How Jack Johnson Destroyed the Color Barrier

His opponent was an American named jess Willard. Jack Johnson was fearless. His successor, President Obama, has also refused to issue a pardon, and his administration states it is unlikely that Obama will change his mind. 

“I won from Mr. Willard was a working cowboy who came to boxing late. The term “any other immoral purpose” allowed prosecution of just about anyone (from Charlie Chaplin to Charles Manson) for just about anything.

It wasn’t close. Johnson hopped the rails to Denver, where he joined a training camp. Jack’s early experience led him to believe there was no difference between black people and white people except skin color. Ward (2004). Johnson later said he did not experience racism growing up, which some might find unusual for a black child growing up in the South in the nineteenth century.

Ward, Geoffrey C. Washington said:

Choynski saw Johnson’s physical prowess and innate ability, and helped Jack realize how important defense was to a fighter. All tried to fight Johnson, and all were avoided by the champ. The next year Johnson won what was called the World Colored Heavyweight Championship. Braddock declined, and was knocked out by Louis in 1937.

Jack was born in Galveston, Texas, and grew up playing with black and white children. He always remembered Choynski’s remark: “A man who can move like you should never have to take a punch.” Later Johnson attributed much of his success to what he learned from Joe Choynski. 

“It is unfortunate that a man with money should use it in a way to injure his own people, in the eyes of those who are seeking to uplift his race and improve its conditions, I wish to say emphatically that Jack Johnson’s actions did not meet my personal approval and I am sure they do not meet with the approval of the colored race.”

Johnson was boisterous in his demands to fight the white heavyweight champion, Jim Jeffries. Choynski was generous with his experience, sharing with Johnson the nuances of ring strategy, how to fight tactically, and how to turn defense into offense.

Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson, a documentary by filmmaker Ken Burns based on the nonfiction book of the same name by Geoffrey C. On February 25 1901 Choynski and Johnson had a fight.

. Johnson, on the other hand, was accused of ducking talented black heavyweight Sam Langford. Bush refused to issue a pardon. That was how he started boxing. The venerable Nat Fleischer, publisher of Ring Magazine and guru on all things boxing, named Jack Johnson the greatest heavyweight boxing champion of all time.

The larger controversy was a legal one. 270, 2010; Arizona Legal Studies Discussoin Paper NBo 10-009. Jeffries had a powerful wallop, but Choynski had a paralyzing punch. Then the war broke out, and the Johnson’s sailed away from Europe. 

Jeffries retired without fighting Johnson. All were champions in the colored heavyweight division. I faced both and should know. He refused to ever fight Langford again, despite numerous demands to do so.

After three weeks bail was reduced to an affordable level. The outcome was never in doubt. On June 4, 1913, Johnson was sentenced to a year and a day in federal prison.

Johnson’s life draws mixed reactions from his own people. Houses and businesses were looted and burned. At 6 feet 6 inches and 235 pounds, Willard was much larger than Johnson. That’s my story.”

Betting odds were unanimously in Jeffries’ favor. His competitive spirit was still alive, and he did not want another black fighter eclipsing his career. The restaurant refused to serve him because of the color of his skin. 8, p. But many blacks were critical of Jack for rubbing his victory into white faces because this incited violence against Johnson’s own people.

Johnson had also committed two sins: publicly beating a white man, and bragging about it. As an adult he discovered how many people disagreed.

Jack Johnson was a hero to American blacks. African American scholar Booker T. Jack ducked perhaps the three best boxers (black or white) of his time: Sam Langford, Joe Jeanette, and Harry Wills. Johnson toyed with Burns, taunting him, hitting him with a barrage of punches, then catching Burns before he hit the floor, holding him up so he could punish him some more. He was a busy champion, defending his title seventeen times against most of the black heavyweights of his time.

On June 10 1946, Johnson was driving his sports car in North Carolina. Print.PG18. 

Johnson went through a seeming revolving door of women. Jeffries’ blows had no steam behind them, so how could he hope to defeat me?”

Johnson took Louis’ career as a supreme insult. Sullivan, “Gentleman” Jim Corbett, Robert Fitzsimmons, and the reigning champ, Jim Jeffries. After he did his time he returned to boxing. Johnson made intelligent use of the press to generate publicity for his fights. He made no concessions to the racial ideas of his time: be it from his own people or from whites.

