By: Marc H. Morial
President and CEO
National Urban League
The title of Ken Burns’ powerful documentary about the early twentieth-century African-American boxer, Jack Johnson, which is airing now on the Public Broadcasting Service network, is “Unforgivable Blackness.”
But, as I watched it, I thought a title equally appropriate to describe this extraordinary individual would be “Unbelievable Blackness.”
Born into dire poverty, the son of hard-working, achievement-oriented ex-slaves, Johnson rose against the seemingly insurmountable barriers of the pervasive, fierce racism of the day to capture an exalted symbol of the sports world—and of White Supremacy: the world heavyweight boxing championship.
And he did it by fighting and defeating three of the greatest white champions of that era with unbelievable ease.
As I watched Burns’ depiction of the championship fight between Johnson and the world champion, Jim Jeffries—which was held very deliberately on July 4, 1910 in Reno, Nevada, with much of America hanging on telegraphed reports from the stadium—a vivid thought sprang into my mind.
Why was Jack Johnson allowed to fight for the championship?
After all, White America had long adamantly declared that blacks should never be allowed to seek boxing championships, especially the heavyweight title. Johnson, outboxing every white heavyweight pugilist in sight, had been pursuing a championship bout for years. But there was, seemingly, no chance of his ever reaching his goal.
That he did is the more astonishing considering that his was an era when black Americans were marooned in a vast sea of hostility: the Supreme Court in the 1896 Plessy decision had effectively stripped them of their civil rights; lynchings and other violent crimes against blacks had reached epidemic levels in the South and some states in the North; and everywhere in the U.S. blacks were routinely and profoundly disregarded as American citizens and human beings.
So, why did Jack Johnson get the championship bout he was seeking?
Because, I’m convinced, even as White Majority America hated Jack Johnson for his unforgivable blackness, they were mesmerized by him, too.
They were mesmerized by his unbelievable boxing skill, which enabled him to toy with the most skilled white boxers in the ring while simultaneously blithely parrying the racist jibes of spectators.
Most of all, they were mesmerized by Johnson’s charm and sophistication and absolute self-confidence whether in or out of the ring.
In the America of that era, no black person was supposed to be like this or act like this; and Johnson’s frank and often-declared insistence that he was his own man and would not be bound by racist restrictions was astonishing to hear and see.
This attitude, and his ability to carry it off, gave him an enormous, albeit deeply hidden, appeal to white men, whom the dynamics of industrialization and urbanization had penned up in factories and office buildings and cities—leaving them fewer and fewer ways to live according to time-honored notions of manhood.
Of course, his uniqueness “protected” Johnson only up to a point—the point when he actually won the title.
From then on, as Burns shows, he was persecuted by no less than the Justice Department for his “unforgivable” relationships with white women until he was falsely charged and convicted of luring white women into prostitution, and stripped of his title.
It is justice long overdue that now President Bush should quickly agree to the bipartisan petition of Republican Senator John McCain, Democratic Senator Edward M. Kennedy and a host of others to reverse this governmental wrong and posthumously pardon boxing’s greatest champion.
Johnson endured hard times for a number of years after that. But he never for long lost his irrepressible spirit. He lived a full life before dying in an automobile crash in 1946 at age 68.
Jack Johnson did not see himself as a “race man,” the term used then to describe what we would call a civil rights activist or a black nationalist (and he was not without flaws, including at least two instances of physically abusing women who loved him).
But, looked at in the larger context, his flamboyant refusal to knuckle under, if one can use that phrase, to white racist beliefs must be seen as just a more extravagant expression of the fire that burned in many Black Americans in that era.
It was there in W.E.B. Du Bois, the scholar-activist who coined the term “unforgivable blackness” in an essay on Johnson. It was there in Ida B. Wells-Barnett, a crusading journalist and activist; and Madame C.J. Walker, a socially-conscious entrepreneur who became the first black woman millionaire. And it was there in the millions of black migrants who would flee the South, as Jack Johnson had fled Galveston, Texas, during the century’s early and middle decades.
What all these people had in common was the determination to live their lives as they, not whites, saw fit.
In that regard, then, Jack Johnson’s unbelievable blackness did, in one of the most racially benighted periods of American history, provoke a meeting of the minds across the color line: Blacks with overt enthusiasm, and whites, by their own behavior, revealed they saw in him an authentic American hero.
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