When I was a little boy there were two mentionably unmentionable names in the house, along with the unknown (but guessed at) murderers of Ehrlich and Alter. These were Jack Johnson and Earl Browder. While the Communist was openly execrated (to the point that I grew up half-musing that “Browder” was an obscure religious epithet), the prize-fighter was never talked about in front of me except in the muffled, sidling tones associated with money troubles, infidelity, or surgical illness. It was not until I read Mr. Finis Farr’s courteous biography that I realized what the fuss had been about.
John Arthur Johnson was the first Negro to win the world’s heavyweight championship. In fact, because of who and what he was, he had to do it twice, in 1908 from Tommy Burns (“I’ll fight him and whip him, as sure as my name is Tommy Burns” said the title-holder whose real name was Noah Brusso), and again two years later, in the famous Reno bout, from a frightened Jim Jeffries (“Come on now, Mr. Jeff. Let me see what you got, Do something, man. This is for the champeenship“).
Jeffries had been forced out of cheerful retirement by Nordic supremacists like the writer Jack London, who appeared to speak for a sizeable section of the U.S. male population when he screamed for a White Hope to wipe out the “playful Ethiopian” who not only had the cheek to beat two white men for the crown but also had no objections to white women. Johnson whipped the stuffings out of Jeffries in fifteen masterful rounds, and continued to do so against all comers until floored by age, his own brand of insouciance, the attrition of years of having to declare his manhood in equivocal (if flashy) terms, and a young giant named Jess Willard. Today he lies buried in Graceland Cemetery, among the Chicago elite—the Ryersons, Ishams, Palmers, and McCormicks—with a towering oak tree casting its shade over a massive granite block which reads simply, and probably impudently: “Johnson.”
Johnson was born in Galveston in 1878, twenty-four months after the Tilden-Hayes electoral frame-up gave birth to Negro unter-citizenship. He was the son of a pious janitor, probably himself a former slave. Like the famous boxing slaves from whom he spiritually descended, Johnson won his freedom in the ring, a freedom which made him the most famous Negro of his time but which probably only clumsily approximated what this fascinating, and not very interesting, man seemed to be searching for in his wild automobile rides, the last of which killed him in a North Carolina ditch in 1946.
He was what today we would call a natural counter-puncher, always forcing the other man to lead until he deemed it expedient to deliver a straight, slightly upward left (a “fly-catching motion,” said witnesses) that tended to pole-axe adversaries. Up to, including, and descending from his prime he sounds like a combination Sugar Ray, Lew Jenkins, Joe Walcott, and Liston, though he might have regarded the latter as a bit crude for his tastes. He was a natural Negro aristocrat, with an astounding body to match, who made his own business deals, could jump ten feet backward from a standing start after breaking a leg, had a grating streak of mortal disdain in him, and nothing of Joe Louis except the punching power. He was still giving exhibitions at sixty-eight.
When Johnson began to box it was an imprisonable offense. In the pitchman’s world in which he sought to exercise his skill and freedom, “pity was as rare as innocence or courtesy.” He starved, hoboed, got shot at and jailed, was brutally exploited and exploited back when he had the chance, had to plead for fights and even at the height of his eminence was forced to stand outside on the sidewalk while the nabobs of the National Sporting Club of England discussed a deal with his manager. But he would do a lot for publicity and money, including a walk-on role in a leopard skin in a Hippodrome production of Aida. “I am to be the head general of Ethiopia…and they take me up to Memphis—not Memphis, Tennessee, but in the old country—and I am a prisoner. So I’ve got to struggle. Boy, I mean to struggle plenty.”
Eventually, his biographer says, Johnson reached a relationship with the public “in which whatever he did was wrong; if he merely kept order in the ring [Johnson often “carried” white fighters before potentially hostile crowds] he was lazy, if he damaged his opponents he was a brute.” In his relations with whites Johnson was careful to scrape, though with wit and dignity, but in his personal life he did not go out of his way, to put it mildly, to avoid notoriety. It was his genius that he neither allowed himself to be hung up by, nor did he transcend, these two polarities in his life but lived the tension between them in a shrewd, negligent style that rubbed whites the wrong way. (Negroes, except of course for Booker T. Washington, adored him.) It did not help matters when he married, in fairly quick succession, four women, all white.
The scene for this side of Johnson’s career was set when there occurred, all over the country, deadly race riots in the aftermath of the Jeffries fight. Johnson characteristically chose that night to ride through Reno in an open car, with his wife Etta beside him. It was his special defect, and great charm, that he became a symbol while never seeing himself as such, something that would be impossible now.
It seems today as though that great visitation of Calvinist vengeance which was to culminate in the Volstead Act erupted at the moment Sam Berger, Jeffries’ manager, threw in the towel to concede defeat. The moral reformers were preparing their Walpurgisnacht, and Johnson was the perfect patsy. A conventional, but suspiciously vigorous, campaign not to show films of the fight ended some years later with the Negro fighter indicted on eleven Federal counts, all more or less adding up to the unendurable fact that white women liked all parts of him. At the height of the scandal he opened a saloon, Café de Champion, on the south side of Chicago. It had an exceptionally long bar and real Rembrandts on the walls.
The suicide of Etta confirmed something in the public mind, and Johnson began to take punishment from mayors, Congressmen and do-gooders, smugly backed up by a solid installment of public “opinion,” that partook of the national pastime for pillorying that Jimmy Hoffa and Sonny Liston have come in for today. When, three months after Etta’s death, he married another white girl, the alleged victim of his “abduction plot,” the Federal government was, as always, a willing partner in popular hypocrisy. A Mann Act charge was concocted, and Johnson wisely decided to jump bail. The heavyweight champion of the world became its most notorious fugitive. Whatever was said or charged in court, his real crimes were that he had beaten Jim Jeffries and that white women fancied him.
From about this point his life begins to lose weight, at least in the telling. He embarked on an unhappy, colorful European exile that was to include countless near-riots, night clubs, and court actions, a drinking session with Rasputin, and forcible eviction from several countries, and finally, in the 26th round at Havana, the affliction of having his title taken away by Willard. Later, Johnson said he threw the fight for $50,000. Mr. Farr doubts this and Johnson’s story is thin. He was past his prime and had not trained for the fight.
The rest is a grotesque film. Fidgety, and needing an arena in 1916 he entered the ring as a matador (trained by Belmonte and Joselito, the latter whom he taught to box) and somehow avoided being killed. Throughout the First War he bull-fought and boxed and probably smuggled and possibly spied, became a prominent citizen of Mexico City and then, as was inevitable, returned to the United States. The public was now more lenient, if also more indifferent; the judiciary was neither, and sent him to Leavenworth for a year and a day, from whence be emerged with a weakness for moralizing and ready for his fourth wife. (His third wife, the “abducted” girl, Lucille Cameron, had divorced him and retired to private life without giving interviews or selling her story, in its way as remarkable a performance as Johnson’s circuit-riding speech to the Danville, Illinois Klavern of the Ku Klux Klan in 1924 on “sportsmanship, fair play and the Golden Rule.”) He ended his days with vigor, tongue-in-cheek, and as a side-show attraction at a flea circus.
Mr. Farr’s book is readable and conscientious, enfeebled by detachment and the whiteness of the writer, but it is fair, gentlemanly, and sane. If he is not A. J. Liebling, neither is he Arthur Daley. On the back cover Bruce Catton, liking the book, says that Johnson’s story is an indictment of his generation. Perhaps. But I am not sure. I suspect he got a fairer shake of the stick than Sonny Liston. We were a better, bolder, cleaner people even in our hypocrisy then.
May 28, 1964