This Day. Jack Johnson demolishes Jim Jeffries and the racist myth of the ‘Great White Hope’

Jack Johnson | United States Library of Congress


On July 3, 1910 one century ago this day in Reno, Nevada, African-American boxer Jack Johnson knocked out the white supremacist Jim Jeffries, triggering a series of racist attacks across the United States; about 20 Blacks died, and hundreds were injured. Johnson holds a seminal position not only in boxing but also in athletics and in the movement for the rights of all.

Arthur John Johnson (1878-1946) better known as Jack Johnson and nicknamed “The Giant of Galveston” was an American boxer and probably the best heavyweight of his generation. He had the honour of being the first Black to become World Heavyweight Champion (1908-1915) and, according to the International Boxing Research Organization (IBRO), was one of the ten best heavyweights in history.

Jack Johnson was born in Texas as the second son of Henry and Tina “Tiny” Johnson, Methodists and slaves – one of seven children. They were all taught to read and write. Jack Johnson had six years of formal education. Later he was kicked out of the church when he publicly established that God did not exist and that the church was a domination to suck the life out of the people.

Unlike most prizefighters, he became fairly well read and acquired considerable culture in his contact with leaders of art, science, politics, and industry over the course of his storied life. King Edward VII spent an hour chatting with him. Among other European rulers who invited him to their palaces were Franz Joseph II, Alphonso XIII, and Poincaré. Johnson was fond of classical music and played the bass viol. In October, 1936, he took the role of Rhadames, the Ethiopian general, in a Chicago Grand Opera Company production of Aida. 

Sports race

At the age of 15, Johnson fought his first battle, with a round 16 victory. He turned pro around 1897, fighting in private clubs and making more money than he had ever seen.

Johnson’s first official fight showed his distinctive style. He had developed a more patient and tactical attitude of approaching his opponent, waiting for errors and then using them to his advantage. The style acquired by Johnson was quite effective, but was criticized by the press as a coward. In contrast, Jim Corbett, who was white, used similar techniques a few decades earlier, and was called “A Smart Boxer.”

In 1902, Johnson had won at least 50 fights against both white and black rivals. Johnson won his first title on February 3, 1903, defeating “Denver” Ed Martin in a 20-round bout for the World Heavyweight Title for Color boxers. His efforts to clinch the all-time title were in vain, as champion JamesJeffries refused to fight him. Blacks and whites could fight together in other competitions, but not for the world title. However, Johnson managed to fight former champion Bob Fitzsimmons in July 1907, and knocked him out in just two rounds. Johnson says:

“It was not the fights but the fight to get those fights that proved the hardest part of the struggle. It was my color. They told me to get a ‘rep,’ but how was I to get a ‘rep’ without meeting fighters in my class? But I made them fight me. I just kept plugging along, camping on their trails, and then taking what chances I could grab, until by and by the top-notchers saw that, sooner or later, they would have to take me on. As soon as I had shown what I could do, the fight public, most of the fans anyway, took sides with me and that helped a lot.”

The search for the ‘Great White Hope’

Cover story of a December 8, 1997 issue of Sports Illustrated.

Johnson’s denial of a title shot extended beyond the ring. It represents the essence of racism and chauvinism in American sport and set the stage for future portrayals of Blacks, Latinos and Amerindians by the monopoly media, Hollywood and the sports cartels for the next century. The negative stereotypes of athletes codified during Johnson’s time from these minority backgrounds was worthy of D. W. Griffiths’ notorious film The Birth of a Nation released just a few years later in autumn 1915, the glamorization of the Ku Klux Klan, the Berlin Olympics of the Hitlerites, the Roman Circus of the slave owners, including the disposable entertainment by the monopoly sports cartels today.

Despite the fact that since 1947 tens of millions of sports fans have cheered for African-American athletes, in the recent period both basketballer Larry Bird (versus Magic Johnson) and baseballer Mark DMcGwire (versus Sammy Sosa) were portrayed as the “Great White Hope” in the NBA and MLB respectively. In 1996 the Hollywood movie The Great White Hype, a so-called comedy, features a powerful promoter (Don King in everything but name) who admits “I need a white heavyweight contender worse than White America needs one. . . if there isn’t a white guy out there, I am going to create one.” As discussed by Andrew Lindsay in  his book Boxing in Black and White: A Statistical Study of Race in the Ring, 1949-1983, “If such a movie could be made in 1996, it is small wonder that so many boxing insiders claim with such conviction that a great white hope is a diamond in boxing’s rough.”

