“Boxing is a celebration of the lost religion of masculinity all the more trenchant for its being lost.” – Joyce Oates
The 1960s are often looked upon as the decade of free love, the era of civil rights and the British musical invasion. But to many African Americans, the decade stands out more than any other as the harbinger of modern black manhood. No two men defined that manhood more than Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali. But this week, as the Senate voted to urge President Obama to issue a pardon to Jack Johnson, we must pay homage to a fighter who loudly proclaimed a view of black manhood half a century ahead of his time.
Much has been written and said about Jack Johnson, probably none more fair and complete than Ken Burns’ documentary "Unforgivable Blackness." As boxing fans, we must recognize and celebrate Johnson as the first black man to become heavyweight champion of the world. As men, we must recognize the courage, risk and price Johnson paid for the opportunity to carry the title with a bravado that might have shocked Ali, and a quick wit that may have even impressed Malcolm.
Johnson held the belt from 1908 to 1915, and along the way fought the “Fight of the Century,” trouncing former heavyweight champion and the “great white hope,” Jim Jeffries. In a time when Johnson was demolishing the myth of white superiority one bout at a time, the bitter realities of black-skinned people in the United States were filled with Jim Crow, anti-miscegenation laws, voting restrictions, lynchings and countless other dehumanizing oppressions.
Despite Johnson’s boxing prowess, he may have never become an icon had it not been for how he chose to carry his heavyweight title. Johnson once said, “I have found no better way of avoiding race prejudice than to act with people of other races as if prejudice did not exist” — a truly shocking statement to believe in and even more to practice in the early 1900s.
Outside the ring, Johnson broke the mold; he wouldn’t play the quiet, humble victor, as a “good black” should. Perhaps it was this attitude that made it seem so easy for Johnson to live the life of a “sport.” A “sport” in the early 1900s was a man in the know, the type of gentleman who wooed women but still enjoyed houses of prostitution, the kind of man who took great pride in his dress, his walk and even the way in which he drank. Johnson’s life as the heavyweight champion of the world epitomized a “sport.” His enthusiasm for exotic cars was well-documented, almost as much as his finely tailored suits and unique hats, which often landed him on the covers of newspapers. It seems as if images of Johnson dressed in the finest garb of his day were printed as much in admiration of the enviable life he lived as for the shock value of having Johnson’s black face and gold-toothed smile showing behind the clothes most whites could not afford.
Maybe what most angered a large section of white boxing enthusiasts was that Johnson broke the mold inside the ring as well. Inside the ring, he wasn’t the brute that his imposing physical stature might suggest. Instead, Johnson boxed with a level of elegance that marveled onlookers. Celebrated prohibition-era short fiction writer and newspaperman Damon Runyon went as far as to say, “No greater defensive fighter than Jack Johnson ever lived.”
In short, Johnson was a man of contrasts. Whatever the norm was, inside or outside the ring, Johnson refused to be encapsulated by it. And no norm did Johnson despise and denounce more loudly than the dividing line between black men and white women.
Johnson often toured the country with fancily dressed white women on his arm. Hundreds of pictures and the occasional movie clip captured his romances with white women. The norms of the day demanded (at the very least) discretion when it came to the mixing of races, but Johnson would not have it, saying instead, “I am not a slave … I have the right to choose who my mate shall be without the dictation of any man.” And to further prove his point, legend goes, while he fought some white men, he would smile and yell into the front row where his white female companion would be sitting and ask her what round she wanted him to knock out his opponent. For Johnson, discretion was a concern of smaller men.
Then came the Mann Act. Passed in 1910, the act made it a federal crime to transport “women across state lines for immoral purposes.” Often called the “white slavery” act, the bill was ultimately used to convict Johnson in 1913 for “prostituting” a white woman who, in fact, was his girlfriend at the time. Most historians have recognized the obvious reality that Johnson’s prosecution was born out of wide-felt outrage at his public relationships, and marriages, to white women.
Now, almost exactly a century since Johnson’s racially motivated conviction, Senators Harry Reid and John McCain have successfully pushed the Senate to pass, by unanimous consent, a Resolution calling for President Obama to pass a posthumous pardon of Johnson. Of the resolution, Senator Reid said, “The unanimous pardon of Jack Johnson by the United States Senate helps to correct the record of American history by restoring Jack Johnson’s good name ... The tragic story of Jack Johnson is a blemish on American athletics.”
In 2009, President Obama had a similar opportunity to pardon the late, great champion, but declined to do so. Now, he’ll have another opportunity. Wouldn’t that be a poetic ending: the first black President pardons the first black heavyweight champion of the world for doing what the President’s own mixed-race parents have done? Even if President Obama chooses not to hand out an admittedly rare Presidential pardon, we, the boxing faithful, will remember Johnson in the right light. We’ll remember him not as a convicted felon, but as a virtuoso boxer who earned his right to bravado, as a man who refused to have his manhood defined by others, and as a black man who offered an example of what his brethren had all the right in the world to become.
A former college wrestler, Taekwondo black-belt, and wannabe boxer, Paul Navarro (aka Fight Like Sugar) is now a full-time lawyer, part-time fight scribe, and high school wrestling coach.