Galveston, Texas could not contain Arthur "Jack" Johnson. A child of former slaves, he grew up after the fall of Radical Reconstruction, in an increasingly oppressive society. Johnson was a precocious, determined young man, committed to supporting his parents but impatient with the small jobs and poor opportunities offered by his hometown. Seeking more excitement and greater challenges for his 6'2", 200-pound frame, he gravitated toward the world of boxing.
Boxing—the most popular American sport through the turn of the twentieth century—required from its participants youth, brawn, charisma, confidence, and intellect. Johnson boasted each of these qualities plus the sort of savvy that helped him make the most of his skills. By his late teens, the young fighter had earned a modicum of success; he won a few hometown bouts and even survived four full rounds against black professional boxer "Utah" Bob Thompson. Local fame and miniscule rewards, however, weren't enough for Johnson. "The purses offered were truly minimal—10, 15, or 20 dollars at most." After paying his trainers, he explained, "all I'd have is debts."58 He had met and sparred with others like him—determined, black athletes—who had built lucrative careers fighting all over the country, despite segregation, unscrupulous white managers, and crooked promoters. Thus, betting on his unusual talent, he chose to leave his hometown in pursuit of better opponents and bigger prizes.
By 1903, the young fighter had traveled throughout the nation and racked up some 30 official wins, including a knockout against "Denver" Ed Martin to earn himself the "Negro Heavyweight" title. Often for the entertainment of white patrons, Johnson battered and embarrassed his black opponents, earning himself a reputation among black and white boxing fans as a fierce, sophisticated athlete—until, that is, he began smashing white competitors. Johnson, along with several equally skilled African-American fighters including Joe Jeanette, Sam Langford, and Sam McVey, transformed the stakes of the game. "We are in the midst of a growing menace," the editor of the New York Sun Charles Dana wrote of the rapid ascent of black professional fighters. "We are in the midst of a black rise against white supremacy."59
Dana was right. By pursuing professional bouts and proving themselves to be worthy contenders, Johnson and his peers threatened the reign of whites over the sport. As black fighters emerged as boxing stars, white champions felt greater pressure to face them in the ring in order to reassert racial superiority. Black athletes, then, earned the opportunities to debunk the myth of white invincibility by competing for the top positions in the sport, and to gain fame and fortune along the way.
Johnson took full advantage of the increasingly open field of competition. In 1908, he leapt at the chance to fight the World Heavyweight Champion Tommy Burns, confident that he could defeat even the most menacing white opponent. Burns agreed to defend his title, believing that he would crush the black fighter quickly and easily. But Burns, smaller than Johnson in build and weaker in skill, lost. In a shocking upset—one reported throughout the world—Johnson prevailed against Burns after fourteen rounds and became the first black fighter to claim the World Heavyweight Champion title belt.
Following Jack Johnson's stunning victory against white heavyweight champion Tommy Burns, boxing fans called for the highly acclaimed yet retired champ, Jim Jeffries, to reclaim the title. "Jim Jeffries must now emerge from his alfalfa farm and remove that smile from Johnson's face," journalist and Oakland, California native Jack London wrote in an open letter to the white fighter, which was published in the New York Herald. "Jeff it's up to you," London pleaded. "The white man must be rescued."60
Jeffries balked, however. In his mid-thirties and overweight, the retired boxer refused to accept the challenge. Yet, public pressure only swelled; with each of Johnson's new victories Jeffries' fans became increasingly relentless. Week after week, "The Great White Hope" received hundreds of letters from boxing enthusiasts, and the national press published editorials urging him to return to the ring. His confidence revived by the flood of support, Jeffries announced in April that he would, in fact, emerge from retirement for the sole purpose of defeating Johnson and stripping him of the heavyweight title.
For over a year, Jeffries trained, desperate to regain his fighter's build in preparation for what would prove to be the most important—and most difficult—match-up of his career. In the meantime, Jack Johnson continued to annihilate the nation's best white fighters, including the Italian-American powerhouse Antonio "Tony Ross" Rossiliano, the reigning middleweight champ Stanley Ketchel, and "Philadelphia" Jack O'Brien, who Johnson crushed despite arriving to the fight under-trained and hung over. By the summer of 1910, boxing promoters, the national press, and fans alike viewed Jeffries not simply as the "Great White Hope" but the only white hope remaining.
