John Arthur "Jack" Johnson (March 31, 1878 – June 10, 1946), nicknamed the Galveston Giant was an American boxer, who—at the height of the Jim Crow era—became the first African American world heavyweight boxing champion (1908–1915). Johnson went on to become one of the most dominant champions of his time, and remains a significant historical figure in heavyweight boxing history, with his 1910 fight against James J. Jeffries being dubbed the "fight of the century." Johnson was faced with much controversy when he was charged with violating the Mann Act in 1912, even though there was an obvious lack of evidence and the charge was largely racially based. In a documentary about his life, Ken Burns notes that "for more than thirteen years, Jack Johnson was the most famous and the most notorious African-American on Earth".
Johnson was born the third child of nine, and the first son, of Henry and Tina "Tiny" Johnson, two former slaves who worked blue collar jobs as a janitor and a dishwasher to support their children and put them through school. His father Henry served as a civilian teamster of the Union’s 38th Colored Infantry, and was a role model for his son. As Jack once said, his father was "The most perfect physical specimen that he had ever seen," although his father was only 5 ft 5 in (1.65 m) and left with an atrophied right leg from his service in the war.
Growing up in Galveston, Texas, Johnson attended five years of school and was known as a bright, talkative, and energetic kid. Like all of his siblings, Jack was expected to work to keep the family going while he was growing up. He helped sweep classrooms to ease the work for his father, and he worked for the local milk man before school, taking care of the horses while the milk man got off to make deliveries. For this work he was paid 10 cents and a red pair of socks, which his boss had a seemingly endless supply of, every Saturday.
Although Jack grew up in the South, he said that segregation was not an issue in the somewhat secluded city of Galveston, as everyone living in Galveston’s 12th Ward was poor and went through the same struggles. Johnson remembers growing up with a "gang" of white boys, in which he never felt victimized or excluded. Remembering his childhood, Johnson said, "As I grew up, the white boys were my friends and my pals. I ate with them, played with them and slept at their homes. Their mothers gave me cookies, and I ate at their tables. No one ever taught me that white men were superior to me." Jack carried this mentality to his boxing career, as he would not be intimidated to fight any man, no matter their race.
During his days as a child Johnson was a frail young boy and not much of a fighter, as he grew up under the protection of his two older sisters until he was twelve years old. Jack was usually able to avoid quarrels until he was twelve years old, and was confronted by a boy who hit him on the jaw. About to run away from the quarrel Johnson remembers Grandma Gilmore, or his mother (the story varies by whomever tells it), who told him, "Arthur, if you do not whip Willie, I shall whip you". After winning the fight, Johnson developed a new mentality, and toughness to carry with him through his life.
After Johnson quit attending school, he began a job working at the local docks, soon discovering that he hated it. He made several other attempts at working other jobs around town, until one day he made his way to Dallas, finding work at the race track exercising horses. Jack stuck with this job until he would find a new apprenticeship for a carriage painter by the name of Walter Lewis. Lewis, who had a passion for boxing, enjoyed watching friends spar, and although boxing was somewhat new to Johnson, he began to learn how to hit hard and strong. Johnson later claimed that it was thanks to Lewis that he would become a boxer.
After returning home for a short period of time, Johnson once again left at the age of 16, this time heading for Manhattan. While in Manhattan, Jack found living arrangements with Joe Walcott, a welterweight fighter from the West Indies. Once again Johnson found work exercising horses for the local stable, until he was fired for exhausting a horse. Soon finding employment as a janitor for a gym owned by German born heavyweight fighter, Herman Berneau, Johnson eventually put away enough for two pairs of boxing gloves, sparring every chance he got. Throughout his time in Manhattan, living with Walcott and working for Berneau, Johnson began to develop his unique style of fighting which would make him famous.
Returning home from Manhattan a much bigger and stronger man, Johnson quickly got a chance to test his new fighting skills in a quarrel against a man named Davie Pearson. Johnson remembers Pearson as a much more "grown and toughened" man, who accused Jack of turning him in to the police over a game of craps. When both of them were released from jail, they met at the docks, and were set to fight in the midst of a large crowd. After beating the much bigger, older man Johnson began to think that he could make a career out of his skills as a fighter. Johnson soon got his chance fighting in a summer league against a man named John "Must Have It" Lee. Because prize fighting was illegal in Texas the fight was broken up, and moved to the beach where Johnson won his first fight, and a prize of one dollar and fifty cents. Though this fight was just a small steppingstone in Johnson’s career, he returned home confident in his career as a prizefighter, and began his journey towards a historic career in the sport.
Early boxing career
Johnson made his debut as a professional boxer on November 1, 1898, in Galveston, Texas, when he knocked out Charley Brooks in the second round of a 15-round bout for what was billed as "The Texas State Middleweight Title". In his third pro fight on May 8, 1899, he battled "Klondike" (John W. Haynes or Haines), an African American heavyweight known as "The Black Hercules", in Chicago. Klondike (so called as he was considered a rarity, like the gold in the Klondike), who had declared himself the "Black Heavyweight Champ", won on a technical knockout (TKO) in the fifth round of a scheduled six-rounder. The two fighters met again in 1900, with the first contest resulting in a draw as both fighters were on their feet at the end of 20 rounds. Johnson won the second fight by a TKO when Klondike refused to come out for the 14th round. Johnson did not claim Klondike's unrecognized title.
