By Mark Elezaj
When you think of the boxing legends, what names usually come to your mind? Is it Ali? Leonard? Tyson? Lewis? Or Mayweather? Of course it is, these are some of the names, just to name a few, that are always mentioned in many boxing conversations. The one fighter whose name you rarely hear unless you know your boxing history, is Jack “The Galveston Giant” Johnson.
Jack Johnson was born on March 31,1878 in Galveston Texas. He was the third of nine children to Henry and Tina Johnson, two former slaves who worked blue collar jobs. His father, who Jack once stated was “The most perfect physical specimen he had ever seen” served as a civilian teamster of the Union’s 38th Colored Infantry. Johnson also states that while he grew up in the south during tough times, segregation was not an issue.
On November 1, 1898 Johnson made his boxing debut and won his first fight against Charley Brooks by second round knock out. He continued fighting and in 1903 he won his first title, The World Colored Heavyweight Championship, by beating Denver Ed Martin on points in a 20 round match. He held on to that title until it was vacated on 1908.
Johnson’s efforts to go on and win the world heavyweight title were brushed off. The World Heavyweight champion at that time, James J. Jeffries, refused to face him. At that time, African American boxers could only meet white boxers in other competitions, but the world heavyweight championship was off limits to them. Johnson did everything he could to get the fight but was unable to get Jeffries to agree.
Enter Canadian fighter Tommy Burns!
Tommy Burns was the heavyweight champion after beating Marvin Hart in a 20 round decision on February 23, 1906. He agreed to fight Johnson, after he was guaranteed $30,000, and on December 26, 1908 , Jack Johnson fought and defeated Tommy Burns via decision in the 14th round after the police stopped the fight Making Johnson the first African American heavyweight champion before 20,000 people in Sydney Australia.
Films maker Ken Burns once labeled Johnson “The most famous African American on earth..”He was loved, hated, respected and feared. As the racial tension continued to grow, white Americans were calling for a “Great White Hope” to answer their calls and come take the title away from Johnson. As the title holder, Johnson had to face fighter after of fighter, each one labeled “The great white hope.” In 1909, he beat Tony Ross, Al Kaufman, and the middleweight champion Stanley Ketchel.
In 1910, former champion James J. Jeffries came out of retirement after six years and constant begging from fight fans and promoters to fight Johnson. He was promised around $120,000 for the fight. On July 4, 1910 the “Fight Of The Century” took place and Johnson dominated him. Jeffries was dropped twice in the fight and he stated he knew it was over after round 4. After the fight, Jeffries was humbled by the loss and stated “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.”
Johnson engaged in various relationships including three marriages. All of his wives were white. At the height of his career, Johnson was excoriated by the press for his flashy lifestyle and for having married white women. Lucille Cameron, who he met in 1912 (I believe) was with him when he was arrested for violating the “Mann Act” (transporting woman across state lines for immoral purposes). The claim was he was crossing state lines with an alleged prostitute. She refused to cooperate and the case against Johnson fell apart. Less than a month later Johnson was arrested again on similar charges, this time with a woman named Belle Schreiber. She did cooperate with the authorities and testified against Johnson. He was sentenced to 1 year and a day. Johnson, having skipped bail, fled to Montreal where he met with Lucille. They both fled from Montreal to Europe, South America and Mexico before returning to the United States on July 20, 1920 and surrendering. He was sentenced and served time from September 1920- July 1921.
He continued living his life after prison, purchasing a nightclub in Harlem in 1920, which he eventually sold. On June 10, 1946 while driving upset and angry because he was refused service at a diner, he was involved in a car accident and died on U.S. Highway 1. He was 68 years old. Jack Johnson was a hero! He fought against all odds and he never allowed hate to over take his pride.
After many proposals, signatures etc. from 2008-2016, it seemed a presidential pardon was never going to happen. On April 18, 2018 President Trump said he was considering a full pardon for Jack Johnson and, on May 24, 2018, Johnson was finally pardoned. This was long overdue and well deserved.
~After The Bell~