WHILE RESEARCHING A HISTORY of Galveston in the late eighties, I came across an abstract sculpture in a small park on Seawall Boulevard. Its steel spirals were a representation of Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion of the world. The sculpture was perforated with small round holes that had to have been made by bullets. Someone had deliberately tried to destroy it. I knew the story of how Johnson had won the championship in 1908: He had battered the reigning titleholder—a cocky, loudmouthed, money-hungry Canadian named Tommy Burns—so savagely that the final moments of the newsreel footage of the fight were cut to protect the public from the spectacle of a white man getting knocked silly by a black man. White America never forgave Johnson for that victory. Standing by the statue, looking at those bullet holes, I realized that that hatred had endured.
I was reminded of that mindless vandalism last fall at the Texas Book Festival, in Austin, when I viewed a short film clip of Ken Burns’s documentary on Johnson that will be shown this month on PBS. The title, Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson, includes an ironic phrase coined by black writer W. E. B. DuBois, explaining white America’s attitude toward the black champion. What people failed to appreciate about Johnson, then and now, is that he was the fire-breathing embodiment of the American spirit. He refused to settle for being a second-class citizen. He was a “pure-blood American,” he insisted, whose forebears had arrived in this country long before there was a United States. Jack and his four siblings were the first generation of American blacks born after Emancipation. He grew up fighting in a street gang on east Broadway and quit school in his early teens to work as a stable hand and as a stevedore, picking up extra change fighting other black dockworkers in makeshift matches.
His first ring experience was in fighting exhibitions known as battles royal—in this version, a white man’s joke in which eight or more black fighters were thrown into a ring together, sometimes blindfolded, sometimes with their wrists or ankles tied together, sometimes naked. They were urged to maim one another until the last man was standing. Johnson left home for keeps when he was about 21, hopping freight trains and moving from city to city—Springfield, Denver, Chicago, St. Louis, Baltimore, Boston, fighting in small arenas for smaller purses, mostly against other blacks. He turned professional in 1895, the same year that the New York Sun warned readers that black athletes—boxers in particular—were a threat to white supremacy. No black man had ever been permitted to fight for the heavyweight title, whose holder has been described as the “Emperor of Masculinity.”
For two decades, as a contender and a champion, Johnson never once climbed into the ring against a white opponent except in front of an overwhelmingly hostile crowd. Newspapers referred to him as “De Big Coon” and “Texas Watermelon Pickaninny”; a reporter for the Baltimore American wrote that Johnson appeared as “happy and carefree as a plantation darky in watermelon time.” Contenders suggested that he was too black to have the heart of a fighter, which served as their excuse for refusing to fight him.
Johnson endured the slander with maddening calm, always grinning, always cool and in control. A boxer’s first task, it has been said, is to “turn his opponent into an assistant in his own ass-whipping,” and few did it as well as Jack Johnson. He may have been the best defensive fighter of all time, waiting for opponents to get close and then cutting them to pieces. Johnson’s easygoing manner lulled opponents into mistakes, and his sharp tongue destroyed their composure. “Poor little Tommy. Who ever told you you were a fighter?” he snickered as Burns chased him around the ring in Australia, challenging Johnson to “fight like a white man.” Though the memory of that fight has dimmed with the ages, the phrase that identified every subsequent challenger who took on and lost to the new champion is still with us—the Great White Hope, which was also the title of a Broadway play and a 1970 film based on Johnson’s life, both starring James Earl Jones.
Historian Geoffrey C. Ward, who researched and wrote the script for Burns’s four-hour documentary and later wrote a book with the same title, told me that Johnson’s career was characterized by three qualities: personal courage, masterful boxing, and a refusal to let anyone else do his thinking for him. “Jack Johnson was a very complex man,” Ward explained. “He read, he loved opera, he played the bass fiddle. Above all, he believed that a black man need not limit his horizons.” As his reputation (and bank account) grew, Johnson became a notorious bon vivant, partial to pricey call girls, fine wine, and games of chance. Always the fashion plate, he wore expensive suits; high, modish collars; diamond stickpins; and patent leather boots with spats and carried suede gloves and an ivory-handled cane. People were furious when he moved into a white neighborhood and struck temporarily aphonic when he announced that henceforth he would date only white women. He bedded them with wild abandon and even married three of them. His other passion was fancy racing cars, which he bought like candy. There were fewer than half a million cars in the United States in 1909, Ward told me, and Johnson owned five of them. Stopped for speeding in some Southern town, he supposedly tossed a roll of $100 bills to the sheriff, explaining that he would be driving even faster when he returned. The consummate showman, he loved making his ring entrance garbed in gaudy bathrobes and trunks; one outfit was described by a reporter as “screaming, caterwauling, belligerent pink.”
Americans had always accorded their heavyweight champion the right to drink, gamble, chase whores, and spend staggering amounts of money—“Gentleman” Jim Corbett and John L. Sullivan were hardly choirboys—but Johnson was judged by a different standard.