Jack Johnson’s victory over James Jeffries is a signature moment in American history.
On July 4, 1910, Jack Johnson, boxing’s first Black heavyweight champion fought in “The Fight of the Century” against James J. Jeffries. Jeffries was a former champion talked out of retirement and appointed to return the white race back to its pugilistic glory. Johnson pummeled Jeffries for 15 rounds before his corner had seen enough. Johnson retained his title, further silencing critics who belittled Johnson’s previous conquests as hollow victories.
Fifteen trainloads of boxing fans helped fill a newly furnished 20,000 seat arena in Reno, Nevada on a hot July day to witness the downfall of the Jack Johnson at the hands of James “Jim” Jeffries — who was six years into retirement. The lure of money (approx. $120,00) and the opportunity to be remembered as the savior of the white race were enough for Jeffries.
The quiet town of Reno was transformed into a modern day Sin City — lined with speakeasies, back room gambling and prostitution — luring thieves, pickpockets and loansharks. As the momentous day approached, Johnson was his relaxed self, making several public appearances on his way to Reno.
After all, Johnson wasn’t carrying the burden of an entire race on his shoulders. Or at least it didn’t seem that way. John L. Sullivan, the first recognized heavyweight champion declared the only way Johnson could be defeated was if he displayed a complete lack of skill on that day.
Jeffries, although in shape undoubtedly exhausted himself in preparation for Johnson. Losing over 100 pounds for the fight, he expressed his desire to get to Johnson early in hopes of ending things quickly. The only person carrying a bigger load than Jeffries was his spouse — who backed her husband and encouraged his permanent retirement in the same breath.
Rumors surfaced of Johnson potentially throwing the contest in the weeks leading up to the fight. Racial tension co-signed by a majority of white media ensured Jeffries as a 10-7 favorite entering the fight, which was signed for 45 rounds.
A cauldron of ugliness was steadily brewing from the day the fight was announced. To ensure the safety of the crowd and most importantly the Johnson camp, the sale of alcohol was banned as were any intoxicated patrons. Guns were also prohibited. Women were allowed to attend the fight as long as they were able to endure the heat.
The event began more than an hour behind the scheduled 1:30 pm start. As the fighters stood in the center of the ring, Jeffries refused to shake Johnson’s hand.
The fight lasted for fifteen rounds with Johnson dominating each round. Johnson’s destruction of Jeffries was more about his own liberation and breaking free from heaviest of chains. The son of former slaves pounding the myth of a “The Great White Hope” finer than the Nevada sands seemed appropriate on a day when Jim Crow America celebrated its own contradictions. Even in victory, Johnson was disrespected, receiving only $65,000 or $1.5 million in 2012 (remember Jeffries received $120,000).
After Johnson sent Jeffries through the ropes in the 15th round — his corner tossed a white towel into the ring — setting off a Black wave of emotion and jubilation. In cities like Chicago and New York celebrations were mostly peaceful and subdued. A poem written by William Waring Cuney summed up the momentous event:
O, My Lord,
What a morning,
O, My Lord
What a feeling,
When Jack Johnson
Turned Jim Jeffries’
to the Ceiling.
The same could not be said in racially charged hamlets of the United States — where Black jubilation was met with white humiliation and rage.
In New Orleans, a black man who shouted “Hurrah for Johnson” was severely beaten by whites before police came to his rescue, and in Houston, a black man named Charles Williams had his throat slashed ear to ear by a white man for cheering for Johnson on a streetcar.
A mob of 200 whites chased blacks off the sidewalks in Washington, and in Cincinnati several hundred whites ran after a black who made a comment they found offensive. In Clarksburg, W.Va., whites were so angry at the triumphant shouting of blacks that they formed a 1,000-man posse to chase all blacks off the streets, including one who was led about with a rope around his neck. As Johnson headed home to Chicago handbills were displayed laying down the ground rules or face unfavorable consequences:
Don’t talk to white strangers.
Don’t drink any gin.
Don’t tote a gun.
But be there.
In the aftermath, eleven were dead and dozens injured as riots stretched from Colorado to Washington D.C.
Jack Johnson should have been celebrated as a conquering champion. Instead, he was deemed a pariah. The Federation of Pastors in Washington D.C. asked authorities not to allow Johnson within city limits. President Theodore Roosevelt hoped his citizens were so enraged by the outcome of the bout, it would result in a ban on prize fighting in the United States.
To fan the flames, promoters planned to show the fight in movie houses, further endangering fans of Johnson. The fact of Johnson being a Black heavyweight champion didn’t sting whites as much as him having the unmatched skills to remain champion.
Jack Johnson’s title reign and presence came in a time where there was Black empowerment in the United States. The Harlem Renaissance, Garveyism, Rube Foster and Black Wall Street all existed in Johnson’s lifetime. Johnson’s presence outside of the ring resembled a man able to self-promote himself as an entertainer and keep his wits about him knowing a lynch mob could be around any corner. His marriage to a white woman increased his visibility. It’s secret or coincidence Johnson was a renowned world traveler.
Sadly, like the aforementioned entities, racism led to Johnson’s demise — which came to an untimely end when he sped out of a diner –enraged after being refused service. Johnson was the Black precursor to Joe Louis and later Muhammad Ali — whose experiences as champion draw comparisons to the man remembered as the Galveston Giant.
As we witness the events in Sanford, Florida and its potential outcome, our minds cannot help but revert to the days of Ali, Louis and Johnson. If George Zimmerman walks it will evoke memories of Emmett Till and the pain in its judicial aftermath. In the event he is found guilty, the engine that social media will explode with a hatred and venom unseen in our lifetime. The ability to remain hidden behind a PC or a cellphone breeds cowardice in all shapes, sizes and colors.
It’s on us to continue to trudge forward, regardless of the outcome, but remain in the whirlwind.