“Don’t let the Nigger knock him out,” the sold-out crowd shouted desperately. It was deep into the 15th and final round of the heavyweight championship bout between contender Jack Johnson and former champion, and Great White Hope, Jim Jeffries, and the champ was about to go down. The fight took place Monday, July 4, 1910, in Reno, Nevada, and shouts to stop the fight, turn off the cameras and stop filming, came next, as fight organizers and Reno civic authorities did not want the world to see evidence of a crack in the armor of White Supremacy. For over a decade Jeffries denied the challenger the opportunity to fight for the title– he refused to defend his title against a Negro. A Johnson victory would make him the very first Negro Heavyweight Champion of the World.
At risk, was a mythology perpetuated throughout the world in which heavy investments were made in imperialism and colonialism through global campaigns of mercenaries and missionaries. Mercenaries threatened the brute force, power and might of European military. Christian missionaries promoted a White Christ, White Disciples, White Apostles, and along with all other key Biblical figures, a White God.
The United Kingdom along with other White European nations such as France, Germany, Spain, and Belgium, relied on social and political constructs based on and supported by the notion of White Supremacy and Black and Brown Inferiority to exploit and manage the psychological subjugation of Africans, East Indians, Asians and colonized island nations throughout the Caribbean. They shared in the investment and benefits of White Supremacy. However, the impact of one American boxing match reverberated around the globe and threatened the very sanctity of this geopolitical structure. Muhammad Ali would say, “Johnson shook up the world.” American Whites reacted as history has recorded and proven to be a predictable and repetitive pattern– with violence.
14 SLAIN IN RACE RIOTS OVER FIGHT, read the Home Edition headline of the Chicago American newspaper as race riots broke out throughout the country, in cities like New York, Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New Orleans, Houston, St. Louis, Wilmington, Atlanta, Cincinnati, and Shreveport among others– each with their own respective death and injury tolls. While Blacks celebrated the Johnson victory with jubilation and pride, Whites responded with indignance and violence. Between the years 1901 and 1910, there were 846 men lynched in America, 754 of them Black.
“A Word to the Black Man”, was printed by the Los Angeles Times, July 5th, 1910, the day after the fight. “Do not point your nose too high, do not swell your chest too much, do not boast too loudly, let not your ambition be inordinate, or take a wrong direction. Remember, you have done nothing at all. You are just the same member of society you were last week. You are on no higher plane, deserve no new consideration, and will get none. No man will think a bit higher of you because your complexion is the same as that of the victor at Reno.”
Stressing irony to the breaking point is the notion that in the wake of continued oppression, the denial of civil rights, human rights, historic truths, and Constitutional promises made by a nation, born of the blood, sweat and tears of people of African descent, is the fact that we are expected to provide explanations for our resentment and discontent. It is we who owe justification for our reactions to the senseless killings, murders of our fellow citizens and those who, but for the sharing of a common despised ancestry, would be alive today.
Atonement and apologies are asked of us for broken bottles, broken windows, and material damage caused by an occasional fire. It’s worth noting that a burning car or corner store should never be compared to entire towns bombed and burned to the ground by angry white mobs. No atonement, acknowledgement or apology is offered to us for centuries of tyranny, repression, exploitation, injustice, inequality, and what I refer to as negligent genocide. Reparation begins with admitting to wrong-doing and the need for redress and atonement for sins against another or in the case of displaced Africans, crimes against humanity. It’s so much more than a check.
To the dismay and distress of white folks, Johnson was the quintessential Sport, complete with diamond stickpins, tailor made suits with wide-lapels, custom hats and custom designed race cars. He also “sported” various White women, with whom he traveled the world, and referred to as Mrs. Johnsons. This, at a time when a Negro man could and would be lynched for glancing in the direction of a Caucasian woman. He was considered a New Negro, cheeky, insolent, arrogant, but he was also an avid reader, a history buff, a musician, an inventor with a patent for a special wrench designed to build his race cars. The term “Unforgiveable Blackness” was used to describe him. He said: “Because my ancestors came here before anyone had dreamed of a United States, I consider myself a pure blooded American.”
Booker T. Washington disapproved of Johnson’s lifestyle and the way in which he represented the Negro race to which Johnson replied: “White people often point to the writings of Booker T. Washington as the best example of a desirable attitude on the part of the colored population. I have never been able to agree with the point of view of Washington, because he has to my mind not been altogether frank in the statement of the problems or courageous in his solution to them…”
Jack Johnson, the Galveston Giant, predates Paul Robeson, Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali, Bob Hayes, Althea Gibson, Arthur Ashe and all of our modern-day “heroes.” Unlike today, his bouts were 20, 3-minute rounds, with death threats and racist taunts hurled at him anytime he fought a White contender.
“They say I’m controversial, they say that I’m bold, but I wasn’t nothing like Jack Johnson.”
— Muhammad Ali
“He was a defensive genius.” — Mike Tyson
It’s important to remember that celebrity does not make one a hero or a giant– and our kids, especially our young men, need both.
That’s what’s on my mind!