x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Time for Johnson to be recognised

Even if we overlook the odiously intemperate language permitted in print 100 years ago, it is fair to say that the majority of Americans did not like the cut of Jack Johnson's jib.

Jack Jonhson shields his eye after being
Jack Jonhson shields his eye after being "knocked out" by Jesse Willard in the 26th round in Havana back in 1915. Johnson won the title in 1908.

Even if we overlook the odiously intemperate language permitted in print 100 years ago, it is fair to say that the majority of Americans did not like the cut of Jack Johnson's jib when, on Dec 26 1908, he battered Tommy Burns into submission in a timber-framed ring erected on the waterfront at Rushcutters' Bay, Sydney, to become the first black heavyweight boxing champion of the world. White America was outraged. The heavyweight title had been regarded as the very symbol of racial supremacy ever since John L Sullivan, the original world champion in 1892, invited challenges for his crown with the notorious proclamation: "In this challenge I include all fighters - first come, first served - who are white. I will not fight a negro. I never have and I never shall." Not only did Johnson become the first black champion (and the only one until Joe Louis in 1937), but he also flaunted his wealth, intelligence and good looks; as flashy outside the ring as he was inside the ropes he also broke America's most vile but most sacred taboo by marrying two white women, one of whom committed suicide in his Cafe de Champion in Chicago. Johnson, meanwhile, dressed in the finest Italian suits, had every grinning tooth gold-capped, bought a fleet of limousines, kept servants (white) and demolished a steady stream of hapless Great White Hopes. Even The Times of London, outraged by the champion's swaggering refusal to see himself as some inferior life-form, was moved to describe Johnson as "a flash nigger whose golden teeth and multitude of diamonds resembles a starry night". And so began a nationwide search for the ultimate Great White Hope. Jim Jeffries, who had retired undefeated in 1905 after a six-year reign, answered the call when he agreed to fight Johnson in Reno, Nevada, on July 4 - Independence Day - with the stated intention of "bringing the title back to the white race". He failed, knockd-out in the 15th round. Nineteen blacks would die as a result of Johnson's victory; most of them at the hands of lynch-mobs. A Southern Congressman spoke of "the dangers of the negroes having their heads turned by Johnson's successes. Personally, I think any white man who would willingly get into a boxing ring to fight a negro deserves to be beaten to death." Unable to quash Johnson's sprit in the ring, he was charged under the infamous Mann Act of transporting his wife across a state line for immoral purposes. He was sentenced to a year's imprisonment, fled to Canada and then Europe (Britain refused to grant him residency) and lived as a fugitive for seven years. He eventually returned to the US to serve his sentence and surrendered his title in 1915 to Jess Willard in a fight Johnson maintained was rigged because of death threats. The truth of the affair - and it is beyond dispute that the champion shielded his eyes from the sun while the referee counted him out - died with him in a car accident in 1946. A century on from Johnson's historic victory in the ring, America has voted a black man into the White House and in September of this year, Congress passed a resolution calling upon President Bush to grant Johnson a pardon for his conviction in acknowledgment of its racist overtones and in recognition of his contribution to boxing. rphilip@thenational.ae