On February 25, 1901, Johnson fought Joe Choynski in Galveston. Choynski, a popular and experienced heavyweight, knocked out Johnson in the third round. Prizefighting was illegal in Texas at the time and they were both arrested. Bail was set at $5,000 which neither could afford. The sheriff permitted both fighters to go home at night so long as they agreed to spar in the jail cell. Large crowds gathered to watch the sessions. After 23 days in jail, their bail was reduced to an affordable level and a grand jury refused to indict either man. However, Johnson later stated that he learned his boxing skills during that jail time. The two would remain friends.
Johnson attests that his success in boxing came from the coaching he received from Choynski. 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".
Throughout his career Johnson began to build a unique fighting style of his own, which was not customary to boxing during this time. Though Jack would typically strike first, he would fight defensively, waiting for his opponents to tire out, while becoming more aggressive as the rounds went on. He often fought to punish his opponents through the rounds rather than knocking them out, and would continuously dodge their punches. He would then quickly strike back with a blow of his own. Jack often made his fights look effortless, and as if he had much more to offer, but when pushed he could also display some powerful moves and punches. There are films of his fights in which he can be seen holding up his opponent, who otherwise might have fallen, until he recovered. (see film of the Stanley Ketchel and Jack Johnson fight). His style of playing with his opponents was very effective, but his style was also criticized by the press as being a cowardly fighting approach. In 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".
Johnson beat former black heavyweight champ Frank Childs on October 21, 1902. Childs had twice won the black heavyweight title and continued to claim himself the true black champ despite having lost his title in a bout with George Byers and then, after retaking the title from Byers, losing it again to Denver Ed Martin. He still made pretence to being the black champ and claimed the unrecognized black heavyweight title as well. Johnson won by a TKO in the 12th round of the scheduled 20-rounder, when Childs' seconds signaled he couldn't go on. (He claimed he had dislocated his elbow.) The defeat by Johnson forever ended his pretensions to the black heavyweight crown.
World colored heavyweight champ
By 1903, though Johnson's "official" record showed him with nine wins against three losses, five draws and two no contests, he 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 on points in a 20-round match for the World Colored Heavyweight Championship. Johnson held the title until it was vacated when he won the world heavyweight title from Tommy Burns in Sydney, Australia on Boxing Day 1908. His reign of 2,151 days was the third longest in the 60-year-long history of the colored heavyweight title. Only Harry Wills at 3,103 days and Peter Jackson at 3,041 days held the title longer. A three-time colored heavyweight champion, Wills held the title for a total of 3,351 days.
Johnson defended the colored heavyweight title 17 times, which was second only to the 26 times Wills defended the title. While colored champ, he defeated ex-colored champs Denver Ed Martin and Frank Childs again and beat future colored heavyweight champs Sam McVey three times and Sam Langford once. He beat Langford on points in a 15-rounder and never gave him another shot at the title, either when he was colored champ or the world heavyweight champ.
Johnson, Jeanette and Langford
Jack Johnson fought Joe Jeanette a total of seven times, all during his reign as colored champ before he became the world's heavyweight champion, winning four times and drawing twice (three of the victories and one draw were newspaper decisions). In their first match in 1905, they had fought to a draw, but in their second match on 25 November 1905, Johnson lost as he was disqualified in the second round of a scheduled six-round fight. Johnson continued to claim the title because of the disqualification.
After Johnson became the first African-American Heavyweight Champion of the World on December 26, 1908, his World Colored Heavyweight Championship was vacated. Jeanette fought Sam McVey for the title in Paris on 20 February 1909 and was beaten, but later took the title from McVey in a 49-round bout on April 17 of that year in Paris for a $6,000 purse. Sam Langford subsequently claimed the title during Jeanette's reign after Johnson refused to defend the World Heavyweight Championship against him. Eighteen months later, Jeanette lost the title to Langford.
During his reign as world champ, Johnson never again fought Jeanette despite numerous challenges and avoided Langford, who won the colored title a record five times. Johnson had fought Langford once while he was the colored champ and beaten him on points in a 15-rounder.
On November 27, 1945, Johnson finally stepped back into the ring with Joe Jeanette. The 67-year-old Johnson squared off against the 66-year-old Jeanette in an exhibition held at a New York City rally to sell war bonds. Fellow former colored heavyweight champ Harry Wills also participated in the exhibition.
World heavyweight champion
Johnson's efforts to win the world heavyweight title were thwarted, as world heavyweight champion James J. Jeffries refused to face him then. Black boxers could meet white boxers 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. It is believed that Burns had agreed to fight Johnson only after promotors guaranteed him $30,000. 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.
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. While Johnson was heavyweight champion, he was covered more in the press than all other notable black men combined. The lead-up to the bout was peppered with racist press against Johnson. Even the New York Times wrote of the event, "If the black man wins, thousands and thousands of his ignorant brothers will misinterpret his victory as justifying claims to much more than mere physical equality with their white neighbors." 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 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. The punch knocked out Ketchell's front teeth; Johnson can be seen on videotape removing them from his glove, where they had been embedded.
