July 4, 1910 – “Battle of the Century”

John Arthur (“Jack”) Johnson (“The Galveston Giant”) born in 1878, was the first African-American world heavyweight boxing champion, winning the world heavyweight title on December 26, 1908. But after Johnson gained the title, racial animosity among whites ran so deep that the press called out for a “Great White Hope” to take the title away from a black man.

In 1910, former undefeated heavyweight champion James J. Jeffries (“The Boilermaker”) came out of retirement declaring:

“I feel obligated to the sporting public at least to make an effort to reclaim the heavyweight championship for the white race. . . . I should step into the ring again and demonstrate that a white man is king of them all.”

The fight took place on July 4, 1910 in 110 degree heat, at a ring built just for the occasion in downtown Reno, Nevada. In the fifteenth round Jefferies was knocked down for the first time in his career. By the third knockdown in the round, the referee stopped the fight declaring Johnson the winner. His boxing critics were silenced but not the critics of his race.

The outcome of the fight triggered race riots that evening — the Fourth of July — in twenty-five states. At least twenty-six deaths (all but two of them of blacks) were attributed to the riots. Hundreds more were injured Moreover, police interrupted several attempted lynchings.

Johnson continued to alienate whites by refusing to pay deference to the color line. He dated white women and married three of them. Two southern ministers called for his lynching.

On October 18, 1912, Johnson was arrested on the grounds that his relationship with Lucille Cameron (who later became his second wife) violated the White Slave Traffic Act (also known as the Mann Act) for “transporting women across state lines for immoral purposes.” Cameron refused to testify. Described by a prosecutor as “the foremost example of the evil in permitting the intermarriage of whites and blacks,” less than a month later Johnson was arrested again on similar charges. This time the woman, a prostitute with whom Johnson had been involved in 1909 and 1910, testified against him, and he was convicted by a jury in June 1913. The conviction was upheld despite the fact that the incidents used to convict him took place prior to passage of the Mann Act. Johnson was sentenced to a year and a day in prison. [Forty-seven years later, even in the changed racial climate of 1960, black rock and roll composer-performer Chuck Berry served twenty months in jail on a Mann Act conviction, the punishment for his admitted “fondness for women . . . of all colors” (David Langum, Crossing Over the Line: Legislating Morality and the Mann Act, 1994, p. 186.]

Illinois Congressman James Robert Mann, author of the White Slave Traffic Act

Johnson skipped bail and fled the country, returning to the U.S. seven years later. He surrendered to federal agents at the Mexican border and was sent to the United States Penitentiary at Leavenworth to serve his sentence.

On June 10, 1946, Johnson died in a car crash on U.S. Highway 1 in North Carolina, after speeding away angrily from a diner that refused to serve him. He was 68 years old at the time of his death.

As Ken Burns remarked in his documentary, Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson:

“Jack Johnson wished to live his life nothing short of a free man,” says Burns. “And that was a dangerous choice for an African-American in the first two decades of the 20th century.”

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16 Responses to July 4, 1910 – “Battle of the Century”

  1. You gave me chills Jill as I read this. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Teresa says:

    I watched the Ken Burns documentary on Jack Johnson a few years ago. A fascinating but sad story.

  3. Denise says:

    What a great story and reminder . . .

  4. zibilee says:

    while reading this story, my stomach clenched up angrily. It doesn’t seem right that this type of thing could happen in a place where freedom is supposed to be so all-encompassing. It’s pretty damn shameful, if you ask me.

  5. Vasilly says:

    Thank you so much, Jill, for reminding us of this story.

  6. Richard says:

    Having enjoyed both Unforgivable Blackness and the thinly disguised Jack Johnson biopic starring James Earl Jones, it was great to see this post here today rather than the idiotic 4th of July stuff prob. getting play on TV news today. Are you also familiar with the Miles Davis album dedicated to/inspired by Jack Johnson? Happy holiday to you and your family!

  7. This is a really important post, thank you! Lack of freedom is something I often think about on the fourth, in many different capacities.

  8. Emily says:

    I really enjoy your history posts, Jill, even (or maybe especially) when they focus on the more shameful and lesser-known episodes of American history. Thanks for this!

  9. stacybuckeye says:

    This was such perfect reading for today, Jill. This is just embarrassing.
    I was watching some of the HBO special (aired on CNN) about how people from every state became citizens. One man was asked why he wanted to be a citizen and he said once President Obama was elected he knew this was the country for him because even a poor minority could rise to the top. It took 100 years from this fight, but we’ve come a long way.

  10. Margot says:

    This was very interesting reading for today. There is so many different facets to our celebrated freedoms.

  11. Barbara says:

    Thanks for reminding me of Jack Johnson’s story. I never knew that Mann of the Mann Act was an Illinois congressman – shame on my home state. Johnson’s refusal to be a second-class citizen because of the color of his skin was courageous, but I suppose foolhardy at the time. Wouldn’t he be surprised to see how lionized Mohammed Ali is now?

  12. Alyce says:

    This is such an informative and sad post. I hadn’t heard of him before – he must have been an incredibly brave man.

  13. amymckie says:

    Wow, thank you so much for sharing this. I had no idea. What a very brave man. And in many parts of the South I still got a lot of flack for admitting (while there for work) that I was dating a black man. I had a white client tell me that he’d “never let his daughter date a black guy”. I was appalled, especially that it was said while in a racially mixed group and nobody other than me batted an eye. Scary to think of how far we have still to go…

  14. cbjames says:

    I was wondering, while I read this, if his story had ever been made into a movie. I’ll look for the Ken Burns documentary. Excellent post.

    • There was in fact a film loosely based on Johnson’s life starring (who else) James Earl Jones, who was nominated for an Academy Award for his role. The wikipedia article on the film is here.

  15. Alice says:

    That’s fascinating. Damn, we suck.

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