Jack Johnson: Do the Right Thing

By Robert Ecksel on May 25, 2011
Jack Johnson: Do the Right Thing
Congressman Peter King (R-NY) implored President Barack Obama to "do the right thing."

Senator John McCain said the resolution was “to send a clear message to rectify this unacceptable historical injustice…”

Arizona Senator John McCain and New York Congressman Peter King are again attempting to get a presidential pardon for the first African-American heavyweight champion, Jack Johnson. McCain and King petitioned President Bush when he was in office to no avail. Now they are urging President Obama to grant Johnson a posthumous pardon for having cavorted in public with white women.

Johnson was convicted in 1913 of violating the Mann Act of 1910, also known as the White-Slave Traffic Act. The Mann Act was the brainchild of Rep. James Robert Mann (R-Ill.). The law was drafted in response to a U.S. Attorney’s unsubstantiated claim that young girls were being abducted in Europe by an international crime syndicate and forced to work in Chicago brothels. The Mann Act was loosely worded to give prosecutors a free hand, and criminalized transporting a woman across state lines “for the purpose of prostitution or debauchery, or for any other immoral purpose.”

A Johnson pardon, which at first glance looks like grandstanding, needs to be considered in light of the times during which his alleged crime took place. In those days, as in our own, the public seemed incapable of thinking for themselves, and the press was happy to fill the void by playing the fear card and exploiting xenophobia.

As an example, in 1897 a bout between a black fighter and a white fighter was stopped shortly after the opening bell. The New Orleans Times Daily Picayune explained: “The idea of niggers fighting white men. Why, if that darned scoundrel would beat that white boy the niggers would never stop gloating over it, and, as it is, we have enough trouble with them.”

The editor of the New Orleans Times-Democrat seconded that emotion when he wrote that it was “a mistake to match a negro and a white man, a mistake to bring the races together on any terms of equality, even in the prize ring.”

Jack Johnson was born a free man in Galveston, Texas, in 1878, and learned the ropes fighting in Battle Royals. Battle Royals featured eight or more blindfolded black youths, often tied together, swinging wildly in the ring until only one was left standing. The victor’s reward was to have pennies and nickels thrown at him by white spectators.

Johnson had his first pro fight in 1897. His languid style was not to everyone’s taste, but its effectiveness could not be denied. After beating all comers, white and black, Galveston had to offer, Johnson moved north to Chicago, where he honed his skills and grew his arsenal.

Johnson resurfaced in Galveston in 1901, where he fought the legendary Jewish heavyweight Joe Choynski. Choynski KO’d Johnson at Harmony Hall in three rounds, and the fighters were promptly arrested. The two weeks they spent sharing the same cell was, in effect, Johnson’s post-graduate work in the sweet science. Choynski taught Johnson all he knew, which was considerable. When the two men were released, Choynski returned to his home in San Francisco, and Johnson left Galveston and drifted west, never to return.

During the next seven years, Johnson fought in Denver, Bakersfield, Oakland, Los Angeles, Boston, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Baltimore, Portland, Bridgeport, Melbourne and Sydney, Australia. He lost only three of forty-nine fights, either by disqualification or questionable decision. He also developed the kind of attitude only successful boxers in their prime can pull off with aplomb.

Johnson fought long and hard to get a shot at the heavyweight crown, and shadowed the heavyweight champion, Canadian Tommy Burns, to the ends of the earth. With the intercession of a wily promoter, Burns agreed to put his title on the line by fighting Johnson at Rushcutter’s Bay Stadium in Sydney, Australia, for a guaranteed $30,000 (big bucks in those days).

Australia was even less tolerant of dark skin than America. An editorial in Sydney’s Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News set the tone: “Citizens who have never prayed before are supplicating Providence to give the white man a strong right arm with which to belt the coon into oblivion.” At the same time, the Australian Star declared that “this battle may in the future be looked back upon as the first great battle of an inevitable race war.”

Johnson met Burns for the heavyweight championship of the world on December 26, 1908. For round after round Johnson mocked his opponent while landing punches at will. The police stepped in and stopped the slaughter in the 14th round.

The boxing establishment dredged up one “Great White Hope” after another in the hope of beating Johnson at his own game. But Johnson was a ring genius, and no boxer, no matter how big, no matter how white, had the right stuff to beat him in a fair fight.

Johnson put noses out of joint inside the ring; he put noses out of joint outside the ring. He possessed outré tastes and had a thing for diamond jewelry, bespoke suits, Cuban cigars, sweet wine, fast cars, and—worst of all—white women. Most of these white women earned their living on their backs. Not that it mattered. Being white was quite enough. (In his defense, Johnson said, “I never had a colored girl that didn’t two-time me.”)