Johnson's fight 4 months earlier with Philadelphia Jack O'Brien had been 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.
"Fight of the Century"
In 1910, former undefeated heavyweight champion James J. Jeffries came out of retirement to challenge Johnson. He had not fought in six years and had to lose well over 100 pounds to get back to his championship fighting weight. Initially Jeffries had no interest in the fight, being quite happy as an alfalfa farmer. But those who wanted to see Johnson defeated badgered Jeffries mercilessly for months, and offered him an unheard sum of money, reputed to be about $120,000 (equivalent to $3.1 million in 2016) to which he finally acquiesced.
Jeffries remained mostly hidden from media attention until the day of the fight, while Johnson soaked up the spotlight. John L. Sullivan, who made boxing championships a popular and esteemed spectacle, stated that Johnson was in such good physical shape compared to Jeffries that he could lose only if he had a lack of skill on the day. Before the fight, Jeffries remarked, "It is my intention to go right after my opponent and knock him out as soon as possible." While his wife added, "I'm not interested in prizefighting but I am interested in my husband's welfare, I do hope this will be his last fight." Johnson's words were "May the best man win."
Racial tension was brewing leading up to the fight and to prevent any harm to either boxer, guns were prohibited within the arena as was the sale of alcohol or anyone under the effects of alcohol. Behind the racial attitudes being instigated by the media was a major investment in gambling for the fight with 10–7 odds in favor of Jeffries.
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. Jeffries proved unable to impose his will on the younger champion and Johnson dominated the fight. By the 15th round, after Jeffries had been knocked down twice for the first time in his career, Jeffries' corner threw in the towel to end the fight and prevent Jeffries from having a knockout on his record. Johnson later remarked he knew the fight was over in the 4th round when he landed an uppercut and saw the look on Jeffries face, stating, "I knew what that look meant. The old ship was sinking." Afterwards, Jeffries was humbled by the loss and what he'd seen of Johnson in their match. "I could never have whipped Johnson at my best", Jeffries said. "I couldn't have hit him. No, I couldn't have reached him in 1,000 years."
The "Fight of the Century" earned Johnson $65,000 (over $1.7 million in 2016 dollars) 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. John L. Sullivan commented after the fight that Johnson won deservedly, fairly, and convincingly:
The fight of the century is over and a black man is the undisputed champion of the world. It was a poor fight as fights go, this less than 15-round affair between James J. Jeffries and Jack Johnson. Scarcely has there ever been a championship contest that was so one-sided. All of Jeffries much-vaunted condition amounted to nothing. He wasn't in it from the first bell tap to the last ... The negro had few friends, but there was little demonstration against him. (Spectators) could not help but admire Johnson because he is the type of prizefighter that is admired by sportsmen. He played fairly at all times and fought fairly. ... What a crafty, powerful, cunning left hand (Johnson) has. He is one of the craftiest, cunningest boxers that ever stepped into the ring. ... They both fought closely all during the 15 rounds. It was just the sort of fight that Jeffries wanted. There was no running or ducking like Corbett did with me in New Orleans (1892). Jeffries did not miss so many blows, because he hardly started any. Johnson was on top of him all the time.... (Johnson) didn't get gay at all with Jeffries in the beginning, and it was always the white man who clinched, but Johnson was very careful, and he backed away and took no chances, and was good-natured with it all ... The best man won, and I was one of the first to congratulate him, and also one of the first to extend my heartfelt sympathy to the beaten man.
Riots and aftermath
The 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.
White anger over the outcome erupted into race riots in New York, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, New Orleans, Atlanta, St. Louis, Little Rock and Houston. In several cases, white mobs attacked or lynched black citizens in revenge. In all, riots occurred in more than 25 states and 50 cities. At least twenty people were killed across the US from the riots, and hundreds more were injured.
Film of the bout
The Johnson-Jeffries Fight film received more public attention in the United States than any other film to date and for the next five years, until the release of The Birth of a Nation.
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 the US. 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". The controversy surrounding the film directly motivated Congress to ban distribution of all prizefight films 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.
The six fights for which the major films were made, starring Johnson, were:
- Johnson-Burns (film released in 1908)
- Johnson-Ketchel (film released in 1909)
- Johnson-Jeffries (film released in 1910)
- Johnson-Flynn (film released in 1912)
- Johnson-Moran (film released in 1914)
- Johnson-Willard (film released in 1915)
Maintaining the color bar
The color bar remained in force even under Johnson. Once he was the world's heavyweight champ, Johnson did not fight a black opponent for the first five years of his reign. He denied matches to black heavyweights Joe Jeanette (one of his successors as colored heavyweight champ), Sam Langford (who beat Jeanette for the colored title), and the young Harry Wills, who was colored heavyweight champ during the last year of Johnson's reign as world's heavyweight champ.
