Jack Johnson – The Man Who Punched Racism

By Azalea Michaels
Mar. 03, 2020

February is celebrated as the Black History month when African Americans are remembered and lauded for their achievements. Though things have gotten over better due to struggle of the black community, there is still a long way to go. But institutionalized racism, which runs in crevices now was once a gushing river.

As soon as black people shed off the chains of slavery, they found themselves in uncertain times where opportunities shrunk when they saw a black person approaching. Yet, people like Jack Johnson managed to shine through the dark times. Johnson, acclaimed boxer who lived his life fully though with police car sirens blaring behind him, is still in memories.

An Icon for the Black Community

It is names like his and Ann Lowe, the first black fashion designer, who brought black people to the fore in huge industries that once seemed impenetrable to African Americans. In many ways, black America has shaped modern fashion and continues to carry significant influence over sports played in Northern America.

But the hurdles it had to overcome required an extra-ordinary amount of resilience.

Johnson’s unforgettable contributions in representing black people and in the boxing industry are still talked about. After all, he was the first black heavyweight champion, a man feared in the ring.

Jack Johnson - Early Life and First Fights

John Arthur Johnson was born to ex-slaves in Galveston, Texas on March 31, 1878. Later to be known around the world due to his successful career, Johnson started out as a laborer to support his family. He had 8 siblings and was the third of nine children. For the most part of his childhood, the boxer would work on boats and sculleries.

Johnson was 16 when he first travelled on his own to big cities and also got into his first fight. Initially, he didn’t earn much bucks from fighting opponents. He made his first good buck - only $25 - for his fight against Bob Thompson. The 6’2 legend soon worked his way toward bagging the world heavyweight title.

Earning His Title and Living His Life as a Celebrity

Because of where he was born, in the boxing world and outside Johnson came to be known as the Galveston Giant. Before he won the world heavyweight title, Jim F. Jefferies who refused to engage in a combat with him held the title. Apart from Jeffries, several other white boxers were also unwilling to stand in the ring against Johnson.

After defeating Tommy Burns, Johnson finally had his chance to fight Jefferies who only agreed when he was promised $30,000 for it. To fight Johnson, Jefferies made a comeback despite his retirement. The fight took place in early 1900’s.

Johnson and Jefferies’ fight went on till 14 rounds when the police intervened to end it in the fifteenth. Johnson was called the winner and handed over the title which he held for the next five years.

The Fight of the Century, which brought in a huge audience of 22,000 fans, definitely made Jefferies into a fan of Johnson too. In an interview Jefferies admitted that he couldn’t ever have bet Johnson. The African American star boxer lived his earned life starkly differently than how his parents has spent it. His lifestyle was extravagant, his cars were posh, and he had a lot of money to spend.

Alongside earning a status as a top-end boxer and angering a lot of white fans, Johnson got married to three white women which was, of course, controversial. His first marriage was to Etta Terry Duryea, which happened in 1911 but didn’t last more than a year because Duryea committed suicide. The socialite was depressed, and their relationship was also unstable.

In 1912, Johnson also was convicted of committing the Mann Act for which he was sentenced to prison for a year. To escape the term which he eventually had to serve, he spent 7 years after conviction in Europe as a fugitive. He returned in 1920, when he had to serve 10 months of his prison time before being released. During all this, Johnson remarried.

He did so after a few months of his first wife’s death, this time wedding Lucille Cameron. Johnson’s second marriage ended in 1924 as his then wife divorced him due to his countless affairs. Following one year of the divorce, the boxer got married to Irene Pineau with whom he remained till his death. Throughout his life as a boxer, Jefferies enjoyed 73 wins of which 40 were knockouts. He only lost 13 times while 10 fights ended in draws.

His Life as a Black Man

It is clear that Johnson was only made into a criminal due to racial bias. Following 72 years of his death, President Trump finally granted him the presidential pardon after 14 years of joint efforts by his loved ones and fans.

Jack Arthur Johnson lived his life flamboyantly, always showing his disdain toward racism and subtly fighting against the system. He had all the fame and the fortune as well the hate of people who longed to see him fall. The famous boxer left the world due to a car crash when he was 68 years of age, leaving the people of his community mourning.