Sometime in the 1950s, Daddy told me he shook hands and talked with Jack Johnson. “Jack Johnson was working as a bouncer in a night club on the South Side of Chicago,” Daddy said. “He was on his way down when I met him.”
“When was this?” I asked.
“Around the early ’40s,” he answered. “You know, Jack Johnson was heavyweight ‘champeen’ of the world,” Daddy said proudly.
He didn’t say anymore. I thought my dad was reluctant to speak of the good he knew about Jack Johnson without telling about the bad.
I wanted to know about Jack Johnson. I was intrigued with the aura of mystery surrounding him. Who was he? How did he become heavyweight champion of the world? Why was he forgotten?
In 1970, the movie The Great White Hope didn’t answer these questions. It glossed over Jack Johnson’s attitude about life, focusing on his white womanizing and the law chasing after him. In the late ’70s, when Jack Johnson was mentioned on TV, it was usually during Black History Month. He was given a sound-bite in a documentary that honored black athletes. He was hailed as a hero.
When I read that Ken Burn’s documentary, Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson, based on the book of the same name by Geoffrey C. Ward was to be shown on WTTW-Channel 11 recently, I thought it would show the same part of his life. My doubt was unfounded.
Jack Johnson had two good reasons for living his life as a free man. First, no one taught him that white men were superior to black men. At home he was taught he was equal. His mother told him he could be anything he wanted to be, being black was not a setback. Addressing various churches, after his mother’s death, he urged the audiences to “keep your mother’s image before you all the time. Remember what she taught you when you were a youngster, and there is nothing you can’t accomplish.”
As a child growing up in Galveston, Texas, Jack Johnson lived near a white community. He played with white boys. He ate and slept at their homes. “My best pal and one of the best friends I have now is, Leo Posner, a white boy who was head of the gang down there,” he said in a 1929 interview.
Finally, he was taught by what he saw in Galveston. He saw blacks and whites struggling to make ends meet. He saw black men holding prominent political positions. Norris Wright Cuney was the Republican National Committeeman. His brother Joseph was an attorney and clerk of the Customs House. Both men lived a block or two from Jack Johnson’s parents’ house.
The second reason Johnson lived free is that he wouldn’t take orders from anyone outside or inside the ring. For example, outside the ring, he didn’t take orders from his manager to throw the fight or pull a punch, or carry an opponent in order to keep fighting. “I am my own manager,” he would tell the press when he was champion. “I always have been.”
He didn’t take orders from his opponent’s manager either. In discussion about the Jeffries fight, Sam Berger, Jeffries manager told Johnson to leave business matters to the white man. Johnson said that since he was going to do the fighting, he would attend to the business matters as well. When Booker T. Washington, president of Tuskegee Institute, told Johnson he should pick women of his own race, Jack Johnson’s reply was “I am not a slave, and I have the right to choose who my mate shall be without the dictation of any man. I have eyes, and I have a heart and when they fail to tell me who I shall have as mine, I want to be put away in a lunatic asylum.”
Inside the ring, he wouldn’t take orders from his manager or seconds when they offered suggestions. Since he was doing the fighting, he never saw any reason why he shouldn’t do the thinking.
And he didn’t take orders from a white audience full of hate and fierce opposition who shouted racial slurs and death threats. He wasn’t going to let it make him angry and out of control. He joked with the reporters and talked to the fight promoter Tom McCarey at ringside. “Where did you get that slick tie, Uncle Tom?” he’d ask, and then he shed Jeffries’ punches like so many snowflakes.
Although he was told by the promoter and his manager to knock out his opponent before the 20th round or he would lose the fight on a decision, he did as he pleased. He lost the fight and later said, “After fighting until I reached the top, I have been thrown down by an unfair ruling.”
Who was Jack Johnson? He was a man of great courage who lived in a time (1846-1946) when American state laws dictated that black Americans not challenge the prevailing racial divisions and taboos. Because he lived where he wanted, married white women, and allowed no one to think for him, he was disliked and then forgotten by whites and blacks.
He was no different from all men who seek fortune and fame, given the limited opportunities at their disposal. He moved up the ranks of boxing by defeating the black heavyweight champion, Denver Ed Martin. He pursued Tommy Burns, the holder of the white heavyweight title until they met in the ring. Jack Johnson won the fight and became heavyweight champion of the world. He later sealed the title when he beat Jim Jeffries.
He was taunted by the white audience inside the ring and persecuted by white authority outside the ring, but he endured it all with a smile. Jack Johnson was just a man, a man of great courage.