Blacks were not given a chance at the title allegedly because Johnson felt that he could make more money fighting white boxers. In August 1913, as Johnson neared the end of his troubled reign as world heavyweight champ, there were rumors that he had agreed to fight Langford in Paris for the title, but it came to nought. Johnson said that Langford was unable to raise $30,000 for his guarantee.
Because black boxers with the exception of Johnson had been barred from fighting for the heavyweight championship because of racism, Johnson's refusal to fight African-Americans offended the African-American community, since the opportunity to fight top white boxers was rare. Jeanette criticized Johnson, saying, "Jack forgot about his old friends after he became champion and drew the color line against his own people."
Johnson v. Johnson
When Johnson finally did agree to take on a black opponent in late 1913, it was not Sam Langford, the current colored heavyweight champ, that he gave the title shot to. Instead, Johnson chose Battling Jim Johnson, a lesser boxer who, in 1910, had lost to Langford and had a draw and loss via KO to Sam McVey, the former colored champ. Battling Jim fought former colored champ Joe Jeanette four times between 19 July 1912 and 21 January 1913 and lost all four fights. The only fighter of note he did beat in that period was future colored champ Big Bill Tate, whom he KO-ed in the second round of a scheduled 10-round bout. It was Tate's third pro fight.
In November 1913, the International Boxing Union had declared the world heavyweight title held by Jack Johnson to be vacant. The fight, scheduled for 10 rounds, was held on 19 December 1913 in Paris. It was the first time in history that two blacks had fought for the world heavyweight championship.
While the Johnson v. Johnson fight had been billed as a world heavyweight title match, in many ways, it resembled an exhibition. A sportswriter from the Indianapolis Star at the fight reported that the crowd became unruly when it was apparent that neither boxer was putting up a fight.
Jack Johnson, the heavyweight champion, and Battling Jim Johnson, another colored pugilist, of Galveston, Texas, met in a 10-round contest here tonight, which ended in a draw. The spectators loudly protested throughout that the men were not fighting, and demanded their money back. Many of them left the hall. The organizers of the fight explained the fiasco by asserting that Jack Johnson's left arm was broken in the third round. There is no confirmation of a report that Jack Johnson had been stabbed and no evidence at the ringside of such an accident. During the first three rounds he was obviously playing with his opponent. After that it was observed that he was only using his right hand. When the fight was over he complained that his arm had been injured. Doctors who made an examination, certified to a slight fracture of the radius of the left arm. The general opinion is that his arm was injured in a wrestling match early in the week, and that a blow tonight caused the fracture of the bone.
Because of the draw, Jack Johnson kept his championship. After the fight, he explained that his left arm was injured in the third round and he could not use it.
Battling Jim's next fight, four months later, also was a title match. On 27 March 1914 in New York City, Sam Langford won a newspaper decision in a ten-rounder with Johnson. According to the New York Times, the colored champ "won by a wide margin" because Johnson "failed to show anything remotely resembling championship ability."
Battling Jim fought Langford ten more times (including two more colored title matches). Two of the fights were draws, including their last fight on 22 September 1918, which was also Battling Jim's last pro bout. He faced Joe Jeanette five more times and did not win a single contest. Two of their fights were draws and their last fight on 20 August 1918, Battling Jim's penultimate pro fight, was a no decision.
Of the other former and future colored heavyweight champs that Battling Jim battled, he won only one fight, against Harry Wills, because he broke his wrist blocking a punch in a non-title match and Johnson won by a TKO. Battling Jim lost his other two fights with Wills, and he lost all of the five fights he had with ex-champ Sam McVey in the post-Jack Johnson title shot period.
Battling Jim, who died during the Spanish influenza epidemic of 1918, ended with a career record of 30 wins against 31 losses and six draws when his newspaper decisions are factored in. Looking at his dismal performance with the top black heavyweights of his era and his inability to best a one-armed Jack Johnson, Battling Jim Johnson cannot be considered a top contender of his era or a worthy opponent when Jack awarded him the sole title shot given to an African-American heavyweight from 1908 to 1937.
Loss of the title
On 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. Many people thought Johnson purposely threw the fight because Willard was white, in an effort to have his Mann Act charges dropped. Willard said, "If he was going to throw the fight, I wish he'd done it sooner. It was hotter than hell out there."
After losing his world heavyweight championship, Johnson never again fought for the colored heavyweight crown. His popularity remained strong enough that he recorded for Ajax Records in the 1920s.
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, Brooklyn, 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.
His questionable behavior was looked down upon by the African American community, especially by the black scholar Booker T. Washington who said "It is unfortunate that a man with money should use it in a way to injure his own people, in the eyes of those who are seeking to uplift his race and improve its conditions, I wish to say emphatically that Jack Johnson’s actions did not meet my personal approval and I am sure they do not meet with the approval of the colored race."
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".
In 1911 Johnson, via an acquaintance, attempted to become a Freemason in Dundee. Although he was admitted as a member of the Forfar and Kincardine Lodge No 225 in the city, there was considerable opposition to his membership, principally on the grounds of his race, and the Forfarshire Lodge was suspended by the Grand Lodge of Scotland. Johnson's fees were returned to him and his admission was ruled illegal. The archives of the resulting legal battle are held at the University of Dundee.
