Celebrating Jack Johnson on July 4th
Jack Johnson, against all odds, became a legend–and his victory should be celebrated on July 4th, for it is a great moment in American history. History and fate join my family story into the legendary life of Jack Johnson, the first African-American Heavyweight Champion of the World. Johnson claimed his victory on July 4, 1910 after knocking out James J. Jeffries, the heavyweight champion of the time–and the White contender who represented the supremacy of his race.
In this essay, I combine historical information about Jack Johnson with the stories passed down about my grandfather, Robert “Bud” Ford. The purpose of this is to examine how society viewed and treated Black men at the turn of the century, and what a larger than life hero meant for so many who had been segregated and beaten down for all of their lives–and those of their forefathers before them. By putting Johnson’s story within the narrative of my own family stories, I hope to better understand what his triumphs and struggles meant not only on a personal level but for American society as a whole.
In my family’s lore, 1910 will be remembered as the year Grandpa Bud was born. My great-grandmother, Big Momma had only know the life of share cropping when her first child, Robert (also called “Bud” and “Spicey”) was born. The sun rose and lowered over fields of cotton, small shadowed figures stooped beneath the horizon, their lives followed the path of the sun–to the fields and back. Big Momma was the only child of Sarah Jane Martin and Simon Robbins, both who died or disappeared in her youth. Big Momma would be sheltered among various relatives who live among the wooded culverts and sparse fields of Summerfield, Valley Creek and Pleasant Hill. Big Momma was a proud woman who learned independence early in life. She had her first child, my grandfather, at a young age and raised him among a familiar circle of relatives after her husband disappeared. Disappearance was a way of life between the migratory patterns of farming. the threats of violence against Blacks, the burden of debt and poverty created by sharecropping and the hope for something better that fluctuated between leaving and coming back–or not being seen again.
Generations of my family, from Big Momma to the first Africans that set foot in Alabama, had worked the fields of Dallas County, never to be acknowledged as a cornerstone of labor, faith and sacrifice upon which this nation was established. In truth, our history goes beyond the fields of cotton, in which families had their own love, loss and drama recalled through family stories and tall tales, song and through the lives of heroes.
Born in 1910, Grandpa Bud was an intelligent man with the spirit of a fighter–he succumbed to the struggle, and both his intelligence and spirit would prove to be weapons of his own demise. There were many men like Jack Johnson and Grandpa Bud in American history–Black men who were spit upon from birth, refused opportunities to succeed, and experiencing a struggle that had enveloped the generations before them in poverty, violence and social inequality. The fight to overcome the immense challenges faced was a dangerous walk between being and outlaw and being a survivor. Or being killed for even trying, or daring to hope for something better.
Jack Johnson was born in Galveston Texas on March 31, 1878 to Henry and Tiny Johnson, former slaves. Johnson was the second of six children born into the Johnson family. Jack Johnson left school in the fifth grade to work odd jobs and found his way into the highly controversial, often illegal boxing circuit. Early boxing matches often pitted Blacks against each other in free-for-all fights known as “battle royals”, where only the strongest was left standing. Whites then tossed coins to the winner. Johnson got his start in these bloody battles and would later refuse to fight Blacks to fought for titles against White boxers, who held not only a title but gained social status and larger financial rewards with their win. Johnson was a giant of a man known for his imposing size, his dark skin (he was often called derogatory names such as “pygymy”, “coon” and “Ethiopian”) and his predatory style of boxing. Johnson’s style of boxing was deceptive in that he often entertained his audience while simultaneously punishing and taunting his opponent. In many ways, it was as if Johnson was mimicking and then knocking out the ministrel shows popular at the time. Entertainment was familiar to Johnson, when not boxing, he performed in vaudeville shows. Johnson was known to smile, joke and fake injury before landing a hard jab or knocking the teeth out of an opponent. Johnson was also reknown for his aggressive, even arrogant, defiance of Jim Crow laws and the prevalent grip of racism. Johnson was a self-educated man who lived life on his own terms. Johnson did not play into the accepted role for Black men to be an entertaining fool or to be an emasculated, non-threatening figure.
Johnson also went beyond the ideals of popular Civil Rights activists. Johnson provoked society as a whole by desegregating the boxing ring, marrying and carrying on affairs with White women and displaying himself publicly in ways that offended social norms (whose rules were often defined by racist ideology).
