Click amount to donate direct to CounterPunch
  • $25
  • $50
  • $100
  • $500
  • $other
  • use PayPal
Spring Fund Drive: Keep CounterPunch Afloat
CounterPunch is a lifeboat of sanity in today’s turbulent political seas. Please make a tax-deductible donation and help us continue to fight Trump and his enablers on both sides of the aisle. Every dollar counts!
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

The Legacy of Jack Johnson

Jack Johnson, the first Black, heavyweight-boxing champion of the United States, was described recently by Sports Illustrated as having “Muhammad Ali’s charisma, Mike Tyson’s power and Don King’s cunning. He resides today somewhere between legend and myth, which is why the new documentary Unforgivable Blackness by Ken Burns is such an amazing contribution to any student of sports, history or struggle.

Burns has achieved renown for his meticulous–some would say overly meticulous–documentaries about the Civil War and Major League Baseball. Now Burns tells Johnson’s story of a Black heavyweight champion in an era of white supremacy–from a perspective that is unabashedly antiracist.

Through the use of rare archival footage and uncovered texts, we learn about Jack Johnson’s childhood as the son of former slaves who insisted that he and his six brothers and sisters know how to read and write. We learn about his start in boxing in the “Battle Royal, a practice in the Jim Crow-era South in which a group of African American boys were blindfolded by white men and told to box bare-knuckled until only one boy was left standing; the winner receiving a handful of tossed coins.

By the age of 18, Johnson was traveling the country as a boxer and earning $5 to $10 a night. By 1902, Johnson had won at least 27 times and was making as much as $1,000 a night, but could not get a white champion to fight him.

Burns never shies away from the social context of Johnson’s success. Between 1901 and 1910, 754 African Americans were lynched. This was also the era of a deeply racist pseudo-science that espoused that, not only were African Americans too stupid to succeed in sports, they were also too lazy.

When Johnson finally won the title, his victory caused an ideological crisis throughout the U.S. The media whipped up a frenzy around the need for a “A Great White Hope to restore order to the world.

Former champion Jim Jeffries came out of retirement and said, “I am going into this fight for the sole purpose of proving that a white man is better than a Negro. At the fight, which took place in 1910, the ringside band played a song called, “All coons look alike to me, and promoters led the all-white crowd in the chant “Kill the nigger.

But Johnson was faster, stronger and smarter than Jeffries, knocking him out with ease. After Johnson’s victory, there were race riots around the country–in Illinois, Missouri, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Colorado, Texas and Washington, D.C. Most of the riots consisted of white lynch mobs attempting to enter Black neighborhoods, and Blacks fighting back.

This reaction to a boxing match was the most widespread simultaneous racial uprising in the U.S. until the riots that followed the 1968 assassination of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Black leaders, such as Booker T. Washington, pushed Johnson to condemn African Americans for rioting.

But Johnson remained defiant. He spoke out on all issues of the day, married white women, and as result, faced harassment and persecution for most of his life.

Johnson was forced into exile in 1913–and later prison–on the trumped-up charge of transporting a white woman across state lines for prostitution. He was released on July 9, 1921, at the age of 43. Johnson never again fought for the heavyweight title and spent his later years recounting his glory in a Times Square sideshow and at county fairs.

Throughout this whole period, Johnson’s greatest sin, as the title of the film suggests, is that he was a strong, loud Black man during an era of white supremacy. Burns never shies away from Johnson’s faults and vices, but he is always clear that Johnson and his “unforgivable Blackness should be celebrated and not condemned.

Today when “Driving While Black is a daily reality for millions, and Blacks suffer mass incarceration, learning about Johnson and his era can inspire us toward the kind of defiance we must bring to our own era.

DAVE ZIRIN’s new book “What’s My Name Fool? Sports and Resistance in the United States will be in stores in June 2005. You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by e-mailing edgeofsports-subscribe@zirin.com. Contact him at editor@pgpost.com.

More articles by:

DAVE ZIRIN is the author of A People’s History of Sports in the United States (The New Press) Contact him at edgeofsports@gmail.com.

May 21, 2018
Ron Jacobs
Gina Haspell: She’s Certainly Qualified for the Job
Uri Avnery
The Day of Shame
Amitai Ben-Abba
Israel’s New Ideology of Genocide
Patrick Cockburn
Israel is at the Height of Its Power, But the Palestinians are Still There
Frank Stricker
Can We Finally Stop Worrying About Unemployment?
Binoy Kampmark
Royal Wedding Madness
Roy Morrison
Middle East War Clouds Gather
Edward Curtin
Gina Haspel and Pinocchio From Rome
Juana Carrasco Martin
The United States is a Country Addicted to Violence
Dean Baker
Wealth Inequality: It’s Not Clear What It Means
Robert Dodge
At the Brink of Nuclear War, Who Will Lead?
Vern Loomis
If I’m Lying, I’m Dying
Valerie Reynoso
How LBJ initiated the Military Coup in the Dominican Republic
Weekend Edition
May 18, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Andrew Levine
The Donald, Vlad, and Bibi
Robert Fisk
How Long Will We Pretend Palestinians Aren’t People?
Jeffrey St. Clair
Wild at Heart: Keeping Up With Margie Kidder
Roger Harris
Venezuela on the Eve of Presidential Elections: The US Empire Isn’t Sitting by Idly
Michael Slager
Criminalizing Victims: the Fate of Honduran Refugees 
John Laforge
Don’t Call It an Explosion: Gaseous Ignition Events with Radioactive Waste
Carlo Filice
The First “Fake News” Story (or, What the Serpent Would Have Said)
Dave Lindorff
Israel Crosses a Line as IDF Snipers Murder Unarmed Protesters in the Ghetto of Gaza
Gary Leupp
The McCain Cult
Robert Fantina
What’s Wrong With the United States?
Jill Richardson
The Lesson I Learned Growing Up Jewish
David Orenstein
A Call to Secular Humanist Resistance
W. T. Whitney
The U.S. Role in Removing a Revolutionary and in Restoring War to Colombia
Rev. William Alberts
The Danger of Praying Truth to Power
Alan Macleod
A Primer on the Venezuelan Elections
John W. Whitehead
The Age of Petty Tyrannies
Franklin Lamb
Have Recent Events Sounded the Death Knell for Iran’s Regional Project?
Brian Saady
How the “Cocaine Mitch” Saga Deflected the Spotlight on Corruption
David Swanson
Tim Kaine’s War Scam Hits a Speed Bump
Norah Vawter
Pipeline Outrage is a Human Issue, Not a Political Issue
Mel Gurtov
Who’s to Blame If the US-North Korea Summit Isn’t Held?
Patrick Bobilin
When Outrage is Capital
Jessicah Pierre
The Moral Revolution America Needs
Binoy Kampmark
Big Dead Place: Remembering Antarctica
John Carroll Md
What Does It Mean to be a Physician Advocate in Haiti?
George Ochenski
Saving Sage Grouse: Another Collaborative Failure
Sam Husseini
To the US Government, Israel is, Again, Totally Off The Hook
Brian Wakamo
Sick of Shady Banks? Get a Loan from the Post Office!
Colin Todhunter
Dangerous Liaison: Industrial Agriculture and the Reductionist Mindset
Ralph Nader
Trump: Making America Dread Again
George Capaccio
Bloody Monday, Every Day of the Week
Barbara Nimri Aziz
Swing Status, Be Gone
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail