When Jack Johnson, the First Black Heavyweight Champion, Defeated Jim Jeffries & the Footage Was Banned Around the World (1910)

“Being born Black in Amer­i­ca… we all know how that goes.…” 

                        —Miles Davis, lin­er notes for A Trib­ute to Jack John­son

When Muham­mad Ali saw James Earl Jones play a fic­tion­al­ized Jack John­son on Broad­way in Howard Sackler’s Pulitzer Prize-win­ning The Great White Hope in 1968, he report­ed­ly exclaimed, “You just change the time, date and the details and it’s about me!” In John­son’s time, how­ev­er, most white heavy­weight fight­ers flat-out refused to fight Black box­ers. Heavy­weight cham­pi­on Jim Jef­fries swore he would retire “when there were no white men left to fight.” He left the sport in 1905, refus­ing to fight John­son even after John­son had knocked his younger broth­er out in 1902 and taunt­ed him from the ring, say­ing, “I can whip you, too.”

After Jef­fries retired unde­feat­ed, the next heavy­weight world cham­pi­on, Tom­my Burns, agreed to fight John­son in 1908 and lost when police stopped the fight. Two years lat­er, lured out of retire­ment by the press and a $40,000 purse, Jef­fries final­ly agreed to fight John­son, who was then the heavy­weight cham­pi­on of the world. By that time, the bout had been framed as an exis­ten­tial racial cri­sis. John­son was “the white man’s despair” and his chal­lenger “The Great White Hope.” Jef­fries played the part, say­ing, “I am going into this fight for the sole pur­pose of prov­ing that a white man is bet­ter than a Negro.”

Nov­el­ist Jack Lon­don dreamed of a mag­i­cal sce­nario in which the full force of Euro­pean his­to­ry would inhab­it Jef­fries’ body. He “would sure­ly win” because he had “30 cen­turies of tra­di­tion behind him — all the supreme efforts, the inven­tions and the con­quests, and, whether he knows it or not, Bunker Hill and Ther­mopy­lae and Hast­ings and Agin­court.” Blus­ter and myth­mak­ing do not win box­ing match­es. Out of shape and out­classed in the ring, Jef­fries lost in 15 rounds in front of 22,000 fans on July 4, 1910, in what was known as the “Fight of the Cen­tu­ry.” John­son walked away with $117,000 and held the title for anoth­er five years.

Johnson’s vic­to­ry was a tri­umph for African Amer­i­cans, who staged parades and cel­e­bra­tions, and a pro­found defeat for “white box­ing fans who hat­ed see­ing a black man sit atop the sport,” notes a John­son biog­ra­phy. They took out their rage in “race riots” that evening, attack­ing Black peo­ple in cities around the coun­try as col­lec­tive pun­ish­ment for a per­ceived col­lec­tive humil­i­a­tion. Hun­dreds of peo­ple were injured and around 20 killed. The videos above from Vox and Black His­to­ry in Two Min­utes (fea­tur­ing Hen­ry Louis Gates Jr.) tell the sto­ry.

White box­ing fans’ rage had been build­ing since the Burns fight, Vox explains, stoked by the newest form of mass media, com­mer­cial motion pic­tures, which came of age at the same time as pro­fes­sion­al box­ing. Film reels of prize­fights cir­cu­lat­ed the coun­try at the turn of the cen­tu­ry, and pay­ing audi­ences cheered their heroes on the screen: “Box­ing, going back cen­turies, has been wrapped up in themes of iden­ti­ty and pride.” Box­ers rep­re­sent­ed their com­mu­ni­ty, their nation­al­i­ty, their race. Spec­ta­tors “imag­ined,” says Amer­i­can Uni­ver­si­ty his­to­ri­an There­sa Run­st­edtler, “that box­ers in the ring, par­tic­u­lar­ly for inter­ra­cial fights, were almost engaged in this kind of ‘Dar­win­ian strug­gle’” for dom­i­nance.

As a result of the vio­lence on July 4, author­i­ties attempt­ed to ban film of the John­son vs. Jef­fries fight, and “police were instruct­ed to break up screen­ing events.” The osten­si­ble rea­son was that the film caused “riot­ing,” as though the per­pe­tra­tors could not them­selves be held respon­si­ble, and as if the film were itself incen­di­ary. But what it showed, the Black press of the time point­ed out, was noth­ing more or less than a fair fight, some­thing Jef­fries and box­ing leg­end John L. Sul­li­van imme­di­ate­ly con­ced­ed in the press after­ward. (“I could nev­er have whipped John­son at my best,” said Jef­fries.)

In truth, “white author­i­ties were wor­ried,” says Run­st­edtler, “about the sym­bol­ic impli­ca­tions…. They wor­ried that any demon­stra­tion of Black vic­to­ry and any demon­stra­tion of white weak­ness or defeat would under­cut the nar­ra­tives of white suprema­cy, not just in the Unit­ed States,” but also in colonies abroad. The film had to be banned world­wide, but the fight to sup­press it only pushed it under­ground where it pro­lif­er­at­ed. Final­ly, in 1912, Con­gress banned the dis­tri­b­u­tion of all prize-fight films, with South­ern mem­bers of Con­gress “espe­cial­ly inter­est­ed in the pro­posed law,” it was report­ed, “because of the race feel­ing stirred up by the exhi­bi­tion of the Jef­fries-John­son mov­ing pic­tures.”

Aside from the extreme­ly frag­ile reac­tion to a box­ing film, what might strike us now about the vio­lence and the con­tro­ver­sy sur­round­ing the screen­ings is the vehe­mence of racist invec­tive among many com­men­ta­tors, who most­ly fol­lowed London’s lead in open­ly extolling white suprema­cy. This was not at all unusu­al for the time. The nar­ra­tive was woven into the fight before it began. And when the “Great White Hope” went down, he did not do so as an indi­vid­ual con­tender, stand­ing or falling on his own mer­it. The fight’s announc­er, in audio paired with the fight reel above, pro­nounced him “humil­i­at­ed, beat­en, a betray­er of his race.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:  

“Muham­mad Ali, This Is Your Life!”: Cel­e­brate Ali’s Life & Times with This Touch­ing 1978 TV Trib­ute

Muham­mad Ali Gives a Dra­mat­ic Read­ing of His Poem on the Atti­ca Prison Upris­ing

Ernest Hemingway’s Delu­sion­al Adven­tures in Box­ing: “My Writ­ing is Noth­ing, My Box­ing is Every­thing.”

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • CaptainC says:

    Jef­fries was stu­pid to come out of retire­ment after five years. He had to lose over 100 pounds in weight to get down to around 200 in order to fight. In con­trast John­son was in his prime. He looks like a fine­ly-sculpt­ed black mar­ble stat­ue. Jef­fries should nev­er have bowed to the white suprema­cy fac­tion. Hav­ing said that, John­son was not above fan­ning the flames. He sub­se­quent­ly refused to fight black box­ers claim­ing peo­ple would not pay just to see two black men in the ring.

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