Jack Johnson: His Arrogance Paved The Way

By: Heath Harlem

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On Tuesday November 7th, 2012 the people of the United States of America re-elected President Barack Obama to a second term in office.  One of the great things about America is that our country’s elections are common place, but what made first the 2008 election of Barack Obama, and his recent re-election more “historic” than most Presidential elections is that he is a child of an African father and a White American mother.  While simply not being a Caucasian male is historic, the more dynamic sign of the growth and progress our country has made in recent history is the relationship between the President’s parents.  The United States of America has long been a nation where we idolized our sports heroes, and if it was not for Jack Johnson the first African American Heavyweight champion’s arrogance to do the right thing which lead to a witch hunt and conviction for violating an  immoral and idiotic law, President Obama may not have had the arrogance to believe he could become the leader of the  United States and our society would also have missed out on major contributions from members from different and diverse backgrounds.  While many people believe that arrogance is a negative trait, Jack Johnson showed the world that arrogance can force you to do the right thing, and in Jack’s case lead the way for major changes in society.


Jack Johnson the “Galveston Giant” was born in Galveston Texas on March 31, 1878.  The son of two former slaves, Jack was one of six children.  Despite dropping out of school to take a full time job at a young age, Jack’s parents knew the value of education and taught him and his siblings to read and write among other things.  This was not something common for young African American’s at the time and this education would suite him in a number of different aspects of his life in the future.  Jack quickly learned that he had a talent for boxing and became a professional fighter in 1897.  Despite his amazing skill and success, Johnson found only opponents of limited fame to face him as this was the era of Jim Crow and very few white boxers (especially undefeated world heavyweight champion James Jefferies) were willing to step in the ring and risk a loss to “The World Colored Champion”.  Johnson would continually taunt the white boxers hoping they would fight him upsetting many White Americans.  There are even claims that Johnson fought and knocked out James Jefferies’ brother Jack and he taunted him about his knockout victory in an effort to get Jefferies into the ring, with no success.   After Jefferies retired undefeated vacating the World Heavyweight title, Marvin Hart won the vacant title before losing it in his first defense to Canadian Tommy Burns.  Tommy Burns had a reputation of being willing to fight anyone of any race and background but still did not want to face the “Colored Champion” Johnson.  Jack whose arrogance was one of his strongest personality traits, spent two years taunting Burns into fighting him before he finally gave in.  On December 26, 1908 Johnson knocked out Tommy Burns in Sydney Australia to become the first African American Heavyweight champion of the world.  The Heavyweight championship of the world in 1910 was the most revered sports championship in the world and it bothered many that it was held by an African American man who was not afraid to speak his mind.  If it was not for Jack’s arrogance to taunt Burns into fighting him, he may not have had the opportunity to win the title he deserved and the riches and power that go along with it.


In 1908 Jack Johnson was at the top of the sports mountain and while United States culture holds its athletes in the highest regard, Jack’s society did not think that he deserved to be treated the same way as other athletes or even as a human being due to the color of his skin.  Johnson did not care what anyone thought of him, as he was going to live his life as a free man for no other reason than he was proud and thought it was within his right.  Jack lived up the celebrity lifestyle like many athletes of his time and despite a popular culture that was backwards and forbid interracial relationships, Jack taunted society, upsetting many by associating with white women (some famous celebrities such as Mae West) and ultimately marrying three times to different white women.  Jack reigned as heavyweight champion for 7 years before losing the title to Jess Willard in April of 1915.  During this seven year span boxing, promoters and white sports fans spent much effort and energy searching for the White Man who could beat Jack Johnson.  Every time he stepped into the ring during this time period Jack had the weight of Black America on his shoulders as each fight was seen as an attempt to demonstrate white supremacy.  The most hyped fight during this period was called the “fight of the century” by the American Press when undefeated champion James Jefferies was deemed the “great white hope” and coaxed out of retirement to bring the World Heavyweight title back to the white race.


