An audacious Black heavyweight champion was scheduled to defend his title against a white boxer in Reno, Nevada, on July 4, 1910. The fight was hyped as “the fight of the century” and was viewed as a test of racial superiority in the racially divided United States.
Jack Johnson, the Black champion, decisively defeated James Jeffries, known as “the Great White Hope.” Johnson’s victory sparked violent confrontations between Blacks and whites across the country, resulting in the deaths of approximately two dozen people, mostly Black, and the injury and arrest of hundreds more.
Geoffrey C. Ward, in his biography of Johnson, “Unforgivable Blackness,” compared the widespread racial violence triggered by Johnson’s victory to the aftermath of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination nearly six decades later. The fight shattered the claims of white racial supremacy and demonstrated that Blacks were no longer willing to accept white dominance, while whites were unwilling to relinquish their power. This story bears a striking resemblance to the racial divisions that still persist in America today.
The consequences of the fight’s aftermath had a lasting impact on race relations in sports and America as a whole. Born in 1878 in Galveston, Texas, Johnson grew up during the Jim Crow era, a time when racial hostility and discrimination against Blacks were on the rise. As federal forces withdrew from former Confederate states, whites enacted segregation laws and used both legal and illegal means, including police brutality and lynching, to enforce racial inequality.
Johnson’s boxing career challenged the prevailing myths of white supremacy. He defeated numerous white opponents and openly defied societal expectations by flaunting his wealth, dating white women, and refusing to show deference to whites. His victory over Jeffries, who was hailed as the “Great White Hope” seeking to reclaim the heavyweight championship for the white race, further threatened white supremacy.
After Johnson’s win, white newspapers like the Los Angeles Times reinforced white superiority and warned Black individuals not to “point [their] nose too high.” The media and society at large sought to maintain the social order and suppress Black advancement. Congress even passed the Sims Act in 1912, banning the transportation of fight films across state lines, preventing Blacks and whites from seeing Johnson defeat a white man.
Unable to defeat Johnson in the boxing ring, white America resorted to violence to assert their dominance over Blacks. Johnson himself was arrested in 1912 and charged with violating the Mann Act, which criminalized the transport of women across state lines for immoral purposes. His arrest and subsequent imprisonment were meant to serve as a warning to other Black individuals who dared to challenge the racial status quo.
The violence extended beyond Johnson personally. Celebrations of his victory often led to white mobs attacking and lynching Black individuals. Black athletes in other sports were also subjected to violent attacks and discrimination, with the expectation that they must conform and not challenge white supremacy.
The story of Jack Johnson serves as a cautionary tale for Black athletes during the Jim Crow era, as they had to navigate a racially hostile environment that demanded their submission and compliance. It wasn’t until the breakthrough of Jackie Robinson in professional baseball in 1946 that the color line began to crumble, and even then, Robinson had to promise not to respond to racism in order to be accepted by white America.
Throughout history, Black athletes who dared to challenge white supremacy, such as Muhammad Ali, Tommie Smith, John Carlos, Curt Flood, and Colin Kaepernick, faced punishment, ostracism, and backlash. Their actions and sacrifices paved the way for progress, but the fight for racial equality in sports and society is far from over.
The story of Jack Johnson’s victory and its aftermath serves as a reminder of the deep-rooted racial divisions that continue to plague America. It highlights the importance of acknowledging and addressing these divisions to create a more equitable and inclusive society.