In parallel, the fascist, pseudo-scientific and racist narrative of Black genetic athletic supremacy has been accorded near official status in academia and such sports media as Sports Illustrated. It was exposed by Joshua Brisson on the amateursport website here.

Johnson however was not at all cowed. He fought both the physical and institutional opponent with a remarkable courage, resilience and audacity.

The chase and humiliation of Canadian champion Tommy Burns

Finally, Jeffries retired and gave the title to Marvin Hart, who in 1905 had had a decision over Johnson in a twenty-round bout at San Francisco. Hart, too, ducked Johnson until he lost his title to Canadian champion Tommy Bums, who also avoided Johnson as if he were the plague – to the great disgust of true sportsmen the world over, including Edward VII of England, who called Burns a “Yankee Bluffer,” and did all he could to bring the two together.

Johnson, eager for the match, made every possible concession to Burns in vain. For the next two years he pursued Burns around the world. “I virtually had to mow my way to Burns,” he said. Finally, he caught up with him in Australia, where although Burns was taunted by the natives, he refused to fight. Johnson, his savings gone, was worrying how to get back to America when Lady Luck came his way in an extraordinary manner. He was at the races, and while greeting some friends, his bookie, taking a wave of his hand as a signal to place a bet on a horse on which Johnson had won the day before, did so. Result: Johnson won $15,000. Back in America, he defeated Bob Fitzsimmons, former heavyweight champion, following it up with victories over the next three most prominent of his class.

Eventually on December 6, 1908, he won the title of World Heavyweight Champion, when he fought the Canadian champion in Australia, after provoking the press for a fight. Burns, who under great pressure from fight fans the world over, finally agreed to meet him. But Burns’ terms were the most extraordinary ever known in the history of boxing. He insisted, for instance, that his manager, McIntosh, should be referee. Of the $35,000 purse, he demanded $30,000. The two met at Rushcutter’s Bay, Sydney, Australia, December 26, 1906, in a twenty-round bout.

When they met in the ring, it immediately was seen that it was not to be a battle of fists alone. Considerable ill-will had developed between the two over the years and it now exploded into a verbal battle. And this amused the spectators vastly. Burns was “the king of sharp-tongued pugilists” while Johnson was a master at good-natured joshing. In this wordy warfare Johnson had far the better of it and soon had most of those who favoured Burns because he was white laughing. From the first round of the fight with fists it became clear, too, that Burns hadn’t the ghost of a show. Johnson simply played with him, hitting him at will, while entertaining the crowd with jokes. Pointing to a spot on Burns’ anatomy, he would say, “Look, Tommy, I’m going to hit you right there.” And he would. Wishing to punish Burns and also to enjoy the laughter of the crowd, he allowed the fight to drag on until, in the fourteenth round, the police stopped the fight. The title was given to Johnson by decision of a referee as a technical knockout. The plucky stowaway, roustabout, and longshoreman was champion at last! What’s more, he was really and truly a world champion. The logic of the racists can be reduced to this: since humanity is composed of many colours and since the earlier champions such as Sullivan, Corbett, and Jeffries had refused to fight other than white men, they had, in all logic, been champion of so-called whites only.

As is always the case, the key question is who benefits from acceptance of the claims of the manufactured Great White Hope phenomena that were being made. The exploiters of African-American labour thought that as a consequence of his victory Blacks would become “restless.” “Even in the highest social, religious, and educational circles the defeat was taken to heart by many. On the other hand, the true American sportsmen, even those who had no relish for a black ‘idol,’ were resigned, feeling that the better man had won.”

The targeting of Johnson became a media phenomenon. After his victory,  the American media and promoters fuelled hatred of him for his colour, his arrogance, and his private life – his relationships with white women. Johnson lived with the ceaseless pressure of death threats. In an interview his biographer, award-winning author and screenwriter  Geoffrey C. Ward, recalled:

I tried hard to portray both Johnson and his world as they were, not as we might wish they’d been. Johnson never saw himself as a proto-anything. All his life, blacks and whites alike, would ask him, “Just who do you think you are?” His answer was always “Jack Johnson.” He never thought he needed to be anything more than that – and he refused ever to settle for being less….