James Jefferies, one of boxing’s all-time great champion who had spent the last years of his careers rebuffing Jack Johnson’s taunts and challenges had retired undefeated.  With Johnson reigning as the World’s Heavyweight Champion upsetting White America, legendary promoter Tex Richard reached out to Jefferies about ending his six year retirement to face Johnson.  Richard guaranteed his purse at $40,000 plus an additional $75,000 personal contract (almost $3,000,000 in today’s funds adjusted for inflation) to come back and win the title back for the white race.  The fight was staged in Reno, NV in an outside arena on July 4, 1910.  The temperature was 110 degrees.  In addition to being undefeated, Jefferies also bragged that he had never been knocked to the ground during any prizefight.  Coming off a six year layoff and facing the toughest opponent in his life, Jefferies was in for quite a challenge from not only his opponent but the heat as well.  In the fifteenth round of the scheduled forty-fifth round fight Johnson dropped Jefferies three times.  While Jefferies got up each time, after the third knockdown his manager entered the ring ending the fight and African American Jack Johnson retained the World Heavyweight Title.


Immediately following the fight, African Americans throughout the country took to the streets to celebrate.  For many in the African American community, Johnson’s win was reassurance of what they already knew; that they were in fact equal to any other people.  Unfortunately a historic moment in sports history was marred by the backwards ideology of the time and Whites in many cities confronted these celebrations with violence and riots broke out in Twenty-five states.  Twenty-six people died in these riots (only two were white men), and hundreds were injured and arrested.  Police all over the country interrupted lynchings.  The cities of Washington, Atlanta, Baltimore, St. Louis, and Cincinnati banned the showing of films of the fight for public safety reasons.  After watching President Obama get elected and then re-elected last week defeating white men in both elections (with stakes much greater than any sporting event) and the peaceful reactions across the country it is clear how far our society has come with racial relations in the past one hundred  years.


Defeating Jefferies made Johnson an even bigger star and enemy of White America at the same time.  Nine days before Johnson’s fight with Jefferies, U.S. Congress passed the White-Slave Traffic Act better known as the Mann act (named after bill writer/congressman James Mann).  The Mann act made it illegal to transport a female across state lines for immoral purposes.  The primary purpose of the law was to prevent females from being transported for prostitution and human trafficking.  However, the wording of the law “immoral purposes” gave prosecutors the ability to target Jack Johnson for his relationships with white women, as interracial relationships were seen by many as immoral.  On October 18th, 1912 Jack Johnson was arrested for violating the Mann act for transporting his future wife Lucille Cameron across state lines.  Lucille would not testify and the case fell apart due to lack of evidence.  One month later the holder of the most prestigious title in sports was arrested again this time for transporting a former girlfriend Belle Schreiber (a former prostitute who left her brothel) across state lines between 1909-1910 before the Mann act became Law.  In the courtroom of Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis (Major League Baseball Commissioner) an all-white jury convicted Johnson of violating the Mann act and he was sentenced to one year and a day in jail.  He was convicted despite 1) His actions occurring before the Mann act was even the law of the land and 2) His actions did not violate the spirit of the law as he was not transporting Schreiber with the intention of human trafficking or prostitution.  The only thing immoral about the whole case was the conviction by the all-white jury and it was obvious that this was a witch hunt to bring down the black superstar who was arrogant enough to live his life like the free man he should have been.  In 1978 and then again in 1986 U.S. Congress modified the Mann act in order to define “immoral”.  In 1912 Jack Johnson was convicted and sentenced to a prison sentence because he was arrogant enough to have a relationship that was no different than the parents of the man who was re-elected President of The United States just one-hundred years later.


While out on bail before he was due to report to prison, Johnson snuck into Canada posing as a member of a negro baseball team and then into Europe.  While living in Europe Jack continued his boxing career defending his title three times before losing his title to Jess Willard on April 15, 1915, in a fight that took place in Havana, Cuba.  While still in exile, Jack fought nine more bouts after losing the title, winning each of them with relative ease.  Jack was extremely popular in Europe due to his athletic performance and his intelligence.  In 1915 he released his first biography “Mes Combats” published in French.