Jack Johnson kept fighting, and he kept winning. Jim Jeffries, the 35-year-old former heavyweight champion, after much arm-twisting agreed to come out of retirement—where his weight had ballooned to over three-hundred pounds—to fight the black champ. If Jeffries beat Johnson he was guaranteed $667,750. If he lost he pocketed $158,000. But a combustible situation grew even worse, helped in no small part by an incendiary racist press.

An editorial in the New York Times surmised, “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 neighbors.”

On a scorching July 4, 1910, with 15,000 to 20,000 fight fans having crowded into Reno, Nevada, the bout got underway. Jeffries had shed pounds, but he couldn’t shed the ring rust, and his methodical, crouching, wild-rushing style was no match for a sharpshooter like Jack Johnson. As the rounds wore on, Johnson broke Jeffries’s nose, blood dripped from his lips and mouth, his face was swollen, nicked and bruised, and his eyes had been blackened by repeated punching.

A contemporaneous ringside report described the bout: “He shambled after the elusive negro, sometimes crouching low…and sometimes standing erect. Stooping or erect, he was a mark for Johnson’s accurately driven blows. Johnson simply waited for the big man to come in and chopped his face to pieces.”

In the 15th round, Johnson forced Jeffries to the ropes and unleashed a barrage of unanswered punches. Jeffries went down, for the first time in his career, but got to his feet at the count of nine. Johnson landed a left and a right and Jeffries went down again. He rose a second time. A left followed by a right knocked the reeling Jeffries to the ropes, where he collapsed and was counted out.

America responded to Johnson’s win the only way she knew how. Blacks were beaten, knifed, shot and lynched in New York City, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, New Orleans, Shreveport, Cincinnati, Houston, Roanoke, Wilmington, Baltimore, Greenwood, South Carolina, Uvalda, Georgia, and Pueblo, Colorado. When the dust settled, when the blood had been washed from the streets, the nation did some soul-searching and concluded that boxing was the cause of the mayhem; racism, oddly enough, wasn’t part of the equation. Even Theodore Roosevelt, boxing’s best friend when it needed him least, was compelled to write, “I sincerely trust that public sentiment will be so aroused, and will make itself felt so effectively, as to guarantee that this is the last prize fight to take place in the United States.”

That didn’t happen, but boxing’s newfound acceptance, such as it was, had its back to the ropes. And there was still the nagging problem of a black man holding the heavyweight crown to contend with. So, having run out of Great White Hopes to throw at the champion, the on-the-books but never used Mann Act was dusted off. If Johnson couldn’t be stopped in the ring, he would have to be stopped outside the ring, and his trysts with white women was the pretext upon which the State intended to bring him down.

Johnson was arrested in Chicago in 1912, and the same press that stoked the fires of racism now stoked the fires of righteous indignation.

Beaumont Journal: “The obnoxious stunts being featured by Jack Johnson are not only worthy of but demand an overgrown dose of Southern ‘hospitality.’”

Fort Worth Citizen-Star: “We bet we know one person who isn’t singing ‘I Wish I Was in Dixie.’”

Police Gazette: “[Johnson is] the vilest, most despicable creature that lives…he had disgusted the American public by flaunting in their faces an alliance as bold as it was offensive.”

The government rounded up several white prostitutes to testify against Johnson. One of them was Lucille Cameron. When pressed to give testimony, she refused and was jailed in Rockford, Illinois, to think it over. Another was Belle Schreiber. Johnson had abused Belle in the past, physically and sexually, something he seemed to do to all his women, so there was no love lost between the champ and his former paramour.

Belle testified before a grand jury on November 7. She said she traveled on August 10, 1910, at Johnson’s request, from Pittsburgh to Chicago, where they had consensual sex.

“I knew the Schreiber girl not only in Pittsburgh, but in New York and Brooklyn,” admitted Johnson, “where we appeared in vaudeville. But I never transported her anywhere.”

The grand jury called for an indictment. Judge Kennesaw Mountain Landis, who would go on to become the first commissioner of Major League Baseball, issued a bench warrant for Johnson’s arrest.

Johnson spent a week in Cook County jail awaiting bail and naturally caused a ruckus. He demanded “a dozen candles so I can have more light, a box of cigars, and a case of champagne,” none of which was forthcoming.

Cameron was killing time behind bars in Rockford. But when Belle Schreiber agreed to testify, Lucille was released—and she promptly married Jack Johnson, making her ineligible to testify against the man who was now her husband.

Virginia’s governor, William Mann, called the Johnson-Cameron marriage “a desecration of one of our most sacred rites.” Governor John Dix of New York said the nuptials were “a blot on our civilization.” In Congress, Rep. Seaborn A. Roddenberry of Georgia intoned, “No brutality, no infamy, no degradation in all the years of Southern slavery, possessed such a villainous character and such atrocious qualities as the provisions of the laws…which allow the marriage of the negro, Jack Johnson, to a woman of Caucasian strain.”

