In the words of Muhammad Ali, Jack Johnson was “a baaad man!” Way ahead of his time and having to fight rabid racism along with his opponents, “The Galveston Giant” was strong enough, mentally and physically, to be able to overcome odds that would seem unfathomable to a modern day fighter.
Johnson, who met a veritable Murderer’s Row during his ascension to the heavyweight crown, not always winning these fights but earning himself a ton of priceless experience and further honing his craft as he went, became THE most controversial heavyweight champion of the world in history. Fact. Some of the tough hurdles Joe Louis and later Ali had to endure seem like kid’s play compared to the monstrously hate-filled pitfalls Jack had to navigate.
In America, mostly in the south, there were lynchings, beatings and other terrible fates endured by everyday blacks after Johnson smashed defending heavyweight champ Tommy Burns to take the title on Boxing Day in 1908. And the hatred “superior” whites had for Johnson grew and grew. Carrying with him a swagger, a charming smile and, most noxiously for the “superior” race at the time, a keen eye for pretty white women. These bold, brave (both understatements) and seemingly carefree qualities of Johnson further angered the white establishment due to the fact that Jack was all but unbeatable in the prize ring; certainly none of the “White Hopes” that were hurled at him were anywhere close to equipped to take his title.
Married to three white women during his amazingly eventful life, Johnson was eventually beaten – by a manufactured white heavyweight, and by the system. Yet as much as Jess Willard, and those long, hard (especially for an ageing, ill-trained Johnson) 26-rounds were a creation designed to finally wrest the biggest prize in sports from the firm grasp of Johnson, the “crime” he would be jailed for was also a piece of fiction; “The Mann Act” being a newly created term of law put into existence simply for the purpose of taking away Jack’s freedom, liberty and pursuit of happiness.
It was in 1912, three years before Johnson would lose to Willard via 26th round KO, when the hated heavyweight was arrested for “the act of transporting white women across state lines for immoral purposes,” and finally, though immorally, the system had gotten the better of Johnson.
All these years later, and Johnson’s surviving family members are still trying to persuade the serving US president to do the right thing and grant Jack (who passed away in 1946 at the age of 68) a pardon.
Linda E Haywood, Johnson’s great-great niece is now hoping President Trump will do what President Obama did not do, and right this century-old wrong.
“I certainly hope President Trump will grant my uncle a pardon,” Haywood said as quoted by The Mail. “This pardon is long overdue and I was very disappointed when President Obama did no grant my uncle a pardon. The last thing you want to do is die and have your name tarnished. That’s wrong. You don’t want it to be tarnished if you’re living.”
If Johnson were still living, in these times, chances are he would have been shamefully bothered by none of the hostility and complete lack of acceptance he had to do battle with in the early 1900s. But Jack is gone, his family left to do his fighting for him. Johnson, as unashamedly proud a man as he was, wouldn’t like this. But his cause endures, and rightfully so.
Here’s a fave Johnson story of mine: In his retirement days Jack, a lover of fast cars, was driving somewhere in the south, breaking the speed limit. A white cop pulled him over and asked, incredulously, what he thought he was doing driving so fast! “That’s a $50 dollar fine,” the cop said.
Beaming, Johnson gave the cop $100, telling him, “I’ll be coming back this same way in a few hours.”
Now that’s a sharp wit. And just one example of how funny Johnson really could be. Today he’d be nothing but celebrated in a big, big way.