr. 2016.

 

Hutchison, Phillip J. “Usually White, but Not always Great A Journalistic Archaeology of White Hopes, 1908-2013.” Journalism History 39.4 (2014): 231-40.ProQuest. 5 Apr. 2016 .

 

“Johnson-Wells Fight: Heated Controversy, Strong Pulpit Denunciations.” Daily Telegraph. 18 Sept. 1911. Web. 12 Apr. 2016

 

Mitchell, Kevin. “Jack Johnson Was a Pioneer Who Gave Hope to Black Boxers Everywhere | Kevin Mitchell.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 2010. Web. 06 Apr. 2016.

Runstedtler, Theresa. “White Anglo-Saxon Hopes and Black Americans’ Atlantic Dreams: Jack Johnson and the British Boxing Colour Bar.” Journal of World History 21.4 (2010): 657-89. ProQuest. 30 Mar. 2016 .

 

“Stop the Fight.” Daily Chronicle. 20 Sept. 1911. Web. 12 Apr. 2016.

 

Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson. By Ken Burns and Keith David. Dir. Ken Burns. Prod. Ken Burns and Paul Barnes.

 

Washington, Booker T. “Booker T. Washington Delivers the 1895 Atlanta Compromise Speech.” Booker T. Washington Delivers the 1895 Atlanta Compromise Speech. Web. 06 Apr. 2016.

 

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