Jack Johnson was the first black heavyweight champion in history, the celebrated — and most reviled — African American of his age. Prizewinning biographer Geoffrey Ward tells Johnson’s story in Unforgivable Blackness, which reveals a far more complex and compelling life than the newspaper headlines he inspired could ever convey.
Johnson battled his way from obscurity to the top of the heavyweight ranks and in 1908 won the greatest prize in American sports — one that had always been the private preserve of white boxers. At a time when whites ran everything in America, he took orders from no one and resolved to live as if color did not exist. While most blacks struggled just to survive, he reveled in his riches and his fame. And at a time when the mere suspicion that a black man had flirted with a white woman could cost him his life, he insisted on sleeping with whomever he pleased. Because he did so the federal government set out to destroy him, and he was forced to endure a year of prison and seven years of exile. To most whites (and to some African Americans as well) he was seen as a perpetual threat — profligate, arrogant, amoral, a dark menace, and a danger to the natural order of things.#
Ward’s book serves as the companion to the Ken Burns PBS documentary, Unforgivable Blackness. He joins Jerry Jazz Musician publisher Joe Maita in a conversation about the life of Johnson in a November 15, 2004 interview.
Editors Note: Some of the photographs, quotations and songs within the interview may be objectionable to contemporary readers. It is important to remember the times and the context in which they were made. They are included to help illustrate the complexities of the culture in which these boxers performed.
Throughout this interview, songs evocative of the era in which Jack Johnson lived are available for sampling. Many of the samples are entire songs and may take a minute or so — with a high speed connection — before they begin playing. We wish to thank Tim Brooks, author of Lost Sounds: Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry, 1890 – 1919, for providing the music.
“At a time when whites ran everything in America, he took orders from no one and resolved to live always as if color did not exist. While most Negroes struggled merely to survive, he reveled in his riches and his fame. And at a time when the mere suspicion that a black man had flirted with a white woman could cost him his life, he insisted on sleeping with whomever he pleased. Most whites (and some Negroes as well) saw him as a perpetual threat — profligate, arrogant, amoral, a dark menace, and a danger to the natural order of things.”
– Geoffrey Ward
– Listen to Jack Johnson speak on Runnin’ Down the Title Holder, a 1924 recording
JJM I was struck by how your book is such a stark reminder of how racist our world was one hundred years ago — on all levels — from the statements and actions of the era’s top political leaders, down to those of the most common man.
GW I have been writing American history of one kind or another for about thirty years, and I thought I had a pretty good intellectual understanding of that fact. After doing the research for this book, I realized that I had no idea how pervasive it was. Racism pervades every story written about Jack Johnson. News stories, ostensibly favorable stories, and critical stories are all written from a racist slant.
JJM And it is only two generations removed from many of us. As much as we would like to believe that all of this is behind us, a mere two generations ago the Mississippi governor James Vardaman said of Johnson, “Personally, I took no other interest in the Johnson-Burns fight than to wish that any white man fighting a Negro for money might get a knockout of sufficient proportion to cause him to continue on to eternal rest.” Sure, this was the governor of Mississippi, but it is still shocking.
GW Yes, you would expect that from the governor of Mississippi, but you wouldn’t expect racist coverage from the New York Times, or the Los Angeles Times, or the San Francisco Chronicle. Their comments weren’t as insane as that, but they were pretty crazy.
JJM I am curious about how you and Ken Burns work together. Did you decide to do the book on Jack Johnson before a decision was made to do a film on his life?
GW No, we started the documentary, and we had originally planned to do a companion volume that was mostly pictorial, the way we had done in the past. But once we got started on this, it occurred to both of us that since Johnson’s life was such a rich tale, a full-scale, scholarly, footnoted biography needed to be written. So, we launched into it.
JJM What resources did you use for the book?
GW There are no real “Johnson Papers” or anything of that kind. It is not like writing about Roosevelt, for example, where you have a library of stuff to go to. I was very lucky because I located in Leavenworth Prison part of an incomplete autobiography he had written, which describes all his big, successful fights in very vivid, personal detail. So I was able to use all of that in the book, which has never been seen before. But most of the resources I used are from thousands and thousands of newspaper accounts. He was very widely covered.
JJM Did you find that his autobiography was at all reliable?
GW Well, it is less unreliable — which I realize is a funny way to put it — than other scholars have thought. I found lots of evidence for some of his tallest tales, and that interested me quite a lot. He was a Texan and a sort of frontier-style storyteller. He embroidered stories about himself, but I don’t think he invented very many of them, which just made the stories better and better as the days went by.
JJM Is there any way of knowing how his early days in Galveston, Texas shaped his view of the world?
