John Arthur (“Jack”) Johnson (March 31, 1878 – June 10, 1946), nicknamed the “Galveston Giant,” was an American boxer. At the height of the Jim Crow era, Johnson became the first African American world heavyweight boxing champion (1908–1915). In a documentary about his life, Ken Burns notes, “for more than thirteen years, Jack Johnson was the most famous and the most notorious African-American on Earth.” Johnson attests that his success in boxing came from the coaching he received from Joe Choynski, who became his cellmate after the pair were arrested for fighting in Texas, where boxing was illegal at the time. The aging Choynski saw natural talent and determination in Johnson and taught him the nuances of defense, stating “A man who can move like you should never have to take a punch”. He is considered a boxing legend and was the first person ever to knock down James J. Jeffries in a professional boxing bout. Their fight is to this day considered a seminal moment in boxing history.
Early life Johnson was born in Galveston, Texas, the second child and first son of Henry and Tina “Tiny” Johnson, former slaves who worked at blue-collar jobs to raise six children and taught them how to read and write. Henry Johnson traced his ancestry back to the Coromantees who came from modern-day Ghana. Johnson dropped out of school after just five or six years of education to get a job as a dock worker in Galveston.
Johnson fought Joe Choynski, who knocked him out, but whilst they spent time after the fight in prison together, talked much about boxing. There is a photo existing of them both behind bars. Joe, who also became his friend and sparring partner, taught him a lot. Johnson’s boxing style was very distinctive. He developed a more patient approach than was customary in that day, basically playing with his opponents, often carrying on a conversation with ringsiders at the same time as he was fighting. Johnson would begin a bout cautiously, slowly building up over the rounds into a more aggressive fighter. When annoyed, he often fought to punish his opponents rather than knock them out, endlessly avoiding their blows and striking with swift counters. He always gave the impression of having much more to offer and, if pushed, he could punch powerfully. There are films of some of his fights in which he can be seen holding up his opponent, who otherwise might have fallen, until he recovered. Those were the days when the (mostly white) patrons liked value for money, and it was a habit, especially for black boxers, to make the fight last a respectable time. With the many bouts a fighter engaged in, it was commonplace to have fought the same opponent as many as a dozen or even more times. So it is highly likely that the results of many of these fights were “pre-arranged,” and also pre-determined to last a goodly number of rounds.
Johnson’s style was very effective, but it was criticized in the press as being cowardly and devious. By contrast, world heavyweight champion “Gentleman” Jim Corbett had used many of the same techniques a decade earlier, and was praised by the press as “the cleverest man in boxing.”
By 1902, Johnson had won at least 50 fights against both white and black opponents. Johnson won his first title on February 3, 1903, beating “Denver” Ed Martin over 20 rounds for the World Colored Heavyweight Championship. His efforts to win the full title were thwarted, as world heavyweight champion James J. Jeffries refused to face him then. Black and white boxers could meet in other competitions, but the world heavyweight championship was off limits to them. However, Johnson did fight former champion Bob Fitzsimmons in July 1907, and knocked him out in two rounds. There is a report that Johnson even fought and KO’d Jim Jeffries’ brother Jack, and taunted him about it to force a fight, with no success.
Johnson finally won the world heavyweight title on December 26, 1908, a full six years after lightweight champion Joe Gans became the first African American boxing champion. Johnson’s victory over the reigning world champion, Canadian Tommy Burns, in Sydney, Australia, came after stalking Burns around the world for two years and taunting him in the press for a match. The fight lasted fourteen rounds before being stopped by the police in front of over 20,000 spectators. The title was awarded to Johnson on a referee’s decision as a knockout.
After Johnson’s victory over Burns, racial animosity among whites ran so deep that it was called out for a “Great White Hope” to take the title away from Johnson. As title holder, Johnson thus had to face a series of fighters each billed by boxing promoters as a “great white hope,” often in exhibition matches. In 1909, he beat Frank Moran, Tony Ross, Al Kaufman, and the middleweight champion Stanley Ketchel. The match with Ketchel was originally thought to have been an exhibition, and in fact it was fought by both men that way, until the 12th round, when Ketchel threw a right to Johnson’s head, knocking him down. Quickly regaining his feet, and very annoyed, Johnson immediately dashed straight at Ketchell and threw a single punch, an uppercut, a punch for which he was famous, to Ketchel’s jaw, knocking him out. Several of Ketchell’s teeth were also knocked out with some sticking in Johnson’s glove. The filmed fight shows Johnson wiping the teeth off his glove with a smirk. His fight with Philadelphia Jack O’Brien was a disappointing one for Johnson: though weighing 205 pounds (93 kg) to O’Brien’s 161 pounds (73 kg), he could only achieve a six-round draw with the great middleweight.
