BUFFALO, N.Y. -- A new book about cocky, flamboyant, subversive
boxing champion Jack Johnson -- the first black man to take the
heavyweight crown -- goes beyond his infamous battles with Jim
Crow, the seven-year search for a "Great White Hope" to defeat him,
and even his unjust conviction under the Mann Act against white
"Jack Johnson, Rebel Sojourner: Boxing in the Shadow of the
Global Color Line," a new release from the University of California
Press, is by historian Theresa Runstedtler, assistant professor of
American studies at the University at Buffalo. It documents the
lesser-known story of Johnson's overseas experiences with racial
discrimination and political intrigue during his self-imposed exile
in the wake of his conviction. For eight years he traveled in
search of a country where he could live in peace, establish a home
and make a living.
Runstedtler exposes not only the ascendancy of the first black
boxing champions and the racial hatred they inspired but traces the
global history of race, gender and empire in the early twentieth
century. She demonstrates that Johnson's impact was so powerful in
part because he represented the challenge posed by indigenous
people of color to white supremacy and European colonial rule,
whether in South Africa, India, the Philippines or Sri Lanka.
In 1908 Johnson became the first black world heavyweight
champion by beating the reigning world titleholder Tommy Burns in
Australia. The racial animosity that erupted toward him ran deep
and hard among whites in the U.S. and abroad. The Australians, for
their part, persecuted a young white woman with whom Johnson had
had a brief affair. And after the fight they let it be known that
he was persona non grata Down Under. Opportunities to make money
from his reputation and victory dried up and Johnson left the
He returned to the U.S. where his 1910 defeat of favored white
boxer Jim Jeffries provoked riots in more than 50 cities throughout
the country in which hundreds were injured and dozens killed.
Runstedtler points out that many of the "riots" were actually
attacks by whites against black revelers celebrating Johnson's
victory. "There also was a concerted effort throughout the British
Empire to ban the screening of the Jeffries-Johnson prizefight film
for fear it would inspire non-white peoples to rebel against white
authority," she notes.
Although he fascinated many and was celebrated in some quarters,
the majority white American public despised and feared him. Johnson
broke all the racial rules of Jim Crow. He was ostentatious and
outspoken, spent his money publicly, and dated (and married) white
women. He exposed the profound racial divisions in American society
and was vilified for it.
"A few years later, under threat of a prison sentence for
violating the Mann Act, he left the country to seek respite from
the bigotry that poisoned his personal and professional life in
America," says Runstedtler
"But as his experiences in Australia had demonstrated, white
supremacy knew no boundaries," she says. "This was a period in
which European colonial expansion reached deep into the heart of
Africa and in which 'scientific' racist theories laid the
groundwork for deeply embedded stereotypes that justified all
manner of public and private abuse.
"Johnson thought that England was a bastion of civilization that
would welcome him as it had Frederick Douglass," she says.
"But once it became known he was planning to fight the British
boxing champ Bombardier Billy Wells, the British clergy and
newspaper editors led a campaign to have the fight shut down," she
"In the end, Home Office Secretary Winston Churchill bowed to
public pressure and declared the Johnson-Wells fight illegal and
not in the best interests of the nation or empire," says
Runstedtler. She points out that this decision was grounded in the
fear that Johnson might actually win. They could not risk having an
unruly black fighter defeat a British soldier in the capital of the
"An angry Johnson started talking a lot of smack about the
British," she says, "calling them hypocrites and saying they were
just like the Americans. He even threatened to take the fight
against Wells to France, although that never happened."
His next stop, however, was France, where there was no legal
segregation of the races and where she says Johnson quickly became
the darling of Parisian fight fans and the artistic avant-garde, a
Many black Americans had lived and worked in France since the
1800s, but black athletes, in particular, fascinated the
Runstedtler says, "They loved to gaze at the black bodies of
these great physical specimens, these 'natural men,' who posed the
thrilling possibility of 'black savagery.' The French didn't
necessarily like the idea of having lots of black people working or
living in their midst. They preferred their black bodies on
display, on the stage, and Johnson's was no exception."
She points out that in the French press of the time, black
fighters took on animal-like characteristics and blackface minstrel
imagery was often used to depict them.
"In fact," she says, "these minstrel images confronted Johnson
wherever he traveled." The menace posed by the powerful, successful
and proud black athlete was countered by lampoons of black people
as dim-witted, lazy, happy-go-lucky and buffoonish.
Johnson never visited South Africa but newspaper reports of the
demise of his white opponents presented a great threat to the
authorities there, so they censored his fight films and, says
Runstedtler, "worried whether Johnson's ring victories would
embolden African men to rape white women."
After France, Johnson conducted a small European tour to
countries like Hungry, Austria and then to Russia, which had no
extradition treaty with the U.S.
"Johnson worked hard," the author says. "He tried to set up
fights and establish a reputation as a celebrated figure in Europe
-- in part to poke a stick in the eye of prejudicial Americans. He
conducted personal appearances and even participated in wrestling
matches, but he wasn't as marketable as he once was and the bias
continued. In 1913, for example, Belgium, which had recently
annexed the Congo as a Belgian colony, prohibited Johnson from
presenting any boxing exhibitions. Then World War I began, which
made it much more difficult for him to make a living in Europe.
"Johnson headed to Cuba," Runstedtler says, "where, after a
long, bloody fight, he lost his heavyweight title to Jess Willard,
one of the series of 'Great White Hopes' who went up against him.
He left Cuba for Spain where he thought he could relax, settle down
and make a living. But it was too far away. He missed his family
and friends; he wanted to go home."
Johnson ended up in Mexico, where U.S. officials, suspicious of
his presence, feared his bitterness and fame would be used to
encourage solidarity between black Americans and Mexicans,
promoting trouble in the United States' border regions. Johnson
ultimately surrendered to Federal agents in 1920 at the Mexican
border and went to Leavenworth to serve out his Mann Act
"Most people don't know that Johnson's legacy lived on long
after his pugilistic reign in the hearts and minds of many people,
especially black people, around the world," says Runstedtler.
"My favorite story is about a conversation that took place
years after Johnson's career between the king of Swaziland and Amy
Jacques Garvey, second wife of Jamaican national hero Marcus
Garvey, the father of Pan Africanism. The king told her he knew the
names of only two black men in the West: 'Jack Johnson, the boxer
who defeated the white man Jim Jeffries, and Marcus Garvey.'"