The Johnson-Jeffries heavyweight title bout was scheduled to take place on the Fourth of July, 1910 in a specially constructed open-air arena in Reno, Nevada. Promoter George Lewis "Tex" Rickard offered tickets for the match at an average price of $20 (about $450 in 2008 dollars) for a seat in the arena, or $5 (about $125 in 2008 dollars) for access to the standing-room-only top tier. Despite these steep admission prices, tens of thousands of fight patrons from all over the United States spilled into the city in the days leading up to the fight, swarming the region's streets and packing into hotels hoping to bear witness to the event. Most arrivals were white men, but reporters spotted hundreds of "anxious" women in the crowds navigating toward the arena. In addition, the Southern Pacific Railroad transported dozens of black cooks and porters. Unable to afford tickets on their service salaries, many placed bets on a Jack Johnson victory and returned to the railway station to await fight results.61
On the day of the sold-out event, a throng of spectators rushed through the arena's single entrance and filled the stands, while outside some 10,000 ticketless revelers lined block upon block, eager to share in the excitement. At 2:33pm, the arena erupted in cheers as Jim Jeffries emerged from his dressing room and paraded through the crowds to join Johnson in the ring. Johnson, clad in blue trunks and wrapped in an American flag, seemed unimpressed by the man many expected would beat him handily. "Before I entered the ring," he later revealed to a reporter, "I was certain I would be the victor."62 Jeffries, a full thirty pounds heavier than his opponent and bolstered by the near complete support of the audience, appeared confident, casually chewing gum during the opening moments of the fight.
But Jeffries's hubris haunted him throughout the fight. As the New York Times reported, he was "outclassed by his opponent from the first tap of the gong."63 Jack Johnson toyed with the white boxer, battering Jeffries while mocking his feeble jabs. Johnson dragged a weakening Jeffries through each long round, forcing the man to endure the power of his punches, the sting of humiliation, and the heat of the sun. "I could not help but feel sorry for the big white man as he fell beneath the champion's blows," remarked Rickard, the event's promoter and the match referee. "It was the most pitiable fight I ever saw." In the fifteenth and final round, Johnson slowly stalked his sluggish opponent, repeatedly knocking him to the mat while allowing the man's frustrated trainers to hoist him up again and again. At last, in the third minute, Jeffries's corner conceded defeat. "The fight of the century is over," one reporter announced, "and a black man is the undisputed champion of the world."64
The spectators silently dispersed from the Reno venue, shocked by Jeffries's loss yet resigned to Johnson's superior performance. According to the New York Times, boxing fans "could not help but admire Johnson, because he…gave in wherever there was a contention and he demanded his rights only up to their limit, but never beyond them."65 Yet, the Times's observation seemed to have been a grave misrepresentation of public opinion. In the weeks following Johnson's victory, race riots—many of them sparked by white violence directed toward black communities—broke out in the South and in several northern cities, leaving dozens of people dead and thousands injured (most of them black). Such violence revealed that white Americans believed Johnson had demanded too much in his relentless pursuit of the championship and that he had certainly stepped out of line by flaunting his victory and mocking Jeffries's poor performance. (In the day following the bout, the national press quoted Johnson's post-fight comments. "I could have fought for two hours longer. It was easy," he told reporters. "I wish [the match] was some longer. I was having lots of fun.")66 His arrogance and bold bravado offended the sensibilities of many whites, like Sun reporter Charles Dana, who believed in the sanctity of racial hierarchies.
Ostentatious, cocky, and exhibiting little respect for Jim Crow racial codes and traditions, he stood in stark contrast to moderate leaders, such as Booker T. Washington; Johnson unapologetically humiliated the most famous and beloved of all white athletes, flaunted his wealth, and paraded his white mistresses in public. Washington, on the other hand, carefully navigated the southern racial terrain, cooperating with powerful whites and asking black southerners to accept racial subjugation in exchange for employment opportunities. (Washington did not approve of Johnson's behavior and, in fact, felt he was an embarrassment to the race.) Thus, for many whites, Johnson's swelling popularity among blacks posed a significant threat to the racial status quo of the Jim Crow era.
During one of the most turbulent periods in American race relations, Jack Johnson—a black boxer from the Jim Crow South—emerged as the first great popular culture icon of the twentieth century. At a time when Jim Crow laws and white violence controlled the lives of black southerners and informed race relations throughout the North and the West, Johnson became a role model to many in the black community—particularly the black working class. Even though he hadn't identified as such, many admired the southern-born fighter as a man who single-handedly defended the honor of his race. Johnson's stunning victories signaled, for much of black America, the beginning of the end of an era of racial subjugation. And white fury over his success only solidified these expectations.
Just like his white opponents, Jack Johnson ultimately proved to be vulnerable to defeat. Only a few years after his notorious performance against Jeffries, he had disappeared from the national headlines and faced miscegenation charges related to his marriage to Lucille Cameron, a white prostitute. In order to escape a prison sentence (and, likely, murder at the hands of a lynch mob), Johnson fled to Canada, then Europe, and, finally, South America. While in exile, he agreed to defend his heavyweight title against Jess Willard, a young white contender from Kansas. But Johnson, undertrained and overweight, fell to the mat after 26 rounds. He lost the match and his title belt. (Twenty-two years would pass before any black boxer would again be allowed to compete against a white title holder.) Though Jack Johnson all but vanished from the sports world by the 1920s, his legacy survived during the Jim Crow era and remained an important inspiration to some, a chilling nightmare to others.