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'The best-known black man on Earth'

Boxer Jack Johnson was legendary, triumphant -- and despised

By Todd Leopold

Jack Johnson
Muhammad Ali
Geoffrey C. Ward

ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- Not long ago, a publishing company put out an enormous, lovingly assembled book dedicated to the career of Muhammad Ali. The book, which weighs 75 pounds and costs $3,000, is titled "GOAT: Greatest of All Time."

But even Ali has acknowledged his debt to legendary boxer Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion, who blazed a trail for all African-American boxers to come and is still ranked among the all-time boxing legends.

Mention his name today, and perhaps people remember him as a heavyweight champ from the days of yellow journalism and sepia-toned photographs, or the basis for the main character in Howard Sackler's Pulitzer Prize-winning play, "The Great White Hope."

But Johnson was Muhammad Ali before Ali was born. Though he was a black man in the Jim Crow America of the early 20th century, he refused to go second class -- or let others put him "in his place." He dated and married white women, a scandal in those days, and was even sent to prison for violating the Mann Act, the guilty verdict a thinly disguised railroading.

He spent money the way he wanted to -- as a "sport," as they were called, high-living, free-spending dandies who always had the finest cars and sharpest clothes.

And he defeated the greatest boxers of his day, infuriating white audiences -- who were determined to find "the great white hope" -- as well as some commentators in the black community who deplored his lifestyle.

Not that he paid attention to what anybody said.

After all, Johnson was his own man -- a smart, sculpted, nimble powerhouse out of Galveston, Texas, shrewd in the ring and reckless outside it, who made his way to the top largely through the force of his bullish personality. He was his own man, and he didn't care who knew it.

"He was a great salesman of himself," says Geoffrey C. Ward, author of a new Johnson biography, "Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson" (Knopf), in an interview at an Atlanta hotel. "The press loved him as copy. ... He was a guy who made fun of himself in interviews to sell seats. Plus, in a business run by hardened white men ... Johnson wouldn't put up with [their machinations]. He'd have them long enough to make a contract."

Book documents virulent racism

Johnson was the foremost champion of his day -- more skillful than the powerful, but limited, boxers who preceded him, such as John L. Sullivan, "Gentleman Jim" Corbett and James J. Jeffries, whom he defeated in a celebrated 1910 bout. He was also a showman, taunting his opponents in the ring and then vanquishing them when he was ready.

But Johnson was also a victim of virulent racism. One reason he needed the white men who ran boxing was because few promoters -- or boxers -- wanted to deal with a black man running his own career. (Indeed, Johnson was denied a title bid for years because of his race.)

Once he started his rise, the anger directed at him became even more caustic. His lack of humility, his wealth, his women -- white America was barely tolerant of such a man.

Geoffrey C. Ward

Ward writes of vicious newspaper attacks -- writers were openly on the side of his opponents and quoted him in a laughable Negro vernacular. Of the words used to describe his color, "smoky" was perhaps the least offensive by modern standards.

"I thought I had a good intellectual understanding of the intensity of racism [in American history], but until I wrote this book, I had no grasp of its depth," says Ward, a former American Heritage editor and Ken Burns' longtime collaborator. (A Burns documentary on Johnson, with Ward's script, premieres on PBS in January.)

"He never was treated as an equal by white writers. He was lampooned, derided, attacked ... the language used to describe him was awful. And that was in news stories."

(The book includes a cartoon, published right after Johnson defeated Jeffries, of an ape-looking mammy type cutting out Johnson stories from a newspaper as a shocked white woman looks on. That was one of the nicer images, Ward says.)

Johnson's fame coincided with a period in which African-Americans were asserting their civil rights -- the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was founded in 1909 and the Urban League in 1910 -- but also with a rise in anti-black violence and terror. (Indeed, Johnson's victory over Jeffries sparked race riots in some parts of the United States.)

"I think he served as the focus of a lot of pre-existing racist thought," Ward adds. "Post-Reconstruction madness was focused right on Jack Johnson. ... He was a living, breathing symbol of something everybody was terrified of."

Shrewd, obstinate to the end

The racism came to a head during Johnson's 1913 trial for violating the Mann Act, which prohibited bringing underage individuals across state lines for immoral purposes. Johnson, who did indeed have mistresses -- but was also being made an example -- was found guilty and fled overseas.

He lost the heavyweight title to Jess Willard in 1915 in Havana, Cuba, on a brutally hot spring day, and finally returned to the United States in 1920, serving a year in prison for his 1913 conviction. After he was released, he resumed boxing, even fighting exhibitions in 1945, when he was 67 years old.

Still, few outside of boxing acknowledged him, and blacks were effectively prevented from pursuing the heavyweight title until Joe Louis came along in the mid-'30s.

"He was, at one time, the best-known black man on Earth," Ward says. "The reason he faded was that white people didn't want to remember him, and black people remembered the pain he caused."

Johnson was also shrewd and obstinate to the last. He didn't like Louis -- who had been told by advisers to be the "anti-Johnson" -- and, figuring out a flaw in the younger boxer's style, bet on the German Max Schmeling at a time when Louis was undefeated and on the way to the title. When Louis lost, Johnson went up to Harlem and waved his winnings around, taunting the pro-Louis crowd.

Perhaps Ward's biography, and the PBS special, will reignite interest in Johnson. Ali, for one, knew he counted.

"Ali said, 'You think I'm bad? Johnson was the baddest,' " Ward says.

Johnson wouldn't disagree. "All his life," Ward says, "when asked, 'Who do you think you are?' Johnson would say: 'I'm Jack Johnson.' "

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