This is the title of a 4-hour PBS documentary by Ken Burns this past Monday and Tuesday evenings. It’s the story of Jack Johnson, the first black world heavyweight boxing champion (from 1910 to 1915). Johnson was portrayed by James Earl Jones in “The Great White Hope” in 1970. Miles Davis made an album in 1970 titled “Tribute to Jack Johnson.”
This documentary depicts the political and racial climate in the United States in the early 1900s. As terrible as today’s racial injustices are, this country has presumably made some progress since then. From 1908 to 1910, Johnson was by far the best boxer anyone had ever seen. (A lot of experts thought Johnson was a far better boxer than any of the champions that came after him; that the Jack Johnson of 1910 would have trounced any of the champions from the 1930s, '40s or '50s.) However, the “color line” was firmly in place. No white boxer would fight him; this way the world champion would always be white, and Johnson could only be the best “Negro boxer.”
The racial hatred was incredible. Everywhere Johnson went – boxing matches, hotels, nightclubs – there were mobs of furious white people jeering him. He received constant death threats.
In 1910, Johnson was finally able to fight the official (white) champion, Jim Jeffries, and he won. When he became the world heavyweight champion, there were race riots all across the U.S. – white riots, that is. Scores of people were killed in these riots; mostly blacks. And this was mainly in northern cities – can’t blame the Deep South for this. (Funny, I don’t remember reading about these riots in any history textbooks.)
Newspaper editorials reflected the racial prejudices of the day. The New York Times editorial right before Jack Johnson’s fight with Jim Jeffries said “if the black man wins, thousands and thousands of his ignorant brothers will misinterpret his victory as justifying claims to much more than mere physical equality with their white neighbors.” The Chicago Tribune warned in an editorial that a win by Johnson would encourage blacks to challenge the power of whites.
Also, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court during this time was a former Ku Klux Klansman.
So, I guess we’ve made some progress…