Jack Johnson wrote two memoirs of his life Mes combats in 1914 and Jack Johnson in the Ring and Out in 1927.
Little is written about his religious affiliations, though in 1943, Johnson attended at least one service at the Angelus Temple in Los Angeles, California. In a public conversion, while Detroit, Michigan, burned in race riots, he professed his faith to Christ in a service conducted by famous evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson. She embraced him as "he raised his hand in worship".
Johnson was married three times. All of his wives were white, a fact that caused considerable controversy at the time. At the height of his career, the outspoken Johnson was excoriated by the press for his flashy lifestyle and for having married white women.
In January 1911, Johnson married Etta Terry Duryea. A Brooklyn socialite and former wife of Clarence Duryea, she met Johnson at a car race in 1909. Their romantic involvement was very turbulent. 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.
On 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. Her mother also swore formally that her daughter was insane. 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 before 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. In order to flee to Canada to skip his bail, Johnson posed as a member of a black baseball team. For the next seven years, they lived in exile in Europe, South America and Mexico. Johnson returned to the U.S. on 20 July 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 9 July 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, film maker 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. Again, on 30 June 2016, another petition for Johnson's pardon was issued by McCain, King, Senator Harry Reid and Congressman Gregory Meeks to President Obama, marking the 70th anniversary since the boxer's death. This time citing a provision of the Every Student Succeeds Act, signed by the president in December 2015, in which Congress expressed that this boxing great should receive a posthumous pardon, and a vote by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights passed unanimously a week earlier in June 2016 to "right this century-old wrong."
Mike Tyson, Harry Reid and John McCain have all lent their support to the campaign, starting a Change.org petition asking President Obama to posthumously pardon the world’s first African-American boxing champion of his racially motivated 1913 felony conviction.
Later life and death
Johnson 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—not be counted on his actual record, since he was basically performing in order to make a living. He also indulged in what was known as "cellar" fighting, where the bouts, unadvertised, were fought for private audiences, usually in cellars, or other unrecognized 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 10 June 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.
Johnson 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.
During his boxing career, Jack Johnson fought 114 fights, winning 80 matches, 45 by knockouts.
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.
In 2012, the City of Galveston dedicated a park in Johnson's memory as Galveston Island's most famous native son. The park includes a life-size, bronze statue of Johnson.
Johnson's story is the basis of the play and subsequent 1970 movie The Great White Hope, starring James Earl Jones as Johnson (known as Jack Jefferson in the movie), and Jane Alexander as his love interest.
His fight with Tommy Burns was turned into a contemporary documentary The Burns-Johnson Fight in 1908.
In 2005, filmmaker Ken Burns produced a two-part documentary about Johnson's life, Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson, based on the 2004 nonfiction book of the same name by Geoffrey C. Ward. The book won the William Hill Sports Book of the Year (2006).
Folksinger and blues singer Lead Belly referenced Johnson in a song about the Titanic: "Jack Johnson wanna get on board, Captain said I ain't hauling no coal. Fare thee, Titanic, fare thee well. When Jack Johnson heard that mighty shock, mighta seen the man do the Eagle rock. Fare thee, Titanic, fare thee well" (The Eagle Rock was a popular dance at the time). In 1969, American folk singer Jaime Brockett reworked the Lead Belly song into a satirical talking blues called "The Legend of the S.S. Titanic." There is no convincing evidence that Johnson was in fact refused passage on the Titanic because of his race, as these songs allege.
The end of Miles Davis's 1971 album titled A Tribute to Jack Johnson features the actor Brock Peters (as Johnson) saying:
Miles Davis and Wynton Marsalis both have done soundtracks for documentaries about Johnson. Several hip-hop activists have also reflected on Johnson's legacy, most notably in the album The New Danger, by Mos Def, in which songs like "Zimzallabim" and "Blue Black Jack" are devoted to the artist's pugilistic hero. Additionally, both Southern punk rock band This Bike is a Pipe Bomb and alternative country performer Tom Russell have songs dedicated to Johnson. Russell's piece is both a tribute and a biting indictment of the racism Johnson faced: "here comes Jack Johnson, like he owns the town, there's a lot of white Americans like to see a man go down ... like to see a black man drown."
Atlanta-based "flower punk" rock band the Black Lips recorded a song on their 2009 album 200 Million Thousand called "Big Black Baby Jesus of Today" which features the lyric "You can't be the Jack Johnson of today/Big Black Baby Jesus on the way."
Johnson was referenced in the film Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, and he is mentioned in the 1940 book Native Son by author Richard Wright. Furthermore, 41st street in Galveston is named Jack Johnson Blvd.
Wal-Mart created a controversy in 2006 when DVD shoppers were directed from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Planet of the Apes to the "similar item" Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson.
Ray Emery of the Chicago Blackhawks of the NHL sported a mask with a picture of Johnson on it as a tribute to his love for boxing.
