Sports were not so different, especially boxing, where the races mingled relatively freely. Peter Jackson, a black native of St. Croix, fought leading black contenders such as Joe Jeannette and Sam McVey, both contemporaries of Jack Johnson, and fought Gentleman Jim Corbett to a 61-round draw in 1891. Even though blacks and whites met in the ring, the heavyweight title was considered sacrosanct, a symbol of white superiority. Thus Johnson’s demolition of Tommy Burns in 1908 stunned the sporting world, which shunned him as the legitimate champ. Since Jeffries had retired undefeated, the only way Johnson could place his title beyond dispute was to beat Jeffries in the ring.
“With the rise of modern heavyweight champions, race was at the center of nearly every important heavyweight drama,” David Remnick, a Muhammad Ali biographer, wrote in the London Guardian’s Observer Sport Monthly in 2003. “First came John L. Sullivan, who refused to cross the color line and face a black challenger. Then came Jim Jeffries, who swore he would retire ‘when there are no white men left to fight’....Jeffries seemed to have the support of all of white America,” including, Remnick noted, the press, led by celebrated newspaperman and novelist Jack London, an occasional boxing correspondent for the New York Herald. The editors of Collier’s magazine wrote that “Jeffries would surely win because...the white man, after all, has thirty centuries of traditions behind him—all the supreme efforts, the inventions and the conquests, and whether he knows it or not, Bunker Hill and Thermopylae and Hastings and Agincourt.”
At first glance, it seems that the two men are dancing. Johnson, tall, broad-shouldered and bullet-headed, keeps his opponent at arm’s length, his gloves open. Jeffries charges, Johnson retreats, as agile as the young Ali (when he fought under his given name, Cassius Clay), swatting away punches as if they were butterflies. “He was catching punches,” says boxing historian Bert Sugar. “Jack Johnson was perhaps the greatest defensive heavyweight of all time.”
The Johnson-Jeffries fight was of such intense interest that it was filmed to be shown in movie theaters worldwide. Three years before the federal income tax was levied, promoter Tex Rickard paid each fighter $50,000 (worth about $1.16 million in 2010) for the film rights, to go with a signing bonus of $10,000 apiece; the winner would also take two-thirds of the purse of $101,000.
Watching the film today, one sees immediately how commanding a ring general Johnson was. Once it became clear, in the early rounds, that the once-fearsome Jeffries couldn’t hurt him, Johnson toyed with his opponent, keeping up a running stream of commentary directed at Jeffries, but even more so at a not-so-gentlemanly Jim Corbett in Jeffries’ corner. Corbett had showered Johnson with racist invective from the moment the fighter entered the ring, and a majority of the crowd had joined in. Many of the spectators were calling for Jeffries to kill his opponent.
“Jack Johnson was a bur in the side of society,” notes Sugar. “His win over Tommy Burns in 1908 was the worst thing that had happened to the Caucasian race since Tamerlane. Here was Johnson, flamboyantly doing everything— running around with white women, speeding his cars up and down streets and occasionally crashing them—all of it contributed to find somebody to take him on. Jack London had written: ‘Jeffries must emerge from his alfalfa farm and remove that smile from Johnson’s face.’”
Instead, Johnson’s swift jab and eviscerating counterpunches began to take their toll as Johnson turned the tables on his tormentors. “Don’t rush, Jim. I can do this all afternoon,” he said to Jeffries in the second round, hitting the big man again. “How do you feel, Jim?” he taunted in the 14th. “How do you like it? Does it hurt?” Dazed and bleeding, Jeffries could barely keep his feet, and Corbett fell silent. In Round 15, Jeffries went down for the first time in his career. Johnson hovered nearby—there were no neutral corners in those days—and floored the former champ again the minute he regained his feet. Now a different cry went up from the crowd: Don’t let Johnson knock Jeffries out. As Jeffries went down yet again, knocked against the ropes, his second jumped into the ring to spare his man, and the fight was over. The audience filed out in near-silence as Tex Rickard raised Johnson’s arm in triumph; across America, blacks poured into the streets in celebration. Within hours scuffling broke out in cities across the country.
The next day, the nation’s newspapers toted up the carnage. The Atlanta Constitution carried a report from Roanoke, Virginia, saying that “six negroes with broken heads, six white men locked up and one white man, Joe Chockley, with a bullet wound through his skull and probably fatally wounded, is the net result of clashes here tonight.” In Philadelphia, the Washington Post reported, “Lombard Street, the principal street in the negro section, went wild in celebrating the victory, and a number of fights, in which razors were drawn, resulted.” In Mounds, Illinois, according to the New York Times, “one dead and one mortally wounded is the result of the attempt of four negroes to shoot up the town....A negro constable was killed when he attempted to arrest them.” In all, as many as 26 people died and hundreds were injured in violence related to the fight. Almost all of them were black.
In the following days, officials or activists in many localities began pushing to bar distribution of the fight film. There were limited showings, without incident, before Congress passed a law forbidding the interstate transportation of boxing films in 1912. That ban would hold until 1940.
Johnson continued his flamboyant ways, challenging the white establishment at every turn. With some of the winnings from the fight, he opened the Café de Champion, a Chicago nightclub, and adorned it with Rembrandts he had picked up in Europe. In October 1910, he challenged race car driver Barney Oldfield and lost twice on a five-mile course at the Sheepshead Bay track in Brooklyn. (“The manner in which he out-drove and out-stripped me convinced me that I was not meant for that sport,” Johnson would write in his autobiography.) And he continued dating, and marrying, white women. His first wife, Etta Duryea, shot herself to death in September 1912. Later that fall, he was arrested and charged under the Mann Act, the 1910 law that prohibited the transportation of women across state lines for “immoral purposes.” (The arrest did not prevent his marriage to Lucille Cameron, a 19-year-old prostitute, that December.) Tried and convicted in 1913, he was sentenced to a year and a day in prison.