One of the profiles that we respect on The Hall is that of men and women who fought, lived and maintained longevity on their own terms. What I mean by this is that any man who could survive into his late adult life within a society that used laws, government, schools and police to keep him “less than” is already a champion. If you add in the fact that a man like this defiantly and legally married 3 women that were of his oppressors and found a way to beat all challengers into a bloody pulp within the boxing ring then what you have is a certified badass.
“for more than thirteen years, Jack Johnson was the most famous and the most notorious African-American on Earth.” – Ken Burns
If you were a white man who loved boxing in the early 1900’s you would hate John Arthur “Jack” Johnson more than any other Negro in the world. The giant heavyweight was always smiling mockingly at the world, would beat any man who stepped to him in a ring and was racing sports cars, banging white women and appearing on radio shows all over the place. You would think that with Jim Crow laws and the teachings of society that black people like Johnson would know their place and keep out of sight to good white society right? Well apparently something went wrong because Jack Johnson’s life was like a black tornado whisking through this post-slavery era.
Calling Jack Johnson “the first black heavyweight” is a bit insulting (despite it being true),because the man was much more than that. Jack was the first “proud” heavyweight who influenced later generations to be flamboyant outside of the ring while maintaining professionalism within it. The warrior would wreck men during the 15+ round matches and would live a fast and fun-filled life outside. Many miniature Jack Johnson’s have come along since the death of the “Galveston Giant” and they have names like Muhammad Ali and Floyd “Money” Mayweather Jr.
Birth of A Champion
Born on March 31, 1878, in Galveston Texas, Jack Johnson was one of 5 children born to former slaves whose bloodlines stretched back to Ghana. Jack went to school, or at least tried to go to school like many of his peers but ended up dropping out after about 6 years in order to see the world – he was 12 years old. The young man tried to travel via stowing away on trains and ships but was often discovered, beaten and forced to make his way via working. After about a year of “adventuring” Johnson went back home to Texas to work on the Docks and get himself some money.
On the docks Johnson ran into other young men who fought for their existence and while he was merely a kid he had to scrap in a number of street fights which showed him that he was nice with his hands. Taking off to Dallas Texas to formerly train in boxing, Johnson started his amazing career and before long “Lil’ Arthur” was a name to be respected in Galveston.
No More Black Women
Having knocked out every badass in Galveston before losing to a man named “Klondike”, Jack Johnson decided to make boxing his career and set his eyes on the bigger prize. Traveling around the South with a troupe of fighters, he began to make a name for himself beyond the confines of his hometown. At 20 years of age Jack married a pretty black woman by the name of Mary Austin and while he loved her, he wrote in his autobiography Jack Johnson, In the Ring and Out that she and other black women he had dealt with proved to him that he was not meant to be with them. His split with Mary made him clinically depressed and the big man decided that white women would be his only pursuit after this experience. Little did he know – they would be his downfall.
Jack Johnson Black Boxing Champion of the World
Having proven himself as a contender, Jack wanted to become heavyweight champion of the world, but the reigning champion at the time Tommy Burns would not give him a shot. In order to make sure a fight would happen, Jack decided to follow Tommy around the world knocking out all challengers and before long his name was too loud for the reigning champion to continue to ignore.
“Johnson fought in Australia and England and began to generate a worldwide following. The press began to criticize Burns for avoiding Johnson. Finally the fight was set for December 26, 1908, in Sydney, Australia. Thirty thousand people attended the bout; the purse was $35,000, of which only $5,000 went to Johnson. In another concession to get the bout underway, Johnson had to agree to let Burns’s manager referee the fight. Even under that manifestly unfair condition Johnson won; the police stopped the fight in the 14th round and Johnson was declared champ.” – Answers.com
The results? Just observe this video and skip to the end if you have no time:
The rest as they say was history. The decimation of Burns hurt white egos all over the country calling for something to be done to save the sport. A call was made for a “Great White Hope” to come in and knock out Jack Johnson and many riots took place wherever the champion would fight. One of these fights was against a man named Stanley Ketchel who fell on an uppercut that knocked out a plethora of teeth, some of them still stuck to Johnson’s glove after the fight. – BRUTAL.
Jack Johnson went on to knock out all of the “Great White Hopes” that were thrown at him, men like James J. Jeffries who came out of retirement in order to “demonstrate that the white man is king of them all” only to eat the canvas and solidify Johnson’s place as the top dog. Blacks were uplifted and celebrated all over the country but whites were rioting, lynching and feeling humiliated.
‘Twas Beauty Who Killed The Beast
Back in 1912 Jack had served a prison sentence for violating the Mann Act – a law which said you couldn’t carry women across state lines for immoral purposes.
He was with his wife, an alleged prostitute named Lucille Cameron at the time but a 2nd prostitute by the name of Belle Schreiber (who was Jack’s first lady before meeting Lucille) testified against him when Lucille refused to play ball.
Choosing not to let them have him, Johnson paid bail and left the country for Europe where he and his “ride-or-die chick” Lucille lived together for 7 years before returning to the US and surrendering to the FBI in Mexico. It has been a controversial argument over the years as to whether this arrest was the only “Great White Hope” to stop Johnson and people like Senator John McCain have even asked president Obama to posthumously pardon Jack Johnson for the trumped up charges.
On April 5, 1915, Jack Johnson voluntarily gave up his throne to Jess Willard (an old boxer who started late) by throwing the fight. This is alleged as the fight lasted 26 rounds, but given Johnson’s fast life and love for money; it can be speculated as to why a large payday for letting a white champion resume the reins would be an option he would take. His wife Lucille left him after a time for sleeping with multiple women outside of their marriage and he met and married his 3rd wife Etta Terry Duryea.
Johnson’s other passion besides boxing was always racing and while he continued to fight after his loss (mostly exhibitions), old age started to slow him down and in his 40’s he was getting knocked out constantly bout after bout. It is said that Jack fought well into his 60’s even though that seems ridiculous to men of my time.
It was after one of the last fights he had at 68 when he died in a car crash after speeding off angrily from a racist diner that refused to serve him. While the end of his legacy is not a pretty one, his wife recounted to many how much she loved the indomitable “fight” within Jack’s heart and he was inducted into the Boxing Hall of Fame.See some words or phrases that you don't understand? Check out The Dragon's Lexicon.