In the trenches of World War One, Johnson's name was used by British troops to describe the impact of German 150 mm heavy artillery shells which had a black colour. In his letters home to his wife, Rupert Edward Inglis (1863–1916), a former rugby international who was a Forces Chaplain, describes passing through the town of Albert:
We went through the place today (2 October 1915) where the Virgin Statue at the top of the Church was hit by a shell in January. The statue was knocked over, but has never fallen, I sent you a picture of it. It really is a wonderful sight. It is incomprehensible how it can have stayed there, but I think it is now lower than when the photograph was taken, and no doubt will come down with the next gale. The Church and village are wrecked, there’s a huge hole made by a Jack Johnson just outside the west door of the Church.
Jack Johnson was painted several times by Raymond Saunders.
In Joe R. Lansdale's short story The Big Blow, Johnson is featured fighting a white boxer brought in by Galveston, Texas's boxing fans to defeat the African American fighter during the 1900 Galveston Hurricane. The story won a Bram Stoker Award and was expanded into a novel.
Johnson is the subject of the biographical comic book The Original Johnson, by writer/artist Trevor Von Eeden.
In 2011, Jack Johnson was featured on EA Sports Fight Night Champion as downloadable content on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. Johnson was part of the "Legends Pack" with fellow heavyweights Jack Dempsey, Floyd Patterson, Joe Louis, and Rocky Marciano.
Johnson is a major character in the novel The Killings of Stanley Ketchel (2005), by James Carlos Blake.
In the opening scene of Episode 6, Series 2 (2011), of the British drama Downton Abbey, Mary Crawley, pushing her wheelchair-bound cousin Matthew Crawley across the lawn in the Summer of 1918 says, "I shall have arms like Jack Johnson if I'm not careful."
The Royale, a play by Marco Ramirez, uses the life of Jack Johnson as inspiration for its main character, Jay Johnson. It premiered in March 2016 at Lincoln Center Theater directed by Rachel Chavkin, and was nominated for a Drama Desk Awards for Outstanding Play, Outstanding Director of a Play, and a Special Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Ensemble.
Professional boxing record
|73 Wins (40 knockouts, 30 decisions, 3 disqualifications), 13 Losses (7 knockouts, 5 decisions, 1 disqualification), 10 Draws, 5 No Contests|
|Exhibition||73-13-10||John Ballcort||Exh||3 (10)||November 27, 1945||New York City, NY|
|Exhibition||73-13-10||Joe Jeanette||Exh||3 (10)||November 27, 1945||New York City, NY|
|Loss||73-13-10||Walter Price||KO||7 (10)||September 1, 1938||Boston, MA|
|Win||73-12-10||Dick Anderson||KO||3||November 29, 1932||Chicago, IL|
|Win||72-12-10||Brad Simmons||no||2||April 28, 1931||Wichita, KS|
|Loss||71-12-10||Brad Simmons||Decision||10||March 4, 1931||Newport, VT|
|Loss||71-11-10||Bill Hartwell||TKO||6 (10)||May 15, 1928||Kansas City, MO||Johnson did not continue after the sixth round.|
|Loss||71-10-10||Bearcat Wright||KO||5 (10)||April 16, 1928||Topeka, KS||Wright's real name was Ed Wright.|
|Loss||71-9-10||Brad Simmons||Decision||10||September 6, 1926||Ponca City, OK|
|Loss||71-8-10||Battling Norfolk||Decision||10||July 1, 1926||Unknown|
|Loss||71-7-10||Bob Lawson||TKO||7 (12)||May 30, 1926||Juárez, MEX||Johnson did not continue after the seventh round.|
|Win||71-6-10||Pat Lester||Decision||15||May 2, 1926||Nogales, MEX|
|Win||70-6-10||Homer Smith||Decision||10||February 22, 1924||Montreal, CAN|
|Win||69-6-10||Jack Thompson||Decision||12||May 20, 1923||Havana, CUB|
|Win||68-6-10||Farmer Lodge||KO||4||May 6, 1923||Havana, CUB||Lodge's real name was Walter Fakeskie.|
|Win||67-6-10||Joe Boykin||KO||5||May 28, 1921||Leavenworth, KS|
|Win||66-6-10||Jack Townsend||KO||6||April 15, 1921||Leavenworth, KS|
|Win||65-6-10||Jack Johnson||Decision||4||November 25, 1920||Leavenworth, KS|
|Win||64-6-10||Frank Owens||KO||6 (6)||November 25, 1920||Leavenworth, KS|
|Win||63-6-10||George Roberts||KO||3||September 28, 1920||Tijuana, MEX|
|Win||62-6-10||Bob Wilson||KO||3||April 18, 1920||Mexicali, MEX|
|Win||61-6-10||Marty Cutler||KO||6 (25)||September 28, 1919||Mexico City, MEX|
|Win||60-6-10||Tom Cowler||KO||15 (15)||August 10, 1919||Nuevo Laredo, MEX|
|Win||59-6-10||Bob Roper||Decision||10||June 22, 1919||Mexico City, MEX|
|Win||58-6-10||Bill Flint||KO||2||February 12, 1919||Madrid, ESP|
|Win||57-6-10||Blink McCloskey||Decision||4||April 3, 1918||Madrid, ESP|
|Win||56-6-10||Arthur Cravan||KO||6 (20)||April 23, 1916||Barcelona, ESP|
|Win||55-6-10||Frank Crozier||TKO||Unknown||March 23, 1916||Madrid, ESP|
|Loss||54-6-10||Jess Willard||KO||26 (45), 1:26||April 5, 1915||Havana, CUB||Lost World Heavyweight title.|
|Win||54-5-10||Jack Murray||KO||3 (10)||December 15, 1914||Buenos Aires, ARG|
|Win||53-5-10||Frank Moran||Decision||20||June 27, 1914||Paris, FRA||Retained World Heavyweight title.|
|Draw||52-5-10||Jim Johnson||Draw||10||December 19, 1913||Paris, FRA||Retained World Heavyweight title.|
|Win||52–5–9||Jim Flynn||TKO||9 (45)||July 4, 1912||Las Vegas, New Mexico||Retained World Heavyweight title.|
|Win||51–5–9||James J. Jeffries||TKO||15 (45), 2:20||July 4, 1910||Reno, NV||Retained World Heavyweight title.|
|Win||50–5–9||Stanley Ketchel||KO||12 (15)||October 16, 1909||Colma, CA||Retained World Heavyweight title.|
|Win||49–5–9||Al Kaufmann||Decision||10||September 9, 1909||San Francisco, CA||Retained World Heavyweight title. Decision given
in an Associated Press report.
