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‘Unforgivable Blackness’: The Ballad of Jack Johnson

Many students who work with the Best Buddies know their paraprofessional Ms. Hines. What many students do not know is that she is the great-great- niece of renowned boxer Jack Johnson. Every Friday, Ms. Hines hosts an enrichment where students watch “Unforgivable Blackness,” a short series created by legendary documentarian Ken Burns that explores Johnson’s incredible life: “For more than thirteen years, Jack Johnson was the most famous and the most notorious African-American on Earth” (Ken Burns). Jack Johnson (1878-1946) was the first African-American to become the world heavyweight boxing champion. He achieved this during the height of the Jim Crow Era, a time when lynchings were common and the Klu Klux Klan openly terrorized African Americans.

Jack Johnson was born on March 31, 1878 in Galveston, Texas. As a boy, Johnson was a part of a “gang” of white boys who thought of Jack as one of their own. Later in his life, Johnson stated that because his white friends treated him as their equal, “no one ever taught me that white men were superior to me” (“Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson” Documentary). After attending school for five years, Johnson began searching for employment in order to support his family. He moved from job to job, travelling across the country. During this time, Johnson was introduced to boxing and began to learn how to fight even though prizefighting was illegal in most states. Once he was back in Galveston, Jack Johnson began his professional boxing career.

As Jack Johnson faced off against more opponents, he began to master his unique boxing style. Unlike most boxers, Johnson fought defensively for most of the match, dodging his opponent’s blows and occasionally landing a jab. Despite being six foot and weighing upwards of 200 pounds, Jack was light on his feet and quick with his hands. As his opponent began to tire out, Johnson became more ferocious. Once his opponent was too tired to keep their guard up, or Johnson decided he wanted to end the fight, he would unleash devastating blows that would knock his opponent out cold.

Jack Johnson, now known as “The Galveston Giant,” moved from opponent to opponent, winning most of his matches with his unorthodox fighting style. With every victory, he moved closer towards his dream of becoming the world heavyweight champion. When Johnson tried to fight for the title, the current champion Jim Jefferies refused to fight Johnson because he was black. Eventually, Jefferies retired from boxing to become a farmer, and passed the title on to Tommy Burns. Burns also refused to fight Johnson because he was black. It was not until promoters offered Burns $30,000 for the fight that he agreed to face off against Johnson in the ring. On December 28, 1908, The Galveston Giant defeated Tommy Burns in front of a crowd of 20,000 spectators in Sydney, Australia. His victory over Burns made him the first black man to win the heavyweight champion boxing title. It also upset the white majority of boxing fans, who didn’t want to see African-Americans succeed in any fashion. They began looking for any white boxer strong enough to take the title back from Johnson. The newspapers called it “the great white hope.”

Although Johnson had won the championship title from Burns, Critics claimed that Johnson was not the true champion because Jim Jefferies never officially lost the title. In 1910, they convinced Jefferies to come out of retirement to fight Johnson by offering him $120,000. On July 4, Johnson and Jefferies faced off in Reno, Nevada for what was dubbed “the fight of the century.” Jack Johnson defended his title, soundly defeating the former champion. His loss humbled Jefferies, who admitted that “I could never have whipped Johnson at my best” (“Unforgivable Blackness”). But white society refused to accept a black man as their champion. Race riots erupted across America, and dozens were killed. Accepting that they could not tear him down within the ring, critics looked to Johnson’s personal life to discredit his achievements.

Outside of the ring, Jack Johnson lived a fast and chaotic life. Although he made a great deal of money from boxing, he spent nearly every penny he earned on finely tailored suits and fast cars. He had many different partners, many of them white prostitutes. Johnson was married to three women throughout his life, all of them white. Interracial marriages between blacks and whites was unheard of back then, especially when the man was black. During the height of his career, the public shamed Johnson for his marriage to white women, and the U.S. government utilized this as an opportunity to end his career. In 1812, Johnson was charged with violating the Mann Act, an anti-prostitution law that forbade taking women across state lines for “immoral purposes.” The court argued that Johnson’s second wife Lucille Cameron was a prostitute, and that Johnson therefore violated the law when they traveled across state lines together. However, the court didn’t have enough evidence to convict Johnson, and the case fell apart. A few weeks later, Johnson was charged again for violating the Mann Act years ago with a different prostitute. He was sentenced to one year in prison, but before they came to take him in Johnson escaped to Canada with his wife.

Johnson spent the next seven years in Europe, taking the occasional fight and performing in Vaudeville shows before he returned to the U.S. But before he did, Johnson decided to defend his heavyweight champion title against the new “white hope.” In April of 1915, The Galveston Giant fought against former cowboy Jesse Willard in Havana, Cuba. However, Johnson was not the same fighter as he was five years before. He had barely trained, was overweight, an drank regularly. He lost to Willard in front of a crowd of 25,000, and his championship came to an end. After his loss, Johnson turned himself in to the police at the U.S. – Mexico border, and served his one year sentence. He would never fight for the heavyweight title again.

On June 10, 1946, Jack Johnson went out to lunch with a friend. At the restaurant, Johnson and his friend were forced to either sit in the colored section or leave. Johnson was so infuriated by the unfair treatment that after lunch he pushed his sports car to its limit on the highway. His reckless driving made him lose control, and he crashed. He died in the hospital later that day. He was 68 years old. Johnson was buried in Graceland Cemetary in Chicago next to his first wife Etta.

Even after his death, Jack Johnson had a profound impact on boxing and history. In the 1970 movie “The Great White Hope,” James Earl Jones portrayed Johnson during the prime of his fighting career, and delved into his difficult personal life. Johnson’s story inspired famous boxer Muhammad Ali, who related to Johnson’s struggle of being ostracized for his lifestyle. In 1993, Johnson was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame. Last year, President Trump signed a posthumous pardon, recognizing that Johnson was wrongly convicted by the government.

Jack Johnson was an undeniably complicated man. He had a nasty temper, got into fights, and was not always faithful to his wives. However, Johnson was able to live the life he wanted despite the opposition he faced from white society. “My Uncle was a fighter,” Ms. Hines said. “White society kept knocking him down, but he just kept getting back up.”

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