A black man is speeding through the streets of Chicago in a luxury car during the early 1900s. He’s stopped by a white cop. The officer, taking in what the ride must have cost, the blonde sitting by the man’s side and the gold-plated dashboard – and getting angrier the more he sees – starts to write out a ticket.
‘How much is this all gonna cost me, boy?’ asks the black man.
‘About 50 of them hard-earned dollars you been making,’ replies the policeman. In those days skilled labour paid less than two dollars a day.
Smiling, the black man takes a huge bank roll from his pocket, peels off a hundred dollar bill and, offering it to the cop, says, ‘Here boy, you pay it. And hold on to the change…’ Putting the car into gear he pecks his blonde companion’s forehead. ‘Cause I’m coming back the same gawddamn way.’
The black man was Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion of the world; a man more controversial than Muhammad Ali; a man so despised he would have lost a popularity contest against Robert Mugabe; a man born into a world so rife with racial prejudice that even the fight reports in newspapers of the time variously described him as ‘coon’, ‘nigger’, ‘sambo’, ‘black gorilla’, ‘jungle swinger’ and ‘uppity nigger’.
But more significantly he was a man who, as the cop found out, refused to ‘know his place’ in a country that, 60-odd years after the Emancipation Proclamation, remained more the home of the slave than the land of the free.
John Arthur Johnson came into the world on 31 March, 1878 in Galveston, Texas.
As a young man he was working in Dallas when a travelling circus came to town. As a side attraction a fighter named Bob Tomlinson was offering five dollars to anyone who could go four rounds with him. Johnson took up the challenge. For the first three rounds he simply soaked up the punishment and in the fourth went on the attack. Just as he was about to knock out Tomlinson the bell rang – two minutes early. Johnson took his five dollars.
After that he got involved in what were known as Battle Royals: fights, staged for the amusement of white men, between five or six black men, in which the last one left standing was the winner. Johnson never lost. It was in these fights that he learned his revolutionary defensive skills. Instead of blocking punches, he was able to pick them off with an open glove before throwing devastating counters.
He turned pro and before long had beaten all-comers, including the top three other black heavyweights, Sam Langford, Sam McVey and Joe Jeannette.But the man he really wanted to fight, the heavyweight champion, Tommy Burns, refused to fight him.
At the same time that Johnson was making a name for himself in the ring, he was becoming pretty well known outside it – especially by the ladies. He had married and divorced a black girl named Mary Austin when he was very young but after he caught his next black girlfriend, Clara Kerr, cheating on him he decided he would only become romantically involved with white women. It shocked America. Whites believed mixed marriages were sinful and many black people condemned Johnson for disrespecting his own race. But as would be the case throughout Johnson’s life, the criticism only seemed to encourage him and he flaunted his white girlfriends, the two most prominent of whom were a prostitute, Belle Schreiber, and a jeweller’s daughter with the unfortunate name of Hattie McLay.
Rumours spread in white America that Johnson was an evil Svengali type who hypnotised white women. It was whispered around town that he had a ‘gigantic, oversized thing’. Pornographic comics appeared with titles like ‘Black Ape Splitting White Princess’. Johnson, it was said, was ‘ruining white women for a respectable life’.
The Galveston Giant, as he had become known, merely accommodated the rumours and began to wrap his penis in bandages when he was going to fight. Then he’d strut around the ring grabbing his crotch.
In 1908 Johnson decided to travel to Europe to track down heavyweight champion Burns who had fled America to avoid him. By the time he got there though, Burns had run away to Australia.
Eventually, the pressure to fight Johnson became too much for Burns who finally issued a challenge from Down Under.
The fight the world had been waiting for was scheduled for Christmas Day 1908. Burns was the favourite, but only until the fight started when it became obvious that it was a mismatch. In round 14 the local police chief climbed into the squared circle and instructed the referee to call a halt. The world had its first black heavyweight champion.
Not everybody liked the result. The press decided a black man couldn’t be the real heavyweight champion. The call went out for a ‘great white hope’ to take back the crown for the white race and Johnson was fed a steady diet of white fighters, all of whom he destroyed. The pleas for Jim Jeffries, who had retired undefeated before Burns won the title, to come out of retirement and ‘silence the nigger’ grew louder.