|Win||48–5–9||Tony Ross||Decision||6||June 30, 1909||Pittsburgh, PA||Retained World Heavyweight title. Decision given
by The Washington Post.
|Draw||47–5–9||Jack O'Brien||Draw||6||May 19, 1909||Philadelphia, PA||Retained World Heavyweight title. Newspapers
reported differing results.
|Exhibition||47-5-9||Victor McLaglen||Exh||6||March 10, 1909||British Columbia, CAN|
|Win||47–5–8||Tommy Burns||Decision||14||December 26, 1908||Sydney, AUS||Won World Heavyweight title.|
|Win||46–5–8||Ben Taylor||TKO||8 (20)||July 31, 1908||Plymouth, ENG|
|Win||45–5–8||Jim Flynn||KO||11 (45), 1:30||November 6, 1907||San Francisco, CA|
|Win||44–5–8||Sailor Burke||Decision||6||September 12, 1907||Bridgeport, CT||Decision given by the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette.|
|Win||43–5–8||Kid Cutler||KO||1||August 28, 1907||Reading, PA|
|Win||42–5–8||Bob Fitzsimmons||KO||2 (6)||July 17, 1907||Philadelphia, PA|
|Win||41–5–8||Bill Lang||TKO||9 (20)||March 4, 1907||Melbourne, AUS|
|Win||40–5–8||Peter Felix||KO||1 (20)||February 19, 1907||Sydney, AUS||Retained World Colored Heavyweight title.|
|Draw||39–5–8||Joe Jeanette||Decision||10||November 26, 1906||Portland, ME||Retained World Colored Heavyweight title.|
|Win||39–5–7||Jim Jeffords||Decision||6||November 8, 1906||Lancaster, PA|
|Win||38–5–7||Joe Jeanette||Decision||6||September 20, 1906||Philadelphia, PA||Retained World Colored Heavyweight title. Decision
given by the Kennebec Journal.
|Draw||37–5–7||Billy Dunning||Draw||10||September 3, 1906||Millinocket, ME|
|Win||37–5–6||Charlie Haghey||KO||2 (12)||June 18, 1906||Gloucester, MA|
|Win||36–5–6||Sam Langford||Decision||15||April 26, 1906||Chelsea, MA||Retained World Colored Heavyweight title.|
|Win||35–5–6||Black Bill||KO||7 (10)||April 16, 1906||Wilkes-Barre, PA||Black Bill's real name was Claude Brooks.|
|Win||34–5–6||Joe Jeanette||Decision||15||March 14, 1906||Baltimore, MD||Retained World Colored Heavyweight title.|
|Win||33–5–6||Bob Kerns||KO||1 (10)||January 26, 1906||Topeka, KS|
|Win||32–5–6||Joe Jeanette||Decision||3||January 16, 1906||New York City, NY||Retained World Colored Heavyweight title. Decision
given by the Boston Globe.
|NC||31–5–6||Joe Jeanette||No decision||6||December 2, 1905||Philadelphia, PA||Retained World Colored Heavyweight title.|
|Win||31–5–6||Young Peter Jackson||Decision||12||December 1, 1905||Baltimore, MD||Retained World Colored Heavyweight title. Decision
given by the Durango Democrat and New York World.
|Loss||30–5–6||Joe Jeanette||Disqualification||2||November 25, 1905||Philadelphia, PA||World Colored Heavyweight title was on the line.
