On July 5, 1910, a group of white laborers set fire to a Negro tenement in New York City. While they watched it burn, they blocked the doors and windows to prevent the residents from escaping. The cause for this senseless hatred was the son of former slaves from Galveston, Texas who had the audacity to defeat Jim Jeffries for the heavyweight championship of the world.
Why did whites around the country strap on revolvers and look for innocent blacks to lynch after a boxing prizefight? The heavyweight championship was considered a title only fit to be held by a white man in the eyes of the ruling class. There was no way that a “shine,” a “dinge, ” a “coon,” or any other derogatory names tossed around saloons, farm fields, and state capitols to refer to Negroes could be allowed to hold the boxing title.
But it fell to one Jack Johnson, a former street brawler who started his fight career fighting other black boys for the amusement of white patrons who would reward the last boy standing with a fistful of thrown coins in saloon basements, to contradict all the stereotypes about black fighters and defeat Tommy Burns in Australia for the championship.
White men panicked; the search for a “great white hope” stretched far and wide among the cornfields and ranches of America. But the talent market was slim and Jim Jeffries, the retired champion was besieged by fight fans to return to the ring and teach the “uppity” Negro who flaunted his tastes for luxurious clothes, fast cars, and horror of horrors for white women in the face of Americans who were still lynching hundreds of blacks every year.
This fascinating saga is the material for noted documentary filmmaker Ken Burns whose previous subjects have ranged from the history of jazz to baseball legends. Burns has boiled the real problem that Jack Johnson presented to an American consciousness which delighted in the racist history presented by filmmaker D.W. Griffith in The Birth of A Nation with a very concise title: Unforgiveable Blackness. This two-part documentary will air nationally on PBS stations on January 17 and 18.
Burns does an admirable job of reprising material, which was the basis for the Broadway play and movie based on Johnson’s story called The Great White Hope. His staff has done yeoman work in uncovering actual film footage of many of Johnson’s fights-no mean feat since the racist juices that fueled the nation’s police forces and courts were so potent that many times the police would actually order the filming of Johnson whipping of a white opponent to stop. Similarly, after Johnson’s defeat of Jeffries, a federal law was passed forbidding the interstate commerce of any fight films-this was aimed at Johnson’s fans to prevent celebratory viewing.
Burns also does an eloquent job in utilizing quotations from newspapers of the era to depict the virulent racism that the so-called objective press, including the New York Times, had for the ambitions and successes of Jack Johnson. Even such a “hero of the working man” as writer Jack London made not attempt to conceal his desire to see Johnson defeated simply because of his race. Thus the viewer is presented with stark testimony about the role of the Fifth Estate in post-Reconstruction America.
Commentators ranging from writers Jack Newfield and Stanley Crouch as well as former boxer and fight official Jose Torres add insight to the drama of the black man who commanded the ring for years with authority, manipulative guile, and speed for years.
Yet, testimony is allowed at some points in the film that ignores the full measure of Johnson’s perception and concerns. Booker T. Washington dismissed Johnson as a man with no brains. The press gave sideways glances at Johnson’s talents as a musician, inventor, and actor. But the prevalent view of Johnson has remained that of a bon vivant who cared little for anyone but himself.
Johnson hinted at his depths when he commented that it would be unusual for a man who had traveled in the worldwide circles he had navigated to only be concerned about sports and boxing. But the opportunity he seized for himself when he was forced to leave the U.S. in 1913 after a trumped up conviction for immoral trafficking of a woman is not explored in Burns’ film. Actor James Earl Jones, who portrayed Johnson in the theatrical and movie versions of The Great White Hope comments in the documentary that Johnson didn’t present himself as someone concerned about the welfare of his people.
A new book by historian Gerald Horne, Black and Brown, explores Jack Johnson’s time in post-Revolutionary Mexico with eyes towards sharing what Johnson might have been capable of in a less restrictive country. Johnson first went to Cuba after his trial but faced hostility from U.S. interests there just as he did later in England and Spain. His eyes then turned to Mexico, which had recently won a revolution in 1910, which changed currents in relationships between African Americans who comprised the bulk of U.S. soldiers who kept the U.S. borders intact beside Mexico. But complicating the African-American experience in Mexico was its resistance to black slavery since 1832.
According to Black and Brown, Jack Johnson cast his lot with Mexico by placing ads in black newspapers inviting members of his race to OWN A HOME IN MEXICO where one man is as good as another and it is not your nationality that counts but simply you!” Johnson encouraged Negroes to buy land from “Jack Johnson’s Land Company for a price of $5 an acre and up.
Johnson’s perception that racism was not present in Mexico had its roots in some very telling personal experiences.
He and some friends were refused service in Mexico City in a restaurant owned by a U.S. white man. Johnson left but returned with some generals under the command of the President of Mexico. The generals drew their pistols and forced the white owner to apologize to Johnson and shake his hand. This must have been a fantastic moment for the man from Galveston Texas!
U.S. officials closely watched Johnson’s presence. They were concerned his charisma would spark insurgence not only in the U.S. but also in other parts of Latin America where he visited, particularly Panama with its sensitive canal. The intelligence reports warned that Johnson was working with the Mexican government to strip the United States of its Negro troops and encourage them to join the Mexican army.
Johnson thus had stepped on the stage of international affairs. His perceived influence presaged that of Muhammad Ali many years later who was seen as an enemy of U.S. interests in Southeast Asia by his draft refusal.
But Johnson’s main ally in Mexico, President Venustiano Carranza was assassinated in the late spring of 1920 and Johnson sensed that Mexico would not provide him with refuge any longer. He then initiated the arrangements that resulted his return to U.S. and subsequent prison term in Leavenworth. But the Burns program and other versions of Johnson’s life story have ignored his Mexican exploits and portrayed him as a man who returned to the U.S. because he missed his opulent lifestyle.
Nevertheless, Burns’ piece does an admirable job in those areas it touches. Johnson had a profound mind.
Writer Stanley Crouch mentions in the piece that Johnson was once asked why black men were so attractive to white women-Johnson supposedly said, “We eat cold eels and think distant thoughts.” Eels are reputed to have qualities of strengthening sexual potency, but the capacity to think distant thoughts, of freedom, of vision, of magical shows thrust in the consciousnesses of those who have every reason to ignore them is the stuff of legends.
Writer Joseph Campbell wrote a book that has remained in print since 1949 called Hero With a Thousand Faces. Bill Moyers later produced the book as an award-winning television series. Campbell posits from the words of such spiritual teachers as Moses, Jesus, and Lao-tse a common theme of the hero emerges. Campbell feels that American men have ignored their destiny to enter the rituals of passage that produce the men that their women can respect. He says, “while husbands are worshipping at their boyhood shrines..being the lawyers, merchants, or masterminds their parents wanted them to be, their wives, even after fourteen years of marriage and two fine children produced and raised, are still on the search for love”
Jack Johnson’s refusal to take a low posture, his insistence on exercising his talents, his conspicuous wearing of the garments that signaled his self-esteem must have irritated to no end the laborers in New York City who could think no distant thoughts of slaying dragons for their maidens’ approval. Jack Johnson once asked a reporter to simply write of him “that I was a man.” Who and where were his equals?