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.]
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.”