Historian Explores Overseas Racial Battles of Iconic American Boxer Jack Johnson

Throughout the world, the fistic wonder of his era was treated like a 'bad nigger'

Release Date: May 22, 2012 This content is archived.


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Theresa Runstedtler, UB assistant professor of American studies

Jack Johnson, the subject of Runstedtler's book, "Jack Johnson, Rebel Sojouner: Boxing in the Shadow of the Global Color Line"

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 slave trafficking.

"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 country.

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 says.

"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 empire.

"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 double-edged sword.

Many black Americans had lived and worked in France since the 1800s, but black athletes, in particular, fascinated the French.

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 sentence.

"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.'"

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