Johnson, Jack (1878–1946)

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Jack Johnson (1878–1946)

Jack Johnson, a free-living, highly individualistic heavyweight boxing champion, was a black man who came of age and came to fame at a time when African Americans faced severe discrimination in American culture. When Johnson earned his boxing title in 1908, African Americans faced many forms of racial bias. They were consigned to the back of the bus. They were limited to attending inferior schools and working at menial jobs. They were regularly denied their right to vote. If a black man were considered to be "uppity," he might find himself hanging from a tree, lynched by a white mob. In comparison, here was Jack Johnson, no lowly field worker or janitor but the heavyweight champion of the world. Furthermore, Johnson showed no humility as he savored his fame. He drove expensive cars, tossed extravagant parties, and broke the ultimate social taboo for a black man at that time by dating white women.

Johnson went on to defeat white opponent after white opponent. One of his most famous bouts, in 1910, came against former champ James J. Jeffries (1875–1953). Their fight was advertised as a battle between "The Hope of the White Race vs. The Deliverer of the Negroes." Much to the shock of white America, Johnson pummeled the aging, overweight Jeffries.

No "Great White Hope" boxer could stop Johnson in the ring, and so the federal government stepped in. In 1912, he was convicted of violating the Mann Act, which prohibited the transportation of women across state lines for "immoral purposes." Johnson fled the country, lost his title to a six-foot, six-inch hulk named Jess Willard (1883–1968), and eventually faded into obscurity. But his athletic prowess, and his status as a black champion in a white-dominated world, can never be denied.

—Rob Edelman

For More Information

Fradella, Sal. Jack Johnson. Boston: Branden Publishing Co., 1990.

Jakoubek, Robert E. Jack Johnson. New York: Chelsea House, 1990.

Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. "Jack (John Arthur) Johnson (1876–1946)." Harlem, 1900–1940. (accessed January 9, 2002).

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Johnson, Jack (1878–1946)

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