Jack Johnson in Jim Crow
John Arthur "Jack" Johnson (1878-1946) was an African-American boxer and the first black athlete to earn the title of Heavyweight Champion of the World, which he held from 1908 to 1915. He is also, arguably, the first true pop culture icon, a superstar both beloved and reviled by millions of people during the height of his fame.
Jack Johnson was born and raised in Galveston, Texas in the heart of the Jim Crow South. He began his boxing career as a teen, fighting first against black opponents and later—once he had built his reputation as an unbeatable contestant—against professional white boxers. He pummeled the best of the best among white athletes, much to the dismay of many a white boxing fan, ultimately becoming the first black athlete to earn the title of Heavyweight Champion of the World in 1908. In addition, Johnson managed to not only beat but also humiliate Jim Jeffries, the undefeated fighter who came out of retirement hoping to reclaim the title for the white race. Johnson stuck fear and loathing into the hearts of some and hope and pride into the hearts of others.