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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 381

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This is the grave of Jack Johnson.

Born in 1878 in Galveston, Texas, Jack Johnson was the greatest challenge to white manhood in the Gilded Age. He left school as a teen, wandered around a bit, ended up in Dallas, and found work as a carriage painter. The boss there was big into boxing and started teaching Johnson. To say the least, he took to the sport.

Boxing was America’s pastime in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In an era where ideas of manhood were heavily contested, boxing came to symbolize much more than just a match. For one, it reflected the rough and tumble realities of the 19th century street, a muddy sewer both physically and morally, where the fetid waste of humans and horses combined with the rapist street gangs and growing urban masses to create what would be a very strange place for 21st century Americans to visit. At the same time, Victorian masculinity, always contested and ridiculed by the more democratic streets, was finding itself enervated and sickly. By the 1880s, a new generation of upper-class men, people such as Theodore Roosevelt most prominently, began to find themselves lacking compared to their Civil War veteran fathers. They saw young boys on the streets, mingling with immigrants, smoking, losing the frontier ways of Anglo-Saxon youth of the past, and they began to freak out about the changes overtaking America. One way to deal wiht this was to embrace a muscular Christianity, as it became known. This combined Victorian values, religion, and physicality. This also meant boxing became a place where this Christianity and manhood could be formed, but only if it was tamed. Thus, it is no coincidence that the Marques of Queensbury, who created modern boxing rules that ended the bare-knuckle days to make it acceptable for middle and upper-class people to attend and participate, was the same man who had Oscar Wilde prosecuted for homosexuality after his son and Wilde had sex. Both the untamed streets and homosexuality were threats to the Victorian man, whether in the U.S. or in England. Thus, the heavyweight champion of the world took on outsized proportion in American culture, a place that was the peak of masculinity. It went without saying at the same that Jim Crow was being established and deepened, that this ultimate specimen of masculinity would be white.

Jack Johnson shoved this whole ideology down the throats of whites. He rocketed up the boxing world. He fought his first professional fight in 1898, defeated the legendary black boxer known as Klondike, or the Black Hercules, in 1899. He lost a match to Joe Choynski in 1901, who then gave Johnson advanced lessons and training. Johnson later credited much to Choynski. He developed something akin to the later Ali “rope a dope” strategy, letting people wear themselves out hitting him in early rounds and then destroying them later. He won the so-called World Colored Heavyweight Championship in 1903 after beating Denver Ed Martin. He won his next 17 title fights.

All this led to Johnson demanding to fight for the real title. But whites were freaked out about the idea. Jim Jeffries flat out refused to fight a black man. In July 1907, Johnson did fight former champion and Bob Fitzsimmons and disposed of him like a toy in 2 rounds. In 1908, the Canadian Tommy Burns had won the title. Finally, he agreed to fight Johnson, not in the United States but in Australia. This only happened after Johnson traveled around to wherever Burns was fighting and taunting him about his cowardice for two years. Basically, Johnson was challenging white manhood to live up to its rhetoric. Superior white race and all. After 14 rounds, Johnson won. A black man was the Heavyweight Champion and, basically, King of Men.

Johnson’s victory freaked out white people. The Great White Hope was a thing, reclaiming the White Race from the Monster. It’s impossible to overstate how horrified white men were over Johnson winning. Even before Johnson won, the New York Times wrote, “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.” OK. In one of the fights to reclaim the title for the White race, Johnson destroyed Stanley Ketchel’s face to the extent that the latter’s teeth were stuck in his boxing glove.

In 1910, Jim Jeffries came out of retirement to reclaim the title for whites. Jeffries gave up after 15 rounds, in the so-called Fight of the Century. The response? Lynchings of black men around the country. At least 20 people were killed in race riots in the aftermath. Theodore Roosevelt, despite his love of boxing, opined that footage of boxing should be banned so that people wouldn’t see Johnson beat up a white guy. Many states did ban the footage. Finally, in 1912, Congress issued a ban on sending footage of prize fights across state lines, which did not get lifted until 1940.

Moreover, Johnson shoved it in white faces by dating white women. He was living the high life and he did not care. He owned nightclubs and raced cars. He openly flaunted his sexual exploits, including with the ex-wife of the car pioneer Clarence Duryea, Etta Duryea. He wasn’t a nice guy either–he committed domestic violence on many occasions. Johnson was surely no saint. But the real outrage toward him was violating the racialized sexual norms of the day, not the domestic violence or other bad behavior. In 1910, the Mann Act was passed as a result of the white slavery scare, the belief that women were being held as sex slaves against their will. Just like today’s modern version of white slavery with people such as Nick Kristof, this appealed to liberals who wanted to “save” the poor without questioning their own privilege, erasing the complexity of conditions on the ground, the economic reasons for sex work, and the fact that a lot of women realized it would be good for them to claim sex slavery, even if it was not the case. Yes, there was forced sex work, but no, it was not an epidemic led by scary Italian and Chinese men seducing good white women off the streets. So of course, the Mann Act was used against Jack Johnson, for transporting Lucille Cameron, his wife, across state lines. This wasn’t even the intention of the law, but it was very useful for whites who wanted to destroy Johnson.

Of course, all this outraged the respectable black community. Some of the critique was legitimate, as Johnson himself refused to fight black boxers, figuring he would make more money fighting whites. But Booker T. Washington was outraged by Johnson’s behavior, saying it “is unfortunate that a man with money should use it in a way to injure his own people, in the eyes of those who are seeking to uplift his race and improve its conditions, I wish to say emphatically that Jack Johnson’s actions did not meet my personal approval and I am sure they do not meet with the approval of the colored race.” Typical behavior from Washington, who genuinely believed all the terrible things he said about other black figures who didn’t live up to his standards.

During all of this, Johnson continued to fight. His own boxing was declining significantly through the lifestyle. Finally, in 1915, he lost the title to Jess Willard, a Kansas cowboy who didn’t even start boxing until he was 27 and was not a great fighter. That fight was in Cuba, because Johnson had fled the country after his Mann Act conviction. He continued to fight all the way until 1938, when he was 60 years old, because what else was he going to do. Even in 1945, he sparred in a couple of exhibition matches to support the war effort. He finally returned to the U.S. in 1920, where he turned him self in and served a short sentence in Leavenworth.

Johnson died in 1946 in a car crash. He was in North Carolina. A diner refused to serve him because he was black. Infuriated, he drove away at a high speed and crashed his car. For a man who had spent his whole life rejecting white supremacy and demonstrating black manhood as superior or at least equal to white manhood, I guess it was an appropriate, if sad, way to go. Johnson has played an outsized role in American culture, especially during the Black Power era, with Muhammad Ali embracing his legacy, a 1970 film about him starring James Earl Jones, and Miles Davis’ fantastic A Tribute to Jack Johnson album from 1971. That Ken Burns documentary is pretty mediocre, but has a lot of good footage.

Jack Johnson is buried in Graceland Cemetery, Chicago, Illinois.

If you would like this series to cover some of the boxers Johnson fought, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Jim Jeffries is in Inglewood, California and Jess Willard is in Los Angeles. I guess Kansas was less appealing after becoming the man to reclaim white manhood. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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