Johnson continued to claim the title due to losing by
|Win||30–4–6||Joe Grim||Decision||6||July 24, 1905||Philadelphia, PA||Decision given by the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette.|
|Win||29–4–6||Sandy Ferguson||Disqualification||7 (15)||July 18, 1905||Chelsea, MA||Ferguson was disqualified for delivering a knee
twice to Johnson's groin.
|Win||28–4–6||Morris Harris||Decision||3||July 13, 1905||Philadelphia, PA|
|Win||27–4–6||Black Bill||KO||1 (3)||July 13, 1905||Philadelphia, PA|
|Win||26–4–6||Jack Munroe||Decision||6||June 26, 1905||Philadelphia, PA||Decision given by the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette.|
|NC||25–4–6||Joe Jeanette||No decision||6||May 19, 1905||Philadelphia, PA|
|Win||25–4–6||Walter Johnson||KO||3||May 9, 1904||Philadelphia, PA||Retained World Colored Heavyweight title.|
|Draw||24–4–6||Joe Jeanette||Draw||3||May 9, 1904||Philadelphia, PA||The fight was declared even by both the New York
World and Washington Times.
|Win||24–4–5||Black Bill||KO||4 (6)||May 2, 1904||Philadelphia, PA||Retained World Colored Heavyweight title.|
|Win||23–4–5||Jim Jeffords||KO||4 (6)||April 25, 1905||Philadelphia, PA|
|Loss||22–4–5||Marvin Hart||Decision||20||March 28, 1905||San Francisco, CA|
|Win||22–3–5||Ed Martin||KO||2 (20)||October 18, 1904||Los Angeles, CA||Retained World Colored Heavyweight title.|
|Win||21–3–5||Frank Childs||Decision||6||June 2, 1904||Chicago, Illinois||Retained World Colored Heavyweight title.|
|Win||20–3–5||Sam McVey||KO||20 (20)||April 22, 1904||San Francisco, CA||Retained World Colored Heavyweight title.|
|Win||19–3–5||Black Bill||Decision||6||February 15, 1904||Philadelphia, PA||Retained World Colored Heavyweight title. Decision
given by the Philadelphia Item.
|NC||18–3–5||Sandy Ferguson||No contest||5||February 6, 1904||Philadelphia, PA||The referee left the ring claiming the fighters were
|Win||18–3–5||Sandy Ferguson||Decision||20||December 11, 1903||Colma, CA|
|Win||17–3–5||Sam McVey||Decision||20||October 27, 1903||Los Angeles, CA||Retained World Colored Heavyweight title.|
|Win||16–3–5||Sandy Ferguson||Decision||6||July 31, 1903||Philadelphia, PA||Decision given by the New York World.|
|Win||15–3–5||Joe Butler||KO||3||May 11, 1903||Philadelphia, PA||Retained World Colored Heavyweight title.|
|Win||14–3–5||Sandy Ferguson||Decision||10||April 16, 1903||Boston, MA|
|Win||13–3–5||Sam McVey||Decision||20||February 26, 1903||Los Angeles, CA||Retained World Colored Heavyweight title.|
|Win||12–3–5||Ed Martin||Decision||20||February 5, 1903||Los Angeles, CA||Won World Colored Heavyweight title.|
|Win||11–3–5||Fred Russell||Disqualification||8||December 4, 1902||Los Angeles, CA||Russell was disqualified for several low blows.|
|Win||10–3–5||George Gardiner||Decision||20||October 31, 1902||San Francisco, CA|
|Win||9–3–5||Frank Childs||TKO||12||October 21, 1902||Los Angeles, CA|
|Win||8–3–5||Pete Everett||Decision||20||September 3, 1902||Victor, CO|
|Draw||7–3–5||Hank Griffin||Draw||20||June 20, 1902||Los Angeles, CA|
|Win||7–3–4||Jack Jeffries||KO||5||May 16, 1902||Los Angeles, CA|
|Win||6–3–4||Joe Kennedy||KO||4 (15)||March 7, 1902||Oakland, CA|
|Win||5–3–4||Dan Murphy||KO||10||February 7, 1902||Waterbury, CT|
|Draw||4–3–4||Hank Griffin||Draw||15||December 27, 1901||Oakland, CA|
|Loss||4–3–3||Hank Griffin||Decision||20||November 4, 1901||Bakersfield, CA|
|Draw||4–2–3||Billy Stift||Draw||10||April 26, 1901||Denver, CO|
|Loss||4–2–2||Joe Choynski||KO||3 (20)||May 25, 1901||Galveston, TX|
|Draw||4–1–2||Jim Scanlon||Draw||7||January 14, 1901||Galveston, TX|
|Win||4–1–1||Klondike||TKO||14 (20)||December 27, 1900||Memphis, TN|
|Draw||3–1–1||Klondike||Draw||20||June 25, 1900||Galveston, TX|
|Win||3–1||Jim McCormick||Disqualification||6 (20)||April 20, 1900||Galveston, TX|
|NC||2–1||William McNeill||No decision||4||April 9, 1900||Galveston, TX|
|NC||2–1||Jim McCormick||No decision||15||March 21, 1900||Galveston, TX|
|Loss||2–1||Klondike||TKO||5 (6)||May 8, 1899||Chicago, Illinois|
|Win||2–0||Ed Johnson||KO||5||November 20, 1898||Galveston, TX||Retained Texas State Middleweight title.|
|Win||1–0||Charley Brooks||KO||2 (15)||November 1, 1898||Galveston, TX||Won Texas State Middleweight title.|