The first controversy was Johnson’s refusal to give other African American boxers a shot at his title. Other activities included acting on stage, driving gaudy colored sports cars, dabbling in jazz bands, and running nightclubs. You take out the issue of white women and replace it with the issue of religion. He won his first fight at the age of twelve, fighting back against another child who was bullying him. Jack Johnson was the first African American heavyweight boxing champion of the world. His left hand was a corker. District Attorney prosecute Johnson. His best punches were his left jab and uppercuts. Property was destroyed. Johnson was prosecuted for a law that was not in effect at the time of his actions. Boxing was illegal in Texas, and in much of the country, although enforcement varied greatly from state to state.

Blacks (or coloreds, as they were known at the time) were also critical of Johnson’s preference for white women. While an appeal of Johnson’s conviction was pending, Jack disappeared. Jeffries was finally persuaded to return to the ring and set things right.

In the 1960’s Muhammed Ali saw a play about Jack Johnson’s life. This claim was contradicted by the news that Johnson bet $2500 on himself to win the fight. I should step into the ring again and demonstrate that a white man is king of them all.”

Much later in his career, Jack Johnson would compare Choynski’s power to the legendary power of Jim Jeffries:

es Black history month -= Wednesday, January 24, 2001, Jack Johnson (title) 

In the last years of Johnson’s career another African American heavyweight boxer rose to prominence. Jeffries because I outclassed him in every department of the fighting game. He met up with his wife, another (former) prostitute known as Lucille Cameron, in Montreal. Knopf, 2004. This annoyed the boxing establishment in Galveston, who invited veteran boxer Joe Choynski to Galveston to shut Johnson up. Burns won an Emmy Award for his direction.


Only eight years after his death Jack Johnson became a charter member of the Boxing Hall of Fame. Soon a crowd gathered. Joe Jeanette accused Jack Johnson of drawing the color line against his own people.

Burns earned his money. Yet he chose to fight defensively and counter punch, letting Johnson do all the leading. Famed as a defensive tactician, Johnson could punch hard with both hands. Shreiber, who was bitter over being dumped by Johnson, was all too happy to help the U.S. The documentary was initially broadcast on PBS on January 17 and 18, 2005. It was reported that Burns finally agreed to fight Johnson when he was guaranteed a payday of $30,000 – a kingly sum at the time.

President George W. He never fought for the championship again but had a long career, fighting professionally until 1938. He was romantically linked to everyone from Mata Hari to Mae West. The two sailed to France. After losing seven of his last nine fights Jack officially hung up the gloves at age sixty.

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March 31 1878 is the birth date of John Arthur “Jack” Johnson, who became the first African American heavyweight boxing champion of the world. Everyone Johnson knew was dirt poor. The Mann Act (named for Illinois Congressman James Mann) prohibited interstate transportation of  a “woman or girl for the purpose of prostitution or debauchery, or for any other immoral purpose.” Thus a very wide net was cast to allow prosecution of (mostly) men for most manners of sexual relations – even consensual sex.

Johnson’s first professional loss was a turning point in his career, because he got to share a jail cell with Joe Choynski for twenty-three days. White man hasn’t forgotten that fool nigger with his white women, acting like he owned the world.”  

The intent of the law was to protect young women coming from rural areas to work in large cities from being exploited, kidnapped, and trafficked in prostitution. He was a gamer who gave even champions all they could handle in the ring.

But poverty is a great leveler of races. Give me Joe Choynski anytime. The hype for the fight was enormous. Most of his losses came at the end of his career. He was energetic and worked a variety of other jobs.  As if on cue the Texas Rangers appeared, arrested the two fighters and threw them in jail. Choynski beat Johnson up and knocked him out in the third round. Both men were freed on the condition they left town. He was buried in an unmarked grave next to the graves of two of his wives: Etta Duryea Johnson and Irene Pineau.

 The sheriff allowed Johnson and Choynski to spar every afternoon. The press advanced all sorts of theories why whites were better than blacks. Willard’s body shots and the heat overcame the champion and he was knocked out in the 26th round.

The “Great White Hope” came out of retirement to fight champion Jack Johnson in what was called “The Fight of the Century.” Jeffries declared: “I feel obligated to the sporting public at least to make an effort to reclaim the heavyweight championship for the white race. Ali said: “That’s my story.

After the fight Johnson was outspoken:

Johnson was now a fully developed man: six foot one inch tall, 200 pounds, with well developed muscles, very dark skin, a shiny bald head, and a mouthful of gold teeth. Jeffries was totally outclassed by Johnson, who knocked out the former champion in the fifteenth round.

Jack toughened up more working at the docks in Galveston. He had made history.

