Marco Ramirez, the author of The Royale, has said that the play is inspired by the early-20th-century boxing champion Jack Johnson. Ramirez calls his main character Jay Jackson, however. “I’m neither African-American nor a historian,” Ramirez told me in a previous blog entry, “so I would have felt irresponsible calling him Jack Johnson.”
Yet the question lingers: Who was Jack Johnson? He was the first African-American to win the world heavyweight boxing title, which he held from 1908 to 1915. A century ago, such athletic achievement was titanic: boxing was one of America’s three most popular sports (horseracing and baseball were the others). When Johnson faced the white champion Jim Jeffries, on July 4, 1910, in Reno, Nevada, in “the fight of the century,” the event was treated by the media with a Super Bowl-level of hoopla. The movie of the contest, The Johnson-Jeffries Fight, was the most popular film in the U.S. for five years, until the release of The Birth of a Nation, whose racism serves as ironic counterpoint to Johnson’s demonstration that a black man could triumph at the highest level. Johnson’s achievement came at a cost: after he beat Jeffries, race-related violence took place around the country, resulting in at least 20 deaths.
Johnson was born in Galveston, Texas, in 1878. The third of nine children, he left school after the fifth grade to work. He made his pugilistic debut on November 1, 1898, in Galveston, where he knocked out Charley Brooks. By the time of his death, in 1946, Johnson had amassed a record of 73 wins, 13 losses, 10 draws, and 5 no contests.
To watch footage of Johnson in his prime is to witness a boxing style in some contrast to what 21st-century fans, schooled in Mike Tyson and Floyd Mayweather, might recognize as standard fighting procedure. Johnson is a master of defensive strategy. He would often wait for his opponents to tire out, before moving in for the knockout. The physical proximity between Johnson and his opponent can make a bout look almost like a pas de deux. The storied fight with Jeffries is a veritable hug-athon.
Johnson’s personal life was writ as large as his professional one. One of the outstanding moments of Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson, the 2004 Ken Burns documentary about the boxer, comes when the writer Stanley Crouch shares a story involving Johnson and the ladies of his acquaintance. A reporter had observed a robust number of women enter and exit the champ’s hotel room. The reporter asked the boxer to divulge the secret of his stamina. Johnson replied, “Eat jellied eels and think distant thoughts.”
Such statements reflect Johnson’s ability to entertain. In addition to drawing the public to his fights, he attracted them to his vaudeville appearances, where he would shadow-box, tell stories, grin for the camera.
The authorities worked mightily to erase that happiness. On October 18, 1912, Johnson was arrested for violating the Mann Act, which outlawed “transporting women across state lines for immoral purposes.” He got off that time but not, less than a month later, a second. An all-white jury, made very aware of the fact that some of Johnson’s women were white, and disregarding the fact that the alleged incidents took place before passage of Mann, convicted him. He was sentenced to a year and a day in prison. Johnson fled the country and spent seven years as an exile around the world. When he returned, in 1920, he did time at the federal penitentiary in Leavenworth.
Over the past decade, members of Congress like Senator John McCain and Rep. Peter King have urged U.S. Presidents to grant Johnson a posthumous pardon for the injustice done to him. Neither George W. Bush nor Barack Obama has granted the request, even though it was contained in broad legislation passed by a bipartisan Congressional vote this past December. As Johnson awaits his pardon, his legacy as an athlete remains beyond the reach of any politician.
Brendan Lemon is the editor of lemonwade.com.