The “Fight of the Century”
James J. Jeffries fights Johnson in 1910In 1910, former undefeated heavyweight champion James J. Jeffries came out of retirement and said, “I feel obligated to the sporting public at least to make an effort to reclaim the heavyweight championship for the white race. . . I should step into the ring again and demonstrate that a white man is king of them all.” Jeffries had not fought in six years and had to lose well over 100 pounds to get back to his championship fighting weight. Indeed, initially Jeffries had no interest in the fight being quite happy as he was. But those who wanted to see Johnson ground into the dirt badgered him unmercifully for months, and also offered him an unheard sum of money, reputed to be about $120,000.
The fight took place on July 4, 1910 in front of 20,000 people, at a ring built just for the occasion in downtown Reno, Nevada. Johnson proved stronger and more nimble than Jeffries. In the 15th round, after Jeffries had been knocked down twice for the first time in his career, the referee stopped the fight before Jeffries could be knocked out.
The “Fight of the Century” earned Johnson $65,000 and silenced the critics, who had belittled Johnson’s previous victory over Tommy Burns as “empty,” claiming that Burns was a false champion since Jeffries had retired undefeated.
Riots and aftermathThe outcome of the fight triggered race riots that evening—the Fourth of July—all across the United States, from Texas and Colorado to New York and Washington, D.C. Johnson’s victory over Jeffries had dashed white dreams of finding a “great white hope” to defeat him. Many whites felt humiliated by the defeat of Jeffries.
Blacks, on the other hand, were jubilant, and celebrated Johnson’s great victory as a victory for racial advancement. Black poet William Waring Cuney later highlighted the black reaction to the fight in his poem “My Lord, What a Morning.” Around the country, blacks held spontaneous parades and gathered in prayer meetings.
Some “riots” were simply blacks celebrating in the streets. In certain cities, like Chicago, the police did not disturb the celebrations. But in other cities, the police and angry white citizens tried to subdue the revelers. Police interrupted several attempted lynchings. In all, “riots” occurred in more than 25 states and 50 cities. About 23 blacks and two whites died in the riots, and hundreds more were injured.
 Film of the boutA number of leading American film companies joined forces to shoot footage of the Jeffries-Johnson fight and turn it into a feature-length documentary film, at the cost of $250,000. The film was distributed widely in the U.S. and was exhibited interna tionally as well. As a result, Congress banned prizefight films from being distributed across state lines in 1912; the ban was lifted in 1940. In 2005, the film of the Jeffries-Johnson “Fight of the Century” was entered into the United States National Film Registry as being worthy of preservation.
In the United States, many states and cities banned the exhibition of the Johnson-Jeffries film. The movement to censor Johnson’s victory took over the country within three days after the fight. It was a spontaneous movement. Two weeks after the match former President Theodore Roosevelt, an avid boxer and fan, wrote an article for The Outlook in which he supported banning not just moving pictures of boxing matches, but a complete ban on all prize fights in America. He cited the “crookedness” and gambling that surrounded such contests and that moving pictures have “introduced a new method of money getting and of demoralization.”
Loss of the title
Panorama of Willard – Johnson fight, Havana, CubaOn April 5, 1915, Johnson lost his title to Jess Willard, a working cowboy from Kansas who started boxing when he was twenty-seven years old. With a crowd of 25,000 at Oriental Park Racetrack in Havana, Cuba, Johnson was knocked out in the 26th round of the scheduled 45 round fight. Johnson, although having won almost every round, began to tire after the 20th round, and was visibly hurt by heavy body punches from Willard in rounds preceding the 26th round knockout. Johnson is said by many to have spread rumors that he took a dive, but Willard is widely regarded as having won the fight outright. Willard said, “If he was going to throw the fight, I wish he’d done it sooner. It was hotter than hell out there.”
Johnson was an early example of the celebrity athlete in the modern era, appearing regularly in the press and later on radio and in motion pictures. He earned considerable sums endorsing various products, including patent medicines, and indulged several expensive hobbies such as automobile racing and tailored clothing, as well as purchasing jewelry and furs for his wives. He even challenged champion racer Barney Oldfield to a match auto race at the Sheepshead Bay, New York one mile (1.6 km) dirt track. Oldfield, far more experienced, easily out-distanced Johnson, ending any thoughts the boxer might have had about becoming a professional driver. Once, when he was pulled over for a $50 speeding ticket (a large sum at the time), he gave the officer a $100 bill; when the officer protested that he couldn’t make change for that much, Johnson told him to keep the change, as he was going to make his return trip at the same speed. Johnson was also interested in opera (his favorite being Il Trovatore) and in history — he was an admirer of Napoleon Bonaparte, believing him to have risen from a similar origin to his own. In 1920, Johnson opened a night club in Harlem; he sold it three years later to a gangster, Owney Madden, who renamed it the Cotton Club.
Johnson constantly flouted conventions regarding the social and economic “place” of blacks in American society. As a black man, he broke a powerful taboo in consorting with white women, and would constantly and arrogantly verbally taunt men (both white and black) inside and outside the ring. Johnson was pompous about his affection for white women, and imperious about his physical prowess, both in and out of the ring. Asked the secret of his staying power by a reporter who had watched a succession of women parade into, and out of, the champion’s hotel room, Johnson supposedly said “Eat jellied eels and think distant thoughts”.
