A slave to no man: Boxer Jack Johnson's fight against inequality

Jack Johnson in New York City in 1932

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Jack Johnson made history in 1908 by becoming the first black world heavyweight boxing champion.

Five years later, he was convicted by an all-white jury of crossing state lines with a white woman for "immoral purposes" and was sentenced to a year and a day in prison.

100 years on from his trial and conviction, what legacy did this hugely divisive and controversial character leave for other black athletes and for the civil rights movement in America?

Early years

Start Quote

In many ways Johnson is an embodiment of the African American struggle to be truly free - economically, socially and politically.”

End Quote Ken Burns American film-maker

Johnson was born in Galveston, Texas, on 31 March 1878. His parents were both former slaves.

Johnson learned to box as a teenager and became a professional boxer at the age of 20, enjoying huge success.

But because racial segregation was still the norm in the US in the early 1900s, he would have to wait 10 years to fight for the world heavyweight title when he taunted the champion, Canadian Tommy Burns, into accepting a bout.

The fight had to be staged in Sydney to get round segregation laws. It took place on Boxing Day in 1908 and Johnson battered Burns so savagely that the bout was stopped by police.

Johnson's victory emphatically dispelled the notion, put about by the white men who controlled boxing, that black fighters were somehow physically and mentally inferior.

America in the early 1900s

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Martin Luther King

Professor Peter Ling, Head of the American Studies department at the University of Nottingham, believes to fully appreciate the significance of Johnson's achievement you have to understand the context in America at that time.

"Johnson emerged as heavyweight champion at the same time as a race riot in President Lincoln's hometown of Springfield, Illinois galvanised liberals into forming what became the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP), America's oldest black civil rights organisation."

"The dawn of the 20th century saw the colour line drawn more sharply with segregation required by law in many southern states rather than by custom."

Fight of the Century

The boxing authorities were appalled that Johnson had become champion and put immense pressure on former heavyweight champion Jim Jeffries to come out of retirement. Jeffries' role was to be the so-called 'Great White Hope' to reclaim the title and display the superiority of his race.

Jeffries made his intentions clear: "I am going into this fight for the sole purpose of proving that the white man is better than the Negro."

The New York Times declared: "If the black man wins, thousands and thousands of his ignorant brothers will misinterpret his victory as justifying claims to much more than mere physical equality with their white neighbours."

Johnson with his wife Lucille Cameron in 1924 Johnson with his wife Lucille Cameron in 1924

When the pair finally met on 4 July 1910, in Reno, Nevada, in a bout billed as the Fight of The Century, Johnson dominated. Jeffries' corner threw in the towel in the 15th round after he had been knocked down twice.

In his autobiography Johnson recalled the animosity in the crowd: "There were few men of my own race among the spectators. It wasn't just the championship that was at stake: it was my own honour, and in a degree the honour of my own race. The 'White Hope' had failed."

The result sparked race riots in cities across America in which more than 20 black and two white people were reported to have died.

Social taboos

It wasn't just that Johnson was winning, but the manner in which he behaved that further enraged white America. He shattered taboos of his era by refusing to act submissively.

In the ring he enjoyed humiliating his white opponents and out of it he refused to live quietly. He had relationships with a series of white women, saying he preferred their company to that of black women, which caused outrage.

He also drove fancy cars with reckless abandon, ran nightclubs and wore expensive clothing.

Johnson in a car in June 1911 Johnson was a keen motorist

Johnson was not an active campaigner for civil rights in the mould of Martin Luther King, but his audacity helped in the fight for equality.

American film-maker Ken Burns, in his documentary 'Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson', describes how Johnson fought for freedom not merely as a black man, but as an individual:

"In many ways Johnson is an embodiment of the African American struggle to be truly free in this country - economically, socially and politically. He absolutely refused to play by the rules set by the white establishment, or even those of the black community."

Trial and conviction

Federal prosecutors, fearful the example he was setting to young black people might disrupt the balance of power in America, looked for an opportunity to destroy Johnson.

The Mann Act

The Mann Act was a law passed on 25 June 1910, and was named after Congressman James Robert Mann. In its original form the law prohibited white slavery and the interstate transport of females for "immoral purposes".