Sometimes he was intentionally outrageous, like the time he walked a pet leopard while sipping champagne. But in the end the fight was a dud. But after the Jeffries fight, Johnson’s reign as champion was marred by legal problems, a flight from the country, a life of exile, and countless controversy.

Jack was a frail boy who was protected by his two older daughters. Although only a light heavy weight (170 pounds), Choynski’s courage and ferocious punching power more than made up for height and weight disadvantages. Then he moved to California and started fighting in earnest.

The trial was manifestly unfair. Johnson sped off angrily down Highway 1 until a violent collision with another vehicle  ended his life at age sixty-eight. His name was Joe Louis, and he studiously avoided any possible resemblance to Jack Johnson. . It was very hot, and midway through the 45 round match Johnson began laboring. Johnson’s words added fuel to the fire. Choynski had fought all the champions of the day: John L. Ali had lost his champtionship and his boxing license and was battling the federal government over his refusal to fight in Vietnam on religious grounds. He was quoted in the press as accusing Jeffries of ducking him. There were race riots across the country. He stopped at a diner in a small town near Raleigh to have lunch. Trainer Jack Blackburn warned Louis: “If you really ain’t gonna be another Jack Johnson, you got some hope. The two fought once, and Johnson was given the decision. He was the hardest puncher in the last fifty years…I think his left hook was even more effective than  (Jack) Dempsey’s.”

Whites were by turn devastated and infuriated by the result of the fight. Public (white) outcry turned to Jim Jeffries, living a quiet retirement on his alfalfa farm. Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson.New York: A.A. Jack turned the focus of his public campaign against the new champion, Canadian Tommy Burns. His official record was 79-8 with 46 knockouts. Johnson held the title for five years. Jack became more confident, and a defiant cockiness emerged – a trait that would follow him during his boxing career and public life.

International Boxing Hall of Fame, Joe Choynski. An all white jury quickly found Johnson guilty. Dozens of blacks were killed, and some whites.

Johnson’s last defense of his title was in 1915 at a racetrack in Havana, Cuba. His was a very public life, ushering in the idea of an athlete as a celebrity as well as a champion. When Louis got a title shot against the reigning champ, Irishman Jim Braddock, Johnson offered to train Braddock. I never changed my mind at any time. A master counter puncher, Johnson would lure his opponent into letting his hands go, block the blows, and then rain down merciless counterpunches. 

The Great White Hope, Howard Sackler’s 1967 theater dramatization of Jack Johnson’s life. 

“Jeffries number one? No sir. He won a few fights and got mouthy about his talent. He lived his life so large, in and out of the ring, that he was called “the most notorious African-American on Earth.”

In 2014 Senator John McCain continued a ten year campaign to secure a posthumous presidential pardon of Jack Johnson for his Mann Act conviction, on the grounds that the conviction was racially motivated and “diminished the athletic, cultural, and historical significance of Jack Johnson, and unduly tarnished his reputation.”

Later Jack claimed he threw the fight in a deal to avoid the Mann Act conviction. He bet against Louis and criticized him publicly. The champion had a string of very public affairs with white actresses and personalities. In 1912 Johnson was accused of violating the White Slave Traffic Act of 1910. Johnson frequented brothels and cavorted with prostitutes of both races, but reserved his marriage vows to white women – he said he had been married to black women and they had mistreated him.

The Mann Act was used to prosecute Jack Johnson for his relationship with a white prostitute named Belle Schreiber. Before I entered the ring I was certain I would be the victor. . Johnson had trouble finding fights in France due to his status as a convicted criminal. He took a brutal beating from Johnson, who punished the champion for fourteen rounds. Then film of the fight was shown. Jack learned to read and write, and worked odd jobs to support his family.

By 1902 Johnson was an up-and-coming heavyweight on the California circuit with 27 wins (he actually fought well over fifty fights, but many were ‘off the books’). 

In 1921 Jack Johnson turned himself into American authorities and was imprisoned for his Mann Act conviction. . See 

Johnson was the first son (and third child of nine) born to  Henry and Tina “Tiny” Johnson, two former slaves who both worked blue collar jobs as a janitor and a dishwasher to support their children and put them through school. With no pretensions to maintain, blacks and whites co-existed, and learned to help each other make it through the grind of day to day survival. It was clear that Johnson fought hard but lost to a younger, stronger man.

This is high praise from a man many boxing experts consider the greatest heavyweight boxing champion of all time.

Orbach, Barak, The Johnson-Jeffries Fight and Censorship of Black Supremacy, July 22 2010, NYU Journal of Law & Liberty, Vol

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