15 February 2017 Blogs, Academic, Community College, Faculty, Librarian, Student/Researcher

Jack Johnson: Prize Fighter in the Ring, and Against Racial Convention

Primary sources recount Jim Crow-era hardships endured by boxing’s first African-American heavyweight champion

By Stanley Bowling, Manager, Content Digitization

“Pity. Clearly, fame isn’t everything.” 
- Professor Severus Snape, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

Jack Johnson, the first African American to win the world heavyweight boxing championship, held the title for nearly seven astonishing years. He was one of the first celebrity athletes, appearing in the press, on film, and offering commercial product endorsements, gaining him a fervent worldwide following.

But fame was not enough for Johnson. In the era of Jim Crow laws, the “Galveston Giant” also resisted social and legal restrictions put upon him based on the color of his skin.

To explore the ways this powerful, flamboyant, influential athlete suffered racial discrimination and defied convention, ProQuest provides researchers with expertly curated primary sources, such as historical newspapers and rare government documents, digitized and indexed for better research, better learning, and better insights.

Defeat of the “Great White Hope”

Johnson became the unofficial “Negro heavyweight champion” in 1903, only because the current champion of the time, James Jeffries, refused to fight him. Johnson finally took on his first white champion, Tommy Burns, five years later – a fight that went 14 rounds until police intervened to rescue a battered Burns. The public reacted viciously to Johnson’s victory and the call went out for a “Great White Hope” to take his title.

This time, Jeffries accepted the challenge.

In an event hailed as “the battle of the century,” Johnson crushed Jeffries on July 4, 1910 in Reno, NV. Riots erupted across the country and black boxing fans celebrating the win were attacked in cities such as Chicago, New York, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, New Orleans, Atlanta, St. Louis, Little Rock and Houston:

“In practically every big city in the country exulting negroes fought with whites, amateur pugilists of both colors endeavored to back up their assertions with violence, and race prejudice reached a point where in some instances the police were powerless to handle the rioters,” reported the Los Angeles Times.

Flouting Racial Convention

Although Johnson kept the color line in place in boxing by not giving any other black boxer a shot at the title, he refused to bow to the social rules of the time. He liked speeding around in fancy cars, owned a nightclub, and he dated – and married – white women.

The latter taboo roused vehement public outrage, and especially in the South, where there were even calls for lynching. To some extent, Johnson’s status protected him from such vigilante violence, but it didn’t keep him from being arrested for “immoral” actions. He was sentenced to prison for transporting a woman across state lines.

Johnson skipped bail before serving time and fled the country in 1913. Because he was a high-profile person, the United States Department of Justice tried to extradite him, but no nation would comply. He and his second wife lived for years on the lam, traveling through Europe and South America.

A Savvy Self-Promoter

Before the internet, cellphones, or viral videos, Johnson knew how to garner attention.

He wore gold teeth, performed on stage and boasted about his outrageous, wild accomplishments. Like the time, one hundred years ago this month, in February 1917, he gained worldwide exposure by spreading a story how he single-handedly sank an Axis U-Boat!

Of course, no such event took place, but Johnson got the story published in many newspapers, both black and white. His tale helped promote his new business, the World’s Advertising Corporation.

Struggles with the Justice Department

Still, Johnson couldn’t live in peace. He was placed under surveillance by the State Department, branded a traitor for speaking out about the wrongs being done to African Americans in the United States. He was trailed by the FBI. Frank Burke, Assistant Director and Chief of the Department of Justice, said in a 1919 memo that Johnson’ activities while visiting Mexico City were “exciting the negroes of this country.”

Clandestine efforts were made to try and get the Mexican Consulate to “pin any propaganda stuff” on him for the purpose of extraditing him. To the chagrin of the Justice Department, it was reported that Johnson and his wife were “not only treated as equals, but are made much of, by the Military, Sporting and a few other elements.”

But eventually, the pressure paid off for the Department of Justice. Johnson surrendered at the Mexican border in July 1920. He served nearly a year in prison for the 1913 sentence and continued to live in the United States.

Later Life and Legacy

Johnson fought exhibition matches into his late 60s, got a patent for a wrench of his own invention and helped raise money during War Bond Drives during World War II. But in the end, racism still claimed the life of one of the greatest boxers in history.

He suffered a fatal a car accident in North Carolina after leaving a restaurant that refused to serve him because of his skin color. The only hospital that would aid him was over 50 miles away. Johnson did not survive the trip.

It took more than 70 years after his death, but Jack Johnson, Heavyweight Champion of the World and defender of his race, had a congressional resolution passed that recommended his pardon in December 2015. Yet, despite public calls by Senators John McCain and Harry Reid for a posthumous pardon from the President, none was issued to Johnson before Barack Obama left office.

Watch the recording of our ACRL webinar: How Does the Past Inform Today? Key Primary Source Collections for Research in Social Movements with special guest speakers, Thomas Dublin and Kathryn Sklar.

Learn more and sign up for free trials of these and additional resources to enhance research during Black History Month and all year.


Casefile 242.11J63: Jack Johnson, U.S. Department of State, 1913-1915 Folder: 001360-018-0155 Date: Jan 01, 1913 - Dec 31, 1915. Found in: Federal Surveillance of Afro-Americans (1917-1925): The First World War, the Red Scare, and the Garvey Movement

JACK JOHNSON CAPTURED BY AUSTRIAN SUBMARINE. (1917, Feb 24). The Chicago Defender (Big Weekend Edition) (1905-1966). pp. 1.

Dr, M. A. M. (1913, Jul 05). JACK JOHNSON IS CRUCIFIED FOR HIS RACE. The Chicago Defender (Big Weekend Edition) (1905-1966). pp. 1.&

RACE RIOTS ALL OVER COUNTRY FOLLOW JOHNSON'S VICTORY. (1910, Jul 05). The Austin Statesman (1902-1915). pp. 1. New York, July 4.--Reports of more or less serious clashes between whites and blacks all over the country. ...receipt of news of the result of the Jeffries-Johnson fight. Late reports are that fatalities were comparatively few.

DIRECT WIRE TO, T. T. (1910, Jul 05). RIOTERS RAMPANT. Los Angeles Times (1886-1922). pp. 2. CHICAGO, July 4.--Exclusive Dispatch. As the direct and immediate result of the Jeffries-Johnson fight at Reno today, race riots broke out simultaneously in nearly every quarter of the United States.

Johnson, first negro heavy king, killed in crash. (1946, Jun 11). Daily Boston Globe (1928-1960). pp. 1. Jack Johnson, the first Negro ever to become heavyweight boxing champion of the world, died at St. Agnes Hospital here today following an automobile accident early this afternoon near Franklinton.

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