In the most celebrated and contested victory of his career, Jack Johnson faced “The Great White Hope”, James J. Jeffries, in a battle for the World Heavyweight Title. After Johnson had thoroughly pounded champion Tommy Burns in 1908 in Australia, then flaunted his win, a “Great White Hope” was sought to defeat Johnson. It was believed that the reputation and supremacy of the White race was at stake–and Johnson represented a very real threat with his popularity, wealth and attraction to White women. Many fighters came forward to battle Johnson, all were soundly defeated. James J. Jeffries, a former champion, came out of retirement to fight Johnson after it appeared that no one else could stand against Johnson. Jeffries originally refused to fight Johnson because he was Black but was persuaded to return to the ring, after six years of retirement, because it was believed Jeffries was the only one who could redeem the White race. The fight was so controversial that it was banned from its original location in California by an act of the governor and had to be moved to Reno, Nevada.
Johnson faced Jeffries with his signature smile and throughout 15 rounds joked, danced and talked to the crowd. In the 15th round, Jeffries was pulled from the ring before Johnson could knock him out. Johson was declared the winner, against Jeffires who entered the fight solely to prove, “…that a white man is better than a Negro.” Johnson would return to his home in Chicago, by train, on July 7, 1910 a hero. By then, race riots broke out across America, hundreds of Blacks were killed and injured as racist Whites sought revenge. Film footage of the Johnson-Jeffries fight was banned from the public to avoid further rioting. During his boxing career, from 1897 to 1928, Johnson had 114 bouts, winning 80, 45 by knockouts.
Johnson lived by his own ideals, he was led by his passions and fought for what he believed in. Johnson was flamboyant and arrogant, speeding down the street in racing cars, capping his front teeth with gold and openly flaunting his White wives and mistresses. Johnson’s relationships with White women would draw scorn from Whites, who demanded revenge (death threats also were common). After a lengthy FBI investigation, in which Johnson was interrogated and put on surveillance, he was charged for violating the Mann Act (transporting women across state lines for prostitution)–a racially motivated charge. In 1913, Johnson would be sentenced to a year in federal prison for marrying a White woman–accused of being a “white slaver”. Johnson would live as a fugitive for seven years to avoid prison, and return to the US in 1920 to surrender while simultaneously receiving a hero’s welcome. While in Leavenworth prison, Johnson was appointed athletic director and helped stage fights. Johnson was popular in prison and largely did as he pleased, and ignored the rules that typically applied to prisoners. Johnson was a jack of all trades, when not boxing he owned and operated several nightclubs, gave lectures, sold stocks, wrote two memoirs, patented a wrench and worked in the movie industry. Johnson was inducted into the Boxing Hall of Fame in 1954. Johnson’s life was the basis for the 1970 movie, “The Great White Hope”, starring James Earl Jones.
Johnson died in 1946 in a car crash, thousands attended his funeral and celebrated his life. He is buried at Graceland Cemetary in Chicago. Grandpa Bud died in 1959. His grave lies hidden among the weeds and underbrush in a segregated cemetery in Valley Creek, all that is recalled of where he is buried is that a red flower was once placed on his headstone.
Johnson is a champion but also a man with flaws, both aspects which so strongly resonate with the stories I have heard in my own family. That Jack Johnson, as controversial and contrary as he once was, survived several attempts on his life, incarceration, public outcry and personal struggle is a miracle. Johnson’s win on July 4, 1910 should be commerated as a victory for all those who dared to rise above the limitations society had unjustly set. What Johnson won is more than a Heavyweight Title but represents the core spirit, the fundamental values that America was built on–to fight the good fight, to challenge oppression and to inspire vision and courage in the next generation so that they will become our leaders, our heroes.
In Our Hearts: July 4, 2008.
A Pardon for Jack Johnson?
Jack Johnson, The Galveston Giant…“Master of Ring Science”. by Monte D. Cox
“Johnson boxed, lived on his own terms.” by Ron Flatter, Special to ESPN.com
Sermon in Church by Jack Johnson (NY Times):
Unforgiveable Blackness a film directed by Ken Burns (PBS)
I have seen this documentary and highly recommend it.
Entry filed under: Crazy Quilt: Writings & Reflections. Tags: 4th of July, african american, alabama genealogy, American History, Boxing, dallas county alabama, Ford/Fort, genealogy, Heavyweight Champion, Jack Johnson.