While life in Europe was good, Jack wanted to return to his country for what many have described as a desire to live free on his terms.  In 1920 he returned to the United States and surrendered to U.S. marshals and was sent to Leavenworth Prison to serve his time.  While in prison Johnson kept busy boxing, fighting in four bouts (winning all four).  Jack also spent time working with tools and was able to discover a way to re-design a wrench and make it easier to use.  Shortly after his release from prison on April 18th, 1922 Johnson filed patent # 1,413,121 for his wrench.  Whether consciously or unconsciously Jack’s boxing performance from inside prison entertaining inmates and employees alike and him using his mental skills to design his wrench, Johnson showed society that no matter what obstacle they put in front of him due to his skin color he would overcome and prove he was equal or superior to any white man.


Only July 9th, 1921 Jack Johnson was released from prison and he was once again a free man.  Johnson continued his professional fighting career until 1938 and after that was rumored to have participated in private fighting exhibitions.  Johnson was a very cultured individual with varying interests including a love for opera, studying Napoleon Bonaparte and he owned a nightclub for a short time.  In 1927 Johnson published his second biography, this time in English “Jack Johnson In the Ring and Out”.  Johnson stayed active in the entertainment community as well as the boxing community.  While his professional career ended in 1938, his last documented entry into the ring was on Nov 27th, 1945 when he fought three, one round exhibitions for a war bond benefit.  One can only imagine the pride that Jack took in raising funds for the United States of America, his country, but also the same country that sentenced him to one year in jail for living like an American citizen should.  On June 10th, 1946 Jack Johnson passed away after being involved in an automobile accident in Franklinton, North Carolina, a small town near Raleigh.  Jack sped away angrily from a diner that had refused to serve him leading to the accident that caused his death.  Jack did not have a chance to be treated for his injuries as he had to be transported to a hospital that would treat “blacks” in Raleigh.  Just fifteen years before President Barack Obama, the son of a African Father and White mother was born, Jack Johnson one of the greatest athletes of the twentieth century who was sentenced to a year and a day in prison for having a relationship no different than the president’s parents, died because he angrily sped away from a restaurant that would not serve him because of the color of his skin.  Despite Johnson’s contribution to society inside and outside the ring, discrimination and hate ultimately marred his legacy and lead to his death.  However, his arrogance would not let him give into this hatred and cleared the way for our society to move forward and ultimately allowed someone with a background like Barack Obama the ability to be arrogant enough to believe he could be and ultimately become the President of The United States.


After his death Johnson was buried in an unmarked grave next to his first wife Etta Johnson (died September 1912) at Graceland Cemetery in Chicago.  Later a monument with nothing but the name “Johnson” stands at the plot where Jack, Etta, and his third wife Irene rest.  In recent year years, society has grown and realizes that Johnson’s convictions were immoral.  Johnson was convicted and punished because he knew he was right and his arrogance would not let him give up his freedom.   In 2008 the United States House of representatives passed a bill requesting President George W. Bush pardon Johnson but it did not pass the U.S. Senate.  On July 29th, 2009 both houses of the U.S. Congress passed a resolution asking President Obama to pardon Johnson.  Jack Johnson’s arrogance led him to live the way he should have as a free man despite the immoral and idiotic ideology of the time.  Jack Johnson’s legacy would have gone down in a perfect world as one of sport’s greatest athletes, one of boxing’s top champions of all-time, and one of pop culture’s greatest icons.  Instead, because of the times he was led to live his legacy as a trailblazer, who’s arrogance would not let him conform to society’s backwards standards that paved the way for someone like Barack Obama, re-elected in a peaceful election to become President of the United States of America just 100 years after Johnson was convicted.  When President Obama has time to evaluate the request to pardon Johnson, he should look at himself in the mirror and realize that his own arrogance allowed him to believe he could become President of the United States; something Jack Johnson showed was the right way to think.  One hundred years before President Obama was arrogant enough to believe someone with his background deserved to be re-elected President of the United States, Jack Johnson’s paved the way.

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