The whole book represents my best effort to answer that question. He was many things – intelligent and egocentric, generous and grasping, heroically unfaithful outside the ring and supremely skilled within it. But most of all, I think, he was audacious. Every time he entered the ring against a white opponent or strolled down State Street in Chicago with a white woman on his arm he literally risked his life and never seemed to care. He was a “pureblooded American” he insisted, and therefore saw no need to deny himself anything available to other Americans. In turn of the century America, when an African-American could be lynched for failing to give over the sidewalk to a white man, that was the definition of audacity. How he got that way remains the central mystery of his life.

The vilification the media created is hard to overestimate. The press, which was profiting from this persecution, often caricatured him like an ape – and demanded the title be returned it to where it supposedly belonged, at the hands of a white man. The racial animosity grew so fast that even socialist writer Jack London called for a White Hope, to take his place in the title. A search was conducted by social leaders, ministers of the gospel, and college professors, as seriously as if so-called American civilization, its science, poetry, art, everything, depended upon a bruiser of one colour beating a bruiser of another colour. Many were the white boxers who tried to become that Great White Hope, but all failed, including former world champion James J. Jeffries, who had refused to fight him for years.

“Mr. Jeff,” he said kindly, “you fought a square fight. I hope you have no hard feelings”

Nicknamed “The Coppersmith” or “The Great White Hope,” James Jackson Jeffries (born April 15, 1875 in Carroll, Ohio – died March 3, 1953 in Burbank, California) was a world heavyweight champion of boxing and, according to the IBRO, one of the 10 best heavyweights in history. He had won 22 championship fights, and the white chauvinists, incited by the press, looked to him to save civilization. Jeffries was dubbed “Undefeated Champion of the World,” depicted as “heroic” and represented as the saviour of all that was good, holy, and pure about America.The impact was not lost on Jeffries who had resisted coming out of retirement; he had personally seen Johnson demolish his older brother just four years earlier, as he famously predicted in a written message left with the promotor just before the fight. “Don’t open until the Fifth Round,” it stated. When the promoter opened it and then looked up, Jeffries was on the canvas, as Johnson had promised in the message. H then turned to James Jeffries and declared, “you’re next.”

Finally he returned to the ring charged with this unique mission. In 1910 in Reno, Nevada Johnson faced the former champion who had been pulled out of retirement to try to defeat him.

James L Jeffries – “As befitting his role, he wore American flags on his purple trunks” | United States Library of Congress

An article on takes up the story:

The two champions met at Reno, Nevada, on July 4, 1910, for a bout of forty-five rounds and a purse of $101,000, the largest then in the history of the ring. Spectators came from all parts of the world – China, Japan, Australia, India, South Africa, and South America. The racial angle of the bout had been played up until it seemed that racial supremacy in the world was at stake. When the boxers entered the ring the reception given each was vastly different. Jeffries was given a tremendous ovation; Johnson, a roar of catcalls and boos. The crowd had come to see “the nigger get licked,” and believing and hoping that Johnson was trembling at the sight of his formidable white opponent, yelled such epithets as “Cold Feet Johnson… Yellow… Now you’ll get it, you big black coward!”

Jeffries was the favourite at 10 to 4, with plenty of money at 2 to 1. One oilman placed $35,000 on him. Johnson, calm displayed his famous golden smile and bowed politely to the hostile crowd. The New York Times said of him, “Surrounded by a crowd among whom he had but few friends, he was as courteous as he was brave.” Both men were in splendid condition. Jeffries was taller than Johnson and outsized him in all save biceps and forearm measurements. He looked flawless. Every muscle was rugged and taut; legs sturdy; chest, vast and hairy ­– a veritable Hercules. As befitting his role, he wore American flags on his purple trunks. Johnson weighed 218 pounds and was three years younger. His beautifully tapering body would have thrilled the most esthetic sculptor of ancient Greece or Rome.

Addressing the crowd, Jeffries announced, “This fellow has bothered me for a year and made me work like a dog. I’m going to give him the licking of his life.” To this Johnson jovially replied, “I’m going to tire Mr. Jeffries and then I’ll get him.”

