Jack Johnson: Why America’s First Black Heavyweight Champion wrote his life story in Paris
As white supremacist color lines crumbled at the turn of the 20th Century, Paris served as ground zero for boxing’s radical transformation. For Black boxers worldwide, Paris meant freedom.
The story begins somewhat bizarrely in Australia. There, in 1908, an African American fighter from Texas named Jack Johnson defeated Canadian Tommy Burns to become the first non-white Heavyweight Champion of the World.
Previously Johnson had only been allowed to lay claim to the Black Heavyweight title. To the white supremacists who created and maintained strict segregation in boxing, Johnson’s victory came as shock — and was dismissed as an Australian aberration.
Yet two years later, much to the utter shock of white audiences, Johnson defeated the so-called “Great White Hope,” Jim Jeffries, in Reno, Nevada in 1910. Worse yet, at least from a white supremacist perspective, his overwhelming victory was captured in gripping detail in the first full-length sports film ever to receive national and global distribution. As so often in the past, a new technology tore at the roots of an ancient, deeply embedded form of state-sponsored terror.
Asnews of Johnson’s victory flashed out across the wires from Reno, celebrations in Black neighborhoods were quickly answered by anti-Black vigilantes. For weeks and months thereafter, the world’s first full-length sports documentary, starring a handsome and charismatic Black champion, continued to fuel violent anti-Black race riots both nationwide and worldwide.
White audiences simply could not stomach seeing their Great White Hope pummeled and humiliated on screen for all the world to see. Their sincere belief in the myth of White physical and psychological superiority had been shattered.
Unable to triumph in the ring, they responded with vast, brutal, unprovoked urban mob violence and vigilantism. Black neighborhoods from coast to coast were pillaged, burned, and plundered. The fact that the Johnson-Jeffries fight had occurred on Independence Day only added further fuel to the racist fire.
Which is where Paris comes into the picture: Flush with his winnings, the handsome, charismatic, intelligent and supremely self-confident Jim Johnson soon found himself facing trumped-up criminal charges designed to put him behind bars. Behind a thin tissue of legal fictions, his so-called crime amounted to “dating white women.” Johnson sensibly fled to France.
Paris greeted him as nothing short of a conquering hero.
Already an international sports superstar, Johnson soon gave a long series of exclusive autobiographical interviews to a leading French sporting magazine. Published entirely in French (Johnson’s answers in English were translated), these articles only added further luster to the World Champion’s celebrity vast world-wide celebrity. In an era of growing global communications, Johnson had become the world’s first truly global superstar.
In his Paris interviews, Johnson addressed the question of racial prejudice diplomatically:
“It doesn’t matter much to the public if a champion is black, white, green, or red,” he declared to his Parisian fans. “What they want is for him to be a good boxer, always courageous, and to fight as cleanly as possible. A true fighter should be able to, and want to, fight anyone with enough talent to aspire to the title.”
Inevitably the reigning (unofficial) World Champion was offered the chance to defend his title. But this time in Paris.
There Johnson battled to a draw against another Black heavyweight champion (confusingly named Battling Jim Johnson) in front of a truly gargantuan Parisian audience.
Hence it was in Paris, not in America, that two men of color first battled for the combined World Heavyweight Championship.
Alas that first Paris fight was a complete fiasco(or perhaps it was fixed). Later it was claimed that the champion had fractured his forearm half-way through the match.
Angry Parisian audiences nearly rioted — but not because the fighters were Black.
As one sportswriter from the Indianapolis Star breathlessly reported, “Jack Johnson, the heavyweight champion, and Battling Jim Johnson, another coloured pugilist…met in a 10-round contest here [in Paris] 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.”
Meanwhile American boxing seized upon another trumped-up segregationist legal loophole to declare the World Heavyweight title “vacant” — thereby forcing the World Champion to contest for the title yet again in Paris.
This time Johnson prevailed against a white American fighter named Frank Moran.
Once again tens of thousands of spectators watched the fight.
Once again, newsreel footage of the fight went around the world.
But this time Johnson also prevailed in print: for by now his Paris interviews had been collected into a book — thereby becoming the first (although not the last) autobiography of a Black World Heavyweight Champion ever to be published in any country.
That an American champion’s autobiography had to published in Paris — and only in French — speaks volumes concerning the relative state of race relations in both countries.
Or does it? Ten years later in 1922, when the white French champion George Carpentier was unexpectedly knocked out in front of a huge Parisian audience by an unknown Senegalese fighter nicknamed Battling Siki, vicious anti-African race riots broke out all across Paris. Ironically, Carpentier was only listed as “World Champion” at the time because American racists had succeeded in voiding Jim Johnson’s title.
Meanwhile in Siki’s native Senegal, de facto slavery under French rule covertly continued (thanks to the top-secret interventions of Belgium’s notorious King Leopold) well into the 1920s — as Adam Hochschild’s explosive biography of the Belgian King finally made clear in 1998.
As always, Americans should avoid over-romanticizing the state of race relations in France — then or now.
Yet by proudly parading down the streets of Paris with his pet lion cubs, by firing revolvers into the air to get his pet Great Danes to perform tricks, and by walking arm in arm with various white women, Siki (whose true name was Louis Mbarack Fall) had still indisputably proven that breaching the color line with extravagance was still chic — at least in Paris. Just as it had been when Jack Johnson lived there, with equal flair.
Ironically, Battling Siki died not in France but in New York —but only after successfully defending himself against white racist attackers countless times(with his naked fists). On December 12, 1925, he was found, face down and dead, after being shot twice in the back at close range.
Like Siki, Johnson too eventually returned to the United States after a seven-year exile in France —but only after agreeing to serve a two-year sentence in Leavenworth Penitentiary due to the trumped up charges against him.
Decades later the First Black World Champion died in 1946 under what can only be regarded, in retrospect, as suspicious circumstances. Last seen at the wheel of his expensive sports car, he angrily sped away from a restaurant in rural North Carolina that had refused him service. He was found dead in his wrecked automobile a few miles further up the road.
In 1975 Muhammad Ali, in a lengthy and eloquent television interview on Johnson’s career, admiringly called Johnson “The Greatest of his generation because of what he did outside the ring.”
Buried in an unmarked grave for decades, the stone at his gravesite now finally bears his name — thanks to a Ken Burns PBS Documentary aired in 2005, aptly titled “Unforgivable Blackness” (based on Geoffrey Ward’s 2004 print biography of the same name).
In a final bizarre twist, this year Sylvestre Stallone personally convinced President Trump to posthumously pardon Johnson — having failed to convince George Bush or Barack Obama to do so previously.