Roddenberry wanted a constitutional amendment preventing white women from being “corrupted by a strain of kinky-headed blood…Intermarriage between whites and blacks is repulsive and averse to every sentiment of pure American spirit. It is abhorrent and repugnant. It is subversive to social peace. It is destructive of moral supremacy, and ultimately this slavery to black beasts will bring this nation to a fatal conflict…Let us uproot and exterminate now this debasing, ultra demoralizing, un-American, and inhuman leprosy.”

Johnson’s trial began on May 7, 1913. Assistant District Attorney Harry Parkin, in his opening statement, said that Johnson “aided, assisted, caused and induced” Belle Schreiber to travel across state lines for immoral purposes. Johnson’s lawyer, Benjamin Bachrach, countered by saying that women of a “certain class” threw themselves at Johnson, attracted by his “physical prowess.”

Belle told the court about some of her dalliances with Johnson, where they occurred and under what circumstances: “It was called the Savoy Hotel…It was, I believe, in the middle of May…I was stopping at the Little Belmont, on 45th Street…I met him frequently in New York, and had sexual intercourse with him.” She also said that Johnson wired her money so that she could travel by train to meet him.

ADA Parkin had several witnesses corroborate Schreiber’s testimony. When Johnson took the stand in his own defense, he talked about being a boxer, about traveling with prostitutes, and said that boxing and prostitution were similar. But he showed no remorse, and even less humility, and was convinced, as he had been from the start, that he was being railroaded and had done nothing wrong.

After five days of testimony, the case went to the all-white jury. Less than two hours later, the jury foreman stood in front of the court and announced, “We, the jury, find the defendant, John Arthur Johnson, guilty as charged in the indictment.”

At Johnson’s sentencing, Judge Carpenter read a prepared statement: “This defendant is one of the best known men of his race, and his example has been far-reaching and the court is bound to consider the position he occupied among his people. In view of these facts, this is a case that calls for more than a fine. Considering all circumstances in this case, therefore, the sentence of the court is that the defendant…to be confined in the penitentiary for one year and one day and be fined $1,000.”

The judge went easy on Johnson (he was facing up to five years in prison, a fine of $10,000, or both). But that’s not how Johnson saw it, and he decided to flee. The U.S. had no extradition treaty with Canada, so that was Johnson’s first destination.

Johnson spent seven years on the lam. The animosity he experienced in the U.S. followed him across the Atlantic to Europe. Protesters greeted him at every turn. Johnson ran out of money. And even more troubling, he couldn’t get fights. He eventually had a few bouts in Paris and Buenos Aires, but the Jack Johnson era was coming to an end.

Johnson lost his title to Jess Willard, a six-foot-six-inch Kansan ten years his junior, in Havana, Cuba on April 5, 1915, in what may have been a fixed fight. The undistinguished Willard, by beating Johnson, had, according to the New York Times, “restored pugilistic supremacy to the white race.”

Johnson moved to Spain and fought second-rate fighters in Madrid and Barcelona. Then he moved to Mexico and fought Tijuana taxi drivers. Finally, on July 20, 1920, a homesick Johnson crossed the border into the U.S. where he surrendered to the authorities.

Johnson did his time in Leavenworth. When he emerged from the joint, it was a kinder and gentler Jack Johnson who greeted the world.

Johnson had his last bout in 1938 at the age of 50, and retired with a record of 73-13-9. In his later years, he could be found in the basement of Hubert’s Museum and Flea Circus off Times Square, where, nattily but shabbily dressed, in the company of sword swallowers, snake charmers, and bearded ladies, he shadowboxed and told stories, while sipping red wine through a straw.

Jack Johnson died as he lived, with the pedal pressed to the metal. On June 10, 1946, he crashed his Lincoln Zephyr into a light pole, about twenty miles north of Raleigh, North Carolina, and died a few hours later.

In 2009, both chambers of Congress in passed a resolution urging President Obama to posthumously pardon the former champ. Senator McCain said in a statement that the purpose of the resolution was “to send a clear message to rectify this unacceptable historical injustice. A full pardon would not only shed light on the achievements of an athlete who was forced into the shadows of bigotry and prejudice, but also allow future generations to grasp fully what Jack Johnson accomplished against great odds.”

Representative King, the ignominious chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said President Obama should “do the right thing. Jack Johnson is a trailblazer and a legend, whose boxing career was cut short due to unjust laws and racial persecution.”

One hopes our first African-American president acts on principle and not political expediency. But if history is any guide, Obama is as likely to pardon Bernie Madoff as pardon Jack Johnson.

Follow us on Twitter@boxing_com to continue the discussion

1908-12-26 Jack Johnson vs Tommy Burns (ROUNDS 1,5,8,11,14)

Jack Johnson vs James J. Jeffries (1909)

Jack Johnson and Jess Willard

Jess Willard Ko's Jack Johnson

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  1. Joe 07:47am, 06/10/2011

    “Unforgiveable Blackness”

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