A bold Black champion heavyweight boxer was to defend his title in Reno, Nevada against a white boxer on July 4, 1910. It was the fight of the century.
This fight was seen as a referendum about racial superiority, and all hell was about for the divided United States.
Jack Johnson, the Black man beat James Jeffries, also known as the Great White Hope. Johnson's victory sparked violent confrontations between Blacks, whites, and citizens of the country. There were at least two dozen people who died, nearly all Black, while hundreds were injured or arrested.
There was no other event that produced such widespread racial violence before the assassination Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. fifty-eight year later, Geoffrey C. Ward wrote about Johnson in Unforgiveable Blackness.
Johnson's win in the most manly of sports, rebutted claims of white supremacy and showed that Blacks weren't willing to submit to white dominance. The Whites refused to relinquish their power. This story rings true today because America is still deeply divided by race.
Because of the impact that the fights would have on race relations in America and sports, I started my book, From Jack Johnson To LeBron James: Media, Sports, and the Color Line, alongside Johnson.
Illustrations of troops marching out from a town centre as they prepare to leave
Uncertainty and hostility racialized the scene
Johnson was born in Galveston (Texas) in 1878. He grew up during the Jim Crow era of American history. After promising the three Confederate states South Carolina and Florida that he would pull out federal troops who had been protecting the measure of racial equality Blacks were achieving, Rutherford B. Hayes was elected president in the previous year.
After the federal forces had left, whites deprived Black voters of their voting rights and passed segregation legislations, which were enforced using legal and illegal means including police brutality or lynching. Journalists also sought to preserve social order by perpetuating myths about white supremacy.
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Johnson's boxing career challenged these myths. Johnson fought one after another, taunting both the fighters and the crowd. He was loud and proud and did not show any respect for whites. He drove flashy cars through the streets, wore expensive clothes and spent time with prostitutes and gamblers. He also dated white women which W.E.B., Black socioologist, noted. Du Bois thought it was unnecessarily a alienating act.
Set up a racial war
Johnson defeated Tommy Burns, the defending champion in heavyweight boxing in 1908 to win the title. Jack London, a novelist, wrote in the New York Herald about Johnson's defeat of Tommy Burns in 1908. He also called for former champion James Jeffries, who was also a journalist, to retire and take that smile off Johnsons face.
Jeffries declared to the world that the white champion heavyweight title would be his.
The Chicago Defender, a Black newspaper said that Jeffries and Johnson would resolve the question of supremacy. The Daily News, Omaha, Nebraska reported that Jeffries' victory would restore white supremacy.
There were warning signs that Jeffries' loss was imminent. These signs did not only concern the boxing ring, but also the wider society.
The New York Times warned that if Jeffries wins, white supremacy would be proven. But if Jeffries loses, whites will still be superior.
Strive to keep power
Johnson defeated Jeffries easily. The Los Angeles Times reinforced white supremacy by telling Blacks that they should not point their noses too high. Don't enlarge your chest. Don't boast too loudly. Don't get too proud. Your place in this world is exactly where it was. You don't deserve any higher status, nor do you merit any new consideration.
Many cities imposed bans on showing fight films in theaters as a response to violence. Congress passed the Sims Act in 1912, prohibiting the transportation of fight films across state borders.
It prevented Blacks and Whites from witnessing Johnson beating a white man. Jeffrey Sammons, a historian, says Johnson was in many ways a symbol of the evil n whites were willing to display as an example of why blacks should be respected.
A torrent of violence
Johnson was defeated in the ring by no white boxer, so it was up to white America to stop him outside of the ring. Johnson was charged in 1912 with violating Mann Act. This made it illegal for women to be transported across state lines in order to prostitution, debauchery or any other immoral purpose.
Johnson was more than just one man. Johnson was no longer the polite darky asking for massas permission. He was seen as the model of an independent black man who did what he wanted and didn't accept any limitations, as Randy Roberts wrote in Papa Jack. Johnson became a symbol of racism that threatened America's social order.
Johnson's victory was met with violence by the Whites, who used every means to keep Blacks under control. Whites started shooting as soon as Black construction workers celebrated Johnson's victory in Uvalda, Georgia. Roberts wrote that the whites chased the Blacks into the woods and killed three of them, injuring five others.
According to reports in local media, such scenes were seen throughout the country.
A Houston Black man expressed joy at the outcome of the fights. A white man then slashed his throat from end to end. New York City's white mob set fire to a Black tenement, then blocked the doorway to prevent the occupants fleeing.
Front page of a newspaper displaying news about the fight and the ensuing violence
Sports world reacts
Johnson's punishment was a warning to Blacks during Jim Crow. Black athletes, no matter how talented they were, such as Jesse Owens, boxer Joe Louis or sprinter Jesse Owens, were told that they needed to be the right kind of Black person. One who understood his place and didn't challenge the status quo.
There were many violent attacks against Black athletes in sports that allowed Blacks to compete with whites. Jack Trice, a Iowa State football player, was killed in an attack that he sustained in a 1923 game against the University of Minnesota.
Jackie Robinson's promise that he would not respond racistly to physical abuse and epithets so that he could be accepted by white America made it possible for the 1946 professional baseball color line to end.
White America taught Muhammad Ali (whom many considered to be the wrong type Black athlete) the same lesson that it had taught Jack Johnson in the 1960s. Ali, a bold Muslim who refused to bow to white supremacy's demands, was convicted for draft evasion. He had refused to be inducted into any of the armed forces. He was sentenced to prison and stripped of his heavyweight title.
Other Black athletes were also punished for challenging white supremacy, such as John Carlos and Tommie Smith, and Curt Flood, a baseball player, and Colin Kaepernick, a football player.
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This article was republished by The Conversation, a non-profit news site that shares ideas from academic experts. Chris Lamb, IUPUI wrote it.
Chris Lamb is not affiliated with any company or organization that Chris Lamb consults, owns shares in, or receives funding from.