The Battle of the Century (July 4, 1910)
Jack Johnson, The Great White Hope, and the Convulsion of America
Welcome to Throwbacks, a weekly-ish newsletter by Michael Weinreb about sports history, culture and politics.
I. Johnson Wins
On the evening July 4, 1910, in towns large and small, a unique brand of American hell broke loose. Hours earlier, as thirty thousand people—nearly all of them white—stood in Times Square and awaited news from the New York Times’ brand new information ticker, one last bulletin came across the telegraph wires: “Johnson Wins.” It was official: Black boxer Jack Johnson had defeated white boxer Jim Jeffries in the fifteenth round, in what had been deemed “The Battle of the Century”, and as one of the few black men in Times Square skirted through the shocked crowd elatedly repeating the words on the ticker—“Johnson Wins!”—the country plunged into the ugliest convulsion of widespread racial violence since the Civil War.
In New York, brawls erupted on street corners, and gangs roved the city, attacking blacks celebrating Johnson’s victory and blacks who just happened to be in their way. On the corner of 135th Street and Eighth Avenue, someone cried, “Let’s lynch the first n——r we meet,” and when a streetcar passed by, they pulled a black man off it and beat him. At a railroad work camp in Uvaldia, Georgia, a group of black men celebrated Johnson’s victory by drinking and celebrating, and three of them were shot dead. In Chicago, residents of a black neighborhood celebrated by throwing an automobile parade, with cars bearing the words “Johnson for Alderman.” One man was fatally stabbed. In Houston, a black man vociferously announced the result of the fight on a streetcar, and a white man slashed his throat from ear to ear. In Pittsburgh, in New Orleans, in Shreveport and Philadelphia and Little Rock, the story was the same:
The full extent of the casualties in the wake of Johnson’s victory is unknown. But that fight, that moment, and the repercussions of it, said author Stanley Crouch, were the spiritual equivalent of the Battle of Gettysburg, the turning point in the Civil War. It was an unquestioned convulsion, a shattering of the status quo, a metaphor for what much of white society feared would lead, ultimately, to the displacement of the white race.
The word I kept coming across, when I looked back at the clippings from those days, was “insolence.” At that work camp in Uvaldia, the newspapers wrote, the blacks had been “insolent” for days leading up to this fight; in Macon, Georgia, came a dispatch from the news wires, “the negroes have angered the whites with insolent remarks about Jeffries.”
The build-up to Johnson-Jeffries was fraught with tension: From 1901 to 1910, according to Ken Burns’ documentary Unforgivable Blackness, more than seven hundred black people had been lynched in America. A new generation of black Americans born after the Civil War were less and less willing to submit to the indignities and Jim Crow laws that defined their lives. And now here came Jack Johnson, fearless and confident and flamboyant and intelligent and entirely unwilling to conform to the expectations of white society. He drove fast cars, he dated white women, he preened in the ring, and he kept on defeating all his white challengers. For a couple of years now, a series of “Great White Hopes” had been sent in the ring to attempt to dethrone Johnson from the heavyweight title, only to be dispatched quickly and separated from both their consciousness and their teeth.
And now, with all these issues bubbling up to the surface of the national discourse, it was up to Jeffries, who had long refused to fight black challengers before coming out of retirement to attempt to defeat Johnson. On July 5, a headline on a San Francisco Chronicle dispatch by the writer Jack London deemed Jeffries’ loss a “tragedy”; so, too, did thousands of whites in American cities, who fretted that things would never be the same. In St. Louis, a black man named George Clark hummed happily along a street, having won a fourteen-dollar bet on Johnson; when he threaded his way past a white couple, bumping a woman, her husband asked “what he meant by such behavior.” According to the St. Louis Star and Times, Clark responded by punching the man in the eye. He was set upon by two hundred men, who stole his watch and his winnings, and beat him and left him for dead.
This was particularly odd, the paper said, because Clark had been known as a “white man’s n——r”; he had “been very friendly to whites in the past.”
Wrote the newspaper: “He will probably better control his enthusiasm in the future.”
In 2017, an analysis by PRRI and The Atlantic found that “white working-class voters who say they often feel like a stranger in their own land and who believe the U.S. needs protecting against foreign influence were 3.5 times more likely to favor Trump than those who did not share these concerns.”
In 2018, fifty years after the riots that engulfed American cities in the wake of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Trump—on the urging of Sylvester Stallone, a celebrity who played a boxer in a series of movies—pardoned Jack Johnson for a century-old criminal conviction that had been motivated by the racial malice engendered by his defeat of Jim Jeffries and his flamboyant lifestyle. In doing so, Trump chided Barack Obama for declining to pardon Johnson, even after he’d been urged to do so by the Congressional Black Caucus.
“But as reporters looked into Obama’s decision,” wrote Eric Herschthal in The New York Review of Books, “one thing became clear: Johnson had a history of beating women, a fact that gave Obama pause. That Trump felt no such compunction did not merely reflect his misogyny; what Trump did not seem to realize, as he was basking in his righteousness, was that he, as a white man, had a privilege Obama did not.”
Unforgivable Blackness, by Geoffrey C. Ward
Unforgivable Blackness, by Ken Burns
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