The outcome was apparent in the very first round. Johnson strutted about good-naturedly, toying with Jeffries like a cat, which lets a mouse get near its hole and then stops it just before it can reach it. At times, he deliberately offered his unguarded chin to Jeffries, meanwhile beaming at the audience, and joking with the reporters and telling them what to write over Jeffries’ shoulders. In fact, the fight on which the world had hung so breathlessly for months was a farce. When, during one of the clinches, Jeffries hung onto him more desperately than ever, Johnson laughed, “Oh, Mr. Jeff, don’t love me so.”

In the eighth round Johnson announced, “I’ve got your measure, Mr. Jeff, and can put you down whenever I want to.”

By this time Jeffries was a pitiable sight. What had been his fight eye looked like a blue slit in a mess of puffed flesh; his left was swollen to almost twice its size. His nose was cracked, blood trickled down from his mouth, and he spat out gobs of blood. Johnson was almost untouched. The only blood on him came from his opponent. Johnson permitted the fight to drag on, and Jeffries, with the blind instinct of a fighting animal, kept gamely on while the crowd pleaded with Johnson not to hit him anymore.

The end came in the fifteenth round. It was swift and terrible. Johnson, springing like a panther at Jeffries, rained blows on his battered face and Jeffries fell like a log. A vast roar of rage and disappointment went up from the crowd.

When Jeffries was brought too, Johnson went over to him. “Mr. Jeff,” he said kindly, “you fought a square fight. I hope you have no hard feelings.”

“No,” said Jeffries, “but I ought to have got you.”

Then remembering how he had been dragged into this fight, he said to the reporters. “Save me from my friends.” Later he declared that making the fight a racial issue had unnerved him from the start and that he had entered the ring unfit.

Several experts held otherwise, however. They insisted that Johnson would have defeated Jeffries even at his best. William Muldoon, the celebrated trainer, said, “I believe he could have whipped Jeffries at any time during his professional career. The white man had plenty of strength up to the very, finish. Therefore, I should say there is no excuse to be made. The best man won.”

U.S. state-organized persecution

What could not be achieved in the ring, was attempted to be achieved outside. After his second white marriage, anti-miscegenation laws were introduced into the legislature of almost every one of the states still without them, including so-called enlightened Wisconsin and Minnesota. Johnson was often in the courts, too, for speeding. The incidents in which he became involved were given nationwide publicity, always in an unfriendly way. In 1913 he was charged with dubious evidence of breaking the notorious Mann Act or the White-Slave Traffic Act of 1910 for driving a woman beyond the state border with immoral intent. Johnson’s affairs with her had taken place before the passage of the Mann Act, but to satisfy the desire for racial vengeance by the forces of law and order, which included the mob, the law was made retroactive and Johnson was sentenced to the maximum – a year and a day in prison and $1000 fine.

This unjust sentence was late reversed by an appellate court but Johnson, while waiting for the decision, had fled the country. He said that he was so harassed by the shadowing of the federal agents and the way they were bothering his aged mother that, bitter at his whole treatment in America, he decided to leave it for good. He went to Canada and took ship to Europe, forfeiting his $15,000 bail. Innocent before, he had now really broken the law. He was a fugitive from “justice.”

He was in Europe for five years where he defended his title several times. When he arrived at Le Havre, France, and saw policemen lining the pier, he thought they were there to arrest him. But it was only to keep back the crowd, eager to see him.  Everywhere in Europe he was treated like an uncrowned king. In Paris, Brussels, Berlin, Vienna, Budapest, St. Petersburg, Madrid, Rome, and London the crowds stormed his automobile for handshakes and autographs.

The North American boxer Jack Johnson at the landing stage of Buenos Aires, Argentina for his fight with U.S. boxer Jack Murray: Victoria (KO) result on December 15, 1914 |General Archive of the Argentine Nation 1914 Inventory 356459

In 1915 he lost the title to the American Jess Willard, who knocked him out in what was surely a shameless “Tongo” (He was said to have agreed to lose in exchange for being allowed to enter the United States to see his mother who was on her death bed). The fight was in Cuba and Johnson fell in round 26 of a 45-round fight. Once Johnson lost his title to Willard, 22 years would go by before another black boxer, Joe Louis, got a shot at the heavyweight title.

Sending his wife home, he returned to London and then went to Spain where he gave boxing exhibitions. Then for lack of suitable fighters he took up bullfighting and succeeded so well that he had several offers to be a professional matador. At his first bullfight in Barcelona he killed three bulls.

