Follow the Soapbox
Mickey Z.
World News Trust/SPN
April 27, 2015

While the Society of the Spectacle gears up for the “biggest fight of all time,” featuring renowned domestic abuser and misogynist, Floyd “Money” Mayweather, I’d like to remind folks of a truly important boxing match that took place on July 4, 1910. It featured black heavyweight champion Jack Johnson and white former champ, Jim Jeffries.

No one left to fight…
Jack Johnson was the greatest boxer of his era and one of the most powerful counter-punchers ever to put on a pair of gloves, thus, working his way up the ranks of contenders was the easy part. The real challenge was getting white champions to work up the nerve to fight him. 

Jeffries retired without even giving Johnson a chance. This merely fueled Johnson’s mission as he demolished all comers until there was no one else left to fight except Jeffries’ white successor, Tommy Burns.

Burns finally agreed when he was guaranteed $30,000 to fight Johnson on Dec. 26, 1908, but the champ was no match for the challenger. Referee Hugh McIntosh stepped in to stop the bout in the 14th round before the world could witness a black man sending a white champion to the canvas. 

Thirty-nine years before Jackie Robinson donned a Brooklyn Dodgers uniform, Jack Johnson became the first black man to hold the world heavyweight championship.

Johnson reigned as a proud and outspoken champion -- unafraid to make his mark in an openly racist society. He possessed what W.E.B. DuBois called an “unforgivable blackness.” In fact, it was Johnson’s public image and “defiant” nature that finally lured Jeffries out of retirement. The former champ said, “I am going into this fight for the sole purpose of proving that a white man is better than a Negro.”

More than 22,000 fans came to Reno, Nevada on July 4, 1910, to witness what they hoped would be redemption.

Great White Hope
“At stake was more than prize money,” writes John Wight at Counterpunch. “At stake was racial pride in an age when blacks in America were being lynched on a regular basis in the South and in the North were regarded as second-class citizens.”

Jeffries was labeled the “Great White Hope” by alleged socialist, Jack London, and during the pre-fight hype, “racism flowed like a river of sewage,” say Wight. None of this could slow Johnson as he pummeled the white fighter for 15 rounds before knocking him out.

“Johnson was faster, stronger and smarter than Jeffries, knocking him out with ease,” says radical sportswriter Dave Zirin. After the fight, Jeffries admitted, “I could never have whipped Johnson at my best. I couldn’t have hit him. No, I couldn’t have reached him in 1,000 years.”

Jeffries’ honesty aside, the image of a white hero being humiliated by a superior black athlete was more than 1910 America would tolerate. “After Johnson’s victory, there were race riots around the country -- in Illinois, Missouri, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Colorado, Texas and Washington, D.C.,” adds Zirin. “Most of the riots consisted of white lynch mobs attempting to enter black neighborhoods, and blacks fighting back.”

By the time the riots and racial attacks had stopped, 151 African Americans were dead.

Black Lives Matter
If Johnson could not be defeated in the ring, the powers-that-be had to devise another method. Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the future commissioner of baseball, charged Johnson with taking his white girlfriend, Lucy Cameron, across state lines for purported “immoral purposes,” a violation of the Mann white slavery act. 

The champ was convicted, jumped bail, and spent seven years in exile. He eventually surrendered to federal authorities in 1920 and remained in prison until July 9, 1921. Johnson did continue fighting after his release and retired with a record of 79-8 with 46 knockouts, 12 draws and 14 no-decisions. 

Jack Johnson would go on to become a charter member of the Boxing Hall of Fame but more importantly, he inspired future generations to raise their fists and fight back.

Mickey Z. is the author of 12 books, most recently Occupy this Book: Mickey Z. on Activism. Until the laws are changed or the power runs out, he can be found on the Web here and here. Anyone wishing to support his activist efforts can do so by making a donation here.

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