That opportunity arose in 1913, when he was convicted for crossing state lines in the company of a white girlfriend for "immoral purposes".

The prosecution was brought under the Mann Act, which was intended to protect women against enforced prostitution but was so loosely worded it could be applied against interracial relationships, which Professor Peter Ling believes was the case for Johnson.

"The charges against Johnson were almost entirely racially motivated," he said.

"There is no evidence that his girlfriend was being 'trafficked for sexual purposes'. His conviction and imprisonment was fundamentally unsound."

Johnson is now seen to be a victim of the Jim Crow laws of racial segregation, which were enacted in the US between 1876 and 1965.

Will President Obama pardon Johnson?

President Barack Obama

In 2009 the US Congress approved a resolution that a presidential pardon should be granted to Johnson, saying it would "expunge a racially motivated abuse of the prosecutorial authority of the federal government from the annals of criminal justice in the United States".

While the pardon has yet to be granted the campaign continues with the Senate pushing through a resolution in April this year to have him pardoned.

Speaking earlier in 2013 Linda Haywood, Johnson's great-great niece, explained why she believes the conviction should be overturned:

"A man as great as my uncle, who was known all over the world, to have been thrown in jail only because he fell in love with someone who didn't have the same skin colour as him - that made everybody ashamed.

It's paramount to me that he is pardoned now because I want my children to move forward and have the same amount of pride about him as I do."

Such was the controversial nature of the conviction that there remains a high-profile political campaign in the US to have Johnson posthumously pardoned. On 20 December Senator John McCain and Congressman Peter King wrote to President Obama urging him to pardon Johnson.

It remains to be seen whether or not President Obama will pardon Johnson before the end of his presidency.

After his conviction, rather than serve time in prison, Johnson fled the country and spent the next seven years living in Europe, Mexico, and South America. His reign as world champion ended when he lost to Jess Willard in Havana, Cuba on 5 April 1915.

He returned to the US in 1920 and served his sentence, with his career and reputation in tatters.

Johnson had his last professional fight at the age of 60. A notoriously reckless driver, he died in a car crash on 10 June 1946 in North Carolina after racing angrily from a diner that refused to serve him.

Civil rights movement

What lasting impact did Johnson have?

Professor Peter Ling explains that Johnson's rise to prominence came at a pivotal stage in the history of the civil rights movement in the US.

"While there were precursors in abolitionism, the civil rights movements started to take shape during the 1870s as the hopes of freedom were eroded, and entered a new phase in 1909 with the NAACP," Professor Ling said.

"One of its founders, W.E.B. DuBois said the problem of the 20th century would be the problem of the colour line. He was right, and in the UK and around the world, a movement for racial equality is still needed. The struggle had many beginnings and Johnson's victories were milestones along a yet unending road."

A pioneer for black athletes

An early example of the celebrity athlete, Johnson appeared regularly in the press and later in motion pictures, becoming the most famous and notorious African American on Earth.

Muhammad Ali identified with Johnson

He paved the way for African American heavyweight champions such as Joe Louis and Mike Tyson, but it was the brilliant and controversial Muhammad Ali that stirred the national consciousness in America in a similar way to Johnson.

Ali often spoke of how he was influenced by Johnson, referring to him as "Papa Jack".

Professor Peter Ling believes there were many parallels between the two:

"Like Muhammad Ali's prosecution for draft evasion over Vietnam, Johnson was victimised because he was seen as a controversial and arrogant black figure. But also like Ali, he was divisive inside the black community as well with some middle-class, 'respectable' African Americans feeling that as a boxer he almost gave credibility to the savage stereotyping that racists used."

Johnson's legacy

Speaking in 2008, Britain's Lennox Lewis, a former world heavyweight champion, described Johnson's importance.

"It's good to look at the sort of attitudes that were about back in those days, to see how far we have come. Look at the time he lived. It was remarkable that Johnson was travelling the world, as a black man, getting arrested, leaving America, going to Europe."

With the campaign to overturn his 100 year old conviction still ongoing, the intriguing and ultimately tragic story of the first black world heavyweight champion may have another chapter yet to be written.

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