GW The great mystery about him is how on earth anyone like him “happened” in the turn of the twentieth century, because it was such a ghastly world for a black person. During his entire life, he never gave in to Jim Crow anything — he simply wouldn’t submit to the system. That of course is the question you want to have answered, which is how on earth somebody got like that? There is no full-scale answer, but he did once say that while he was raised in the Jim Crow South — in Galveston — his neighborhood was very integrated. It was like a lot of neighborhoods in New Orleans. Very poor people of all colors were living together in that neighborhood, and he was never really trained to believe that the white kids he played with were any better than he was. It is not really an explanation, but it may have something to do with how he was. In the end, he is basically inexplicable, the way a Louis Armstrong is inexplicable, or an Abraham Lincoln is inexplicable. You just can’t account for them.
JJM Concerning this you wrote, “Facts about Johnson’s ancestry are hard to come by, and he was himself a cheerful fabulist when it came to retelling his own life. But the first thing he wanted people to understand about him was that because his enslaved forebears had arrived in America long ‘before the United States was dreamed of,’ he was himself a ‘pure-blooded American.’ And because he knew that that was what he was, he saw no reason ever to accept any limitations on himself to which other Americans were not also subject.”
GW Yes, that is what he wanted everyone to believe about him, and with that, he had this American sense that if you have enough courage, and if you have enough superior skill, that ought to be enough to win you success. He acted on that all of his life.
JJM What inspired him to begin boxing?
GW I think he was looking around for something to do. He knew he had extraordinary athletic ability, and he didn’t want to work on the docks in Galveston. He always had the sense that he was set apart and special. He tried various sports — he even tried being a jockey, but he was six feet tall, so that didn’t really play out too well for him. He tried to be a bicycle racer, and he was a good enough ball player to at times play first base with Rube Foster’s teams in the forerunner to the Negro Leagues. But, boxing was available to him and close to home. He began by engaging in informal fights on the beach in Galveston, and then hoboed around the country, where he started to see that he was better than other people at it.
JJM When was his boxing potential recognized?
GW There were two important fights. In one, an aging pro named Joe Choynski knocked Johnson out in Galveston, but because both men were arrested afterwards the fight made headlines and his name became known. The other fight was in 1901 against heavyweight champion Jim Jeffries’ younger brother Jack, who was as tall and strong and a good deal more handsome than his brother, but without the skills. They let Johnson fight him because they thought Johnson would be easy to beat. This was a major mistake. Johnson not only beat him, he beat him in spectacular style. He wore pink tights into the ring, which nobody else had ever seen in boxing — he was a trendsetter from the beginning. When he got in the ring, he handed the promoter an envelope and asked him not to open it. He proceeded to toy with the younger Jeffries for four rounds while he talked to people in the audience. He would lean over and compliment the promoter on the slick tie he was wearing, all the while holding his opponent off at arm’s length. As the fifth round began, he leaned down to tell the promoter to open the envelope. Inside was a note from Johnson predicting he would knock Jeffries out in the fifth round. As soon as Johnson saw that the promoter had read it, he proceeded to knock him out.
JJM Yes, he predicted every blow.
GW That is quite a debut.
JJM Was this brashness — which I guess could be called “trash-talking” today — all that uncommon then?
GW It was called “mouth fighting” in those days, and he was a master of it. Other people may have been good at it, but he was the best.
JJM You wrote, “Being the heavyweight champion of the world was, as the writer Gerald Early has said, something like being the ‘Emperor of Masculinity.'”
GW Yes, it was a symbol of masculine power, and it was thought that the champion was the most powerful man in the world. In a world run by whites, that person almost by definition had to be white man
JJM And they did everything they could to keep blacks from contending
GW They simply refused to let them contend. They could fight each other or they could fight white contenders, but they couldn’t ever fight the champion. It took Johnson five or six years to finally chase down a champion who was willing to give him a shot at it. He did that because he was given an offer he simply couldn’t refuse. He was paid thirty thousand dollars, which no one before had ever come close to being paid.
JJM This is Tommy Burns you are talking about
GW Yes. The fight was held in Australia, and Johnson made quick work of him.
JJM The racist reaction by the Australians to Johnson’s victory was somewhat surprising to me…
GW That kind of white racism was international. The rulers of the British Empire were terribly worried that if Johnson beat Burns, the blacks and Indians and Ceylonese would rise up, and somehow their empire would crumble. The films showing Johnson beating up Tommy Burns and Jim Jeffries were barred from being seen within much of the Empire.
JJM Did Burns fear Johnson as a fighter at all?
GW Yes, I think he knew he was going to lose. Burns actually wasn’t very big, and he had pretty much beaten everybody he could make any money off of. Before the fight, he said he was probably going to get beaten. Of course, that was when he was being realistic. The rest of the time he thought that since he was a white man, he was going to win, that Johnson would become afraid and run away, and that he couldn’t stand being hit in the stomach. There were all kinds of crazy racist theories.