Johnson took no notice and anyway, he had other problems. After the Burns fight he had discovered Hattie McLay in bed with his manager. He got rid of them both. McLay went back home but shunned by her family shortly afterwards committed suicide. Johnson soon met and married another woman, a married French American named Etta Mae who left her husband to be with him. Belle Schreiber, who had hopes of settling down with the champion, was forced to turn back to prostitution when Johnson would have nothing more to do with her.
Meanwhile, Johnson was beating all who were put before him. More pressure was applied to Jeffries to come out of retirement, and ‘redeem the honour of the white race’. Eventually he said he would. On 4 July 1910 they fought. Jeffries, who had been out of the ring for six years, was no match for the powerful Johnson and a left hook ended it all after two minutes and 20 seconds of the 15th round.
Black people throughout the United States, many of whom had staked every penny they had on a Johnson win, partied. Whites mourned. Racially motivated violence broke out all over the States. In New Orleans a white man shot and killed a black man who had come into his restaurant and ordered ‘eggs, beaten and scrambled like Jim Jeffries; and coffee, black, scalding and strong, like Jack Johnson’. In Brooklyn, New York, gang warfare ensued after three whites had heard a black man call his dog ‘Jeffries’. In Jamaica one of the most popular tunes had the lyrics:
If wasn’t for the referee
Jack Johnson woulda kill Jim Jeffrey
Right, left and the uppercut
One lick inna Jeffrey gut
Another casualty after the fight was Etta Mae who, depressed over the death of her father, and, some said, the champion’s constant womanising, became the second Johnson wife to commit suicide.
Johnson met another woman, the 18-year-old Lucille Cameron. Her mother, distraught at the idea of her daughter being with a black man, accused him of abducting her and went to the police. It was just what the white establishment had been waiting for. Johnson was charged with transporting a woman across state lines for immoral purposes. In court Cameron admitted that she had been a prostitute but insisted Johnson had had nothing to do with it. Johnson was discharged. He promptly married Cameron.
Once again America was outraged. The Bureau of Investigation, later known as the FBI, looked into Johnson’s background for a charge that would stick. They came up with Belle Schreiber. Bitter at the way Johnson had dumped her, Schreiber was more than willing to claim that the champion had been her pimp. Johnson was re-arrested, charged, tried, and found guilty by an all-white, all-male jury. He was sentenced to a year and a day in prison and fined $1000. All this despite the fact that his association with Schreiber had been long before the Mann Act became law.
Johnson managed to get bail pending his appeal and, realising he stood little chance of success, decided to leave America disguised as a member of a black baseball team. He went first to Canada, then to Europe where he performed as a theatrical entertainer and gave boxing exhibitions.
But he missed America. His mother was growing old and was unwell, and he wanted to see her before she died. He started looking for a way back and was offered a fight against the latest white hope Jess Willard.
Johnson was promised by the fight’s promoter, Jack Curley, that if he threw the fight he would be paid $50,000 and the path would be smoothed for him to return to America a free man. The fight was arranged to take place in Havana, Cuba, on Easter Sunday, April 5, 1915.
Johnson dominated the early rounds but in the 26th round was hit by a upper cut and counted out. The reign of the first black heavyweight champion was at an end. It would be nearly 30 years before another black man (Joe Louis) was allowed to fight for the greatest prize in sport. Whether or not he threw the fight is still in dispute but if he didn’t, Johnson carried the secret to his grave. A year later he made a sworn statement to Nat Fleischer, the legendary founder of The Ring magazine, in which he said: ‘I agreed to let Willard win by knockout because I had been promised that I would not be molested any more by the US government and that I would be allowed to see my beloved mother.’ He cited as evidence the famous photograph of him on the canvas with his hand over his eyes. He was shielding them from the sun, he said.
One thing was for sure, however: there was to be no pardon.
Once again Johnson was forced to flee the US, first to London and later to Spain and Germany. Eventually, though, he decided to return to America where he was arrested and made to serve an 11-month prison sentence. On 10 June 1946, after driving back from North Carolina, Johnson and a friend pulled into a roadside cafe.
The owner, seeing two black men, refused them entry. Johnson, mad, jumped into his car and screeched off into the night. He took a corner on the wrong side of the road. In order to avoid an oncoming truck he swung his car over but it went out of control and he hit a tree trunk. He was pronounced dead half an hour later. He’d crossed one white line too many.