Soon after, he returned to the United States to serve his sentence. The desire to see his mother and the fact that he was an exile away from his real friends finally, decided him to return. He was given a year at hard labour at Leavenworth where the warden of the prison turned out to be ex-Governor Dickerson of Nevada, who had made his fight with Jeffries possible. Dickerson, he said, had determined that he should have a fair chance in the fight with Jeffries and now proved to be his staunch friend and adviser. He was made physical director of the prison, had two bouts with the best fighters there, which he won, and was released at the end of eight months for his exemplary behaviour.

Retiring from the ring, Johnson opened a boxing academy, but returned in 1926 to knock out Pat Lester. a white aspirant for the heavyweight championship. In October 1931, at the age of fifty-three, he fought Jim Johnson, many years his junior and won the fight with a broken arm.

Johnson’s fame increased with the years. An estimate of him, based on what the leading sports writers have said, credits him with the artistry of Peter Jackson, the scientific skill of Corbett, the rugged, hitting power of John L. Sullivan, the toughness of Fitzsimmons, and, when necessary, the ferocity of Jeffries.

In 1927 The Ring, a popular boxing magazine, nominated him “the greatest heavyweight boxer of all time.” He defeated all the leading heavyweights and near heavyweights of his time, black and white, such as Langford. McVey, Jeannette, Monroe.

Tad, a veteran sportswriter, said:

Johnson’s knowledge of boxing, along with his great strength and hitting power, made him almost invincible.
It was his easy-going manner in the ring that fooled many. He smiled and kidded in the clinches and many thought he was careless, but all the time he held his opponent safe knew every move the other made and was at all times the boss of the job. Johnson was the greatest boxer of all times.

Damon Runyon, another noted sportswriter said:

Johnson could take fellows larger than himself and bounce them around the ring like pins at his own peculiar pleasure, chatting jovially with the crowd as he did so. He had a knack of catching punches as an outfielder catches the ball. He reached out and grabbed most of them before they got started.

Georges Carpentier, French heavyweight champion, said:

He was the shiftiest and in a defence game the cleverest, most cunning fighter I have ever seen. And he found it possible to do his fighting all the while he chatted and prattled. He was conceited, but his conceit had at least some humour in it. With a weakness for the employment of words of an uncommon length, and as chief of the Malaprops, he always seemed to be most concerned in making some new and particularly vitriolic taunt. Perhaps it would not be suspected, but it is nevertheless a fact, that when fighting had to be done he was the soul of good temper and playfulness, and yet there was much viciousness in him. When I sat at the ringside and watched Johnson against Moran I thought he was maddening in the casual way in which he caught a blow from Moran; I do believe that had he cared he could have prevented his opponent putting a glove on him: had it suited his purpose he could easily have ended the fight when he pleased. That it went twenty rounds was because it suited Johnson to make it last so long; he appeared to take a ghoulish pleasure in showing how severe were the limitations of Moran. (My Fighting Life)

In a documentary about his life shown on PBS on January 17, 2005, Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson, Ken Burns said: “For more than thirteen years, Jack Johnson was the most famous and notorious African American on Earth.”

Says in a Horatio Alger pean: “It is therefore quite impossible to exclude Johnson from America’s galaxy of self-made men, for he was certainly one of the most brilliant examples. His rise from poverty to international fame had in it all those elements of romance and glitter that unfailingly delight mankind.” Jack Johnson tells the story in his own words:

Of course, I had the dreams and desires that are common to youth, but never in the wildest moments of my boyhood imagination did I vision myself the champion fighter of the world and the first man of my race ever to attain that distinction. Never did I imagine myself in the picturesque costume of a Spanish matador, or a victor in the bull-fighting arena, surrounded by cheering thousands in the gala attire of the festival in historic Barcelona. How incongruous to think that I, a little Galveston coloured boy, should ever become an acquaintance of kings and rulers of the Old World, or that I should number among my friends some of the most notable persons of America and of the world.


Jack Johnson died in a traffic accident in 1946 at the age of 58, after leaving a cafeteria where they had refused to serve him.

His life served as the plot for The Great White Hope (1968), a dramatic play by Howard Sackler, which won the Pulitzer Prize.


JJohnson.jpgTotal 104

Wins 73

By Knockout 40

Loses 13

Draws 9

With files and photos from Wikipedia, Ecured, (Wayback Machine)

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