Johnson was married three times. All of his wives were white, a fact that caused considerable controversy at the time. In January 1911, Johnson married Etta Terry Duryea. A Brooklyn socialite and former wife of businessman Charles Duryea, she met Johnson at a car race in 1909. Their romantic involvement was very turbulent. Beaten many times by Johnson and suffering from severe depression, she committed suicide in September 1912, shooting herself with a revolver.
Less than three months later, on December 4, 1912, Johnson married Lucille Cameron. After Johnson married Cameron, two ministers in the South recommended that Johnson be lynched. Cameron divorced him in 1924 because of infidelity.
The next year, Johnson married Irene Pineau. When asked by a reporter at Johnson’s funeral what she had loved about him, she replied, “I loved him because of his courage. He faced the world unafraid. There wasn’t anybody or anything he feared.”
Johnson had no children.
Prison sentenceOn October 18, 1912, Johnson was arrested on the grounds that his relationship with Lucille Cameron violated the Mann Act against “transporting women across state lines for immoral purposes” due to her being an alleged prostitute and due to Johnson being black. Cameron, soon to become his second wife, refused to cooperate and the case fell apart. Less than a month later, Johnson was arrested again on similar charges. This time, the woman, another alleged prostitute named Belle Schreiber, with whom he had been involved in 1909 and 1910, testified against him. In the courtroom of Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the future Commissioner of Baseball who perpetuated the baseball color line until his death, Johnson was convicted by an all-white jury in June 1913, despite the fact that the incidents used to convict him took place prior to passage of the Mann Act. He was sentenced to a year and a day in prison.
Johnson skipped bail and left the country, joining Lucille in Montreal on June 25, before fleeing to France. For the next seven years, they lived in exile in Europe, South America and Mexico. Johnson returned to the U.S. on July 20, 1920. He surrendered to Federal agents at the Mexican border and was sent to the United States Penitentiary, Leavenworth to serve his sentence September 1920 as Inmate #15461.
While incarcerated, Johnson found need for a tool that would help tighten loosened fastening devices, and modified a wrench for the task. He patented his improvements on April 18, 1922, as US Patent 1,413,121. He was released on July 9, 1921.
There have been recurring proposals to grant Johnson a posthumous presidential pardon. A bill requesting President George W. Bush to pardon Johnson in 2008, passed the House, but failed to pass in the Senate. In April 2009, Senator John McCain, along with Representative Peter King, filmmaker Ken Burns and Johnson’s great-niece, Linda Haywood, requested a presidential pardon for Johnson from President Barack Obama. On July 29, 2009, Congress passed a resolution calling on President Obama to issue a pardon.
Later lifeJohnson continued fighting, but age was catching up with him. He fought professionally until 1938 at age 60 when he lost 7 of his last 9 bouts, losing his final fight to Walter Price by a 7th-round TKO. It is often suggested that any bouts after the age of 40 -which was a very venerable age for boxing in those days- be not counted on his actual record, since he was basically performing to make a living, for money. He also indulged in what was known as “cellar” fighting, where the bouts, unadvertised, were fought for private audiences, usually in cellars, or other unrecognised places. There are photographs existing of one of these fights. Johnson made his final ring appearance at age 67 on November 27, 1945, fighting three one minute exhibition rounds against two opponents, Joe Jeanette and John Ballcort, in a benefit fight card for U.S. War Bonds. 
On June 10, 1946, Johnson died in a car crash on U.S. Highway 1 near Franklinton, North Carolina, a small town near Raleigh, after racing angrily from a diner that refused to serve him. He was taken to the closest black hospital, Saint Agnes Hospital in Raleigh. He was 68 years old at the time of his death. He was buried next to Etta Duryea Johnson at Graceland Cemetery in Chicago. His grave was initially unmarked, but a stone that bears only the name “Johnson” now stands above the plots of Jack, Etta, and Irene Pineau.
LegacyJohnson was inducted into the Boxing Hall of Fame in 1954, and is on the roster of both the International Boxing Hall of Fame and the World Boxing Hall of Fame. In 2005, the United States National Film Preservation Board deemed the film of the 1910 Johnson-Jeffries fight “historically significant” and put it in the National Film Registry.
Johnson’s skill as a fighter and the money that it brought made it impossible for him to be ignored by the establishment. In the short term, the boxing world reacted against Johnson’s legacy. But Johnson foreshadowed one of the most famous boxers of all time, Muhammad Ali. In fact, Ali often spoke of how he was influenced by Jack Johnson. Ali identified with Johnson because he felt America ostracized him in the same manner because of his opposition to the Vietnam War and affiliation with the Nation of Islam.
In 2002, scholar Molefi Kete Asante listed Jack Johnson on his list of 100 Greatest African Americans