Skip to comments.America, not Johnson needs pardon (black boxer Jack Johnson)
Posted on 01/20/2005 11:28:41 AM PST by EveningStar
Jack Johnson was a black man who often spent his days beating up white men and his nights making love to white women. This, in the first years of the last century.
So you can understand why he was a polarizing figure, why newspapers inveighed against him and the government conspired to bring him down.
Of course, chances are good that you've never even heard of John Arthur Johnson. As filmmaker Ken Burns pointed out to me in a telephone interview, we are a nation of great historical illiteracy. Ask most people what they know about even so towering a figure as George Washington and you're likely to hear only myths.
"If George Washington can get lost," said Burns, "then Jack Johnson can get lost."
Monday night on PBS, Burns set out to find him. The result is a two-part biography, "Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson," that offers a compelling exploration of a singular life.
Johnson was a fighter. He became the first black heavyweight champion in 1908 with an easy knockout of Tommy Burns.
This was at a time when the physical superiority of white men over black ones was widely regarded as self-evident truth, so Johnson's victory was an electric shock to the American psyche. And he kept winning, each victory another poke in the eye for the lie of white supremacy. Former champion Jim Jeffries - five years retired and many pounds overweight - was called upon as the "great white hope" who would put Johnson back in his place. Johnson toyed with him for 15 rounds, then decked him.
No black man with any sense dared look too pleased. As it was, angry whites rioted across the country. Eight people died.
What made matters worse is that Johnson was, as Burns puts it, "the original gangsta," living a bling-bling lifestyle 90 years before that term was coined. In an era that required black men to be circumspect, he was a brash fellow who didn't mind flaunting his wealth. He lived high, drove fast. And if he was attracted to a white woman and she to him, he saw no reason they should not be together. Indeed, he had a bad habit of marrying them.
It all came to a head in 1913, when Johnson was convicted of violating the Mann Act, which made it a federal crime to transport a woman across state lines for illegal purposes. Johnson's "illegal purpose" was to have sex with a white woman.
Not that the government bothered to hide the racism of its motive. As the prosecutor said after the verdict, "This Negro, in the eyes of many, has been persecuted. Perhaps as an individual he was. But it was his misfortune to be the foremost example of the evil in permitting the intermarriage of whites and blacks."
Burns, aided by Sens. John McCain and Edward Kennedy, is petitioning the president for a posthumous pardon on Johnson's behalf. Consider this column my way of adding my name to the list.
Still, I have issues with that word, "pardon," which suggests Johnson requires forgiveness for doing something wrong. His only mistake, if you want to call it that, was in believing that he was a man free like other men, to define himself as he saw fit, live his life on his own terms.
You hear echoes of his story in the stories of O.J. Simpson, Terrell Owens and in a hundred stories that have nothing to do with white women and sex and everything to do with the simple freedom to be.
"Jack Johnson decided to live his life nothing short of a free man," says Burns. "And this is a story of how this country went after him for doing what the Constitution said he had the right to do."
That's why I think we need to be straight about this. It would be good to see Johnson's name cleared. But it's America that should be asking for a pardon.
Yeah, blame racism 90 years ago for the slaughter of two innocents and letting the killer go free...
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At least one big difference with Johnson. Unlike today's gangstas, Johnson spoke in full, fluent, intelligent English.
I really enjoyed part one of this film. Another top-notch "Florentine Film."
"angry whites rioted across the country. Eight people died"
We've come full circle-54 died in LA after the first Rodney King verdict. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
I'm going to let that one speak for itself.
I celebrate the story of Jack Johnson because he was living proof that America was so racist that they would never tolerate such a man.
He did all that he did and lived to enjoy it openly because we are a nation of laws, and Jack Johnson had to be entrapped by law to get him.
It is sad that he was treated this way, but like some drunk flashing money downtown, he did nothing to avoid that persecution, like an idiot.
But if we were the Naxis then that so many leftists claim we are, then how did Jack Johnson get away with his overt behavior for so long?
The neoMarxist academians would never have allowed him to do so, nor would the Nazis or the Communists.
So no matter how 'bad' one wants to paint America of the segregated era, at least there was enough freedom then for a guy like Jack Johnson to piss everybody off.
A tip of the hat to ole Jack Johnson!
Corection: Should have read -
I celebrate the story of Jack Johnson because he was living proof that America was NOT so racist that they would never tolerate such a man.
An interesting piece, up until the OJ inclusion destroyed the author's credibility. Hundreds of *better* examples available.
I'm not a Ken Burns fan (to put it mildly), but the photos and films he excavates are second to none.
What's done is done. There are a lot of people who lived out similar circumstances and we will never hear of their stories. What are you going to do really? It's 2005 and America is a VERY different place from 1913.
Right, Ken. We're all so stupid. Only you know the truth.
"You hear echoes of his story in the stories of O.J. Simpson,"
I know he did not just put OJ in the same story as Jack Johnson. What a fool.
There's no way they're the same. You're right. What an idiot! LOL
"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 I have found no better way of avoiding race prejudice than to act with people of other races as if prejudice did not exist."
- Jack Johnson
CLARIFICATION: The title is "Unforgiveable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson."
From what little I could tell about the films, fighters of that era used a completely different style than today's boxers: Straight up, very little footwork, they carried their gloves a lot lower than nowadays, and most of them looked slow.
Maybe the lack of footwork was because fights lasted a lot longer then, and they couldn't dance around for 20-30 or more rounds.
Johnson and some of the others were physical speciments. Nevertheless, I question whether any of them would last very long in the modern ring using that style. (Let them train and get used to modern methods, and maybe it would be another story.)
Actually these cases seem rather different. Unless the author is accusing Johnson of murdering one of his ex-wives.
Not really, Kenny boy. Gangstas don't smile; Johnson displayed a near-perpetual grin and sunny demeanor. Gangstas are violent misfits who revel in their criminal behavior; Johnson was (mostly) a gentleman. ....except in the ring.
Even moreso because Johnson was self-educated. He never went past the fifth grade.
Spilt milk aimed at white liberal guilt. What a steaming crock ...
You're spot on and Jack Johnson is RIGHT.
I did not see the Burns documentary but I used to be a boxing fan years ago so I know a little about this.
You are right about Johnson. His style was very forward looking. Jeffries was old school, even primative (the same can be said for Corbett and Fitzsimmons).
Left Wing Pin Head.
Well yes this essay is IMHO. You can take the Jack Johnson story either way, one can be inspired or one can write bildge like this.
Johnson's style was different than that of others of his era in terms of head movement, footwork, and defensive skills in general. He was a pioneer, and I think we would've been able to hang (without "modern" training methods) with today's heavyweights quite easily.
I agree.... but not for whatever happened to Johnson.. he was asking for controversy.. and got it.. just a great boxer.. maybe the boxing hall of fame or something like that.. His morality sucked.. as bad as Paul Robison's did..
The PARDON from America should be for what they/we did to Joseph McCarthy.. He was a true america HERO, for blacks as well as for whites.. Ann Coulter "exhumed" him and breathed life into the old boy("TREASON").. once again.. McCarthy is being proved right every day.. pBS on the otherhand "dis'ed" McCarthy.. knowing full well of the Venona Papers and research into KGB archives in Russia proving he was more right than, even HE, knew.. McCarthy is a hero that deserves a pardon, Johnson was merely a BOXER.. that deserves to be considered as a good one..
Johnston really wasn't a "Gangsta" he was more of a "Playah."
Chuck Berry was also prosecuted for violating the Mann Act. He served two years.
Where is HIS pardon?
BTW, the Mann Act makes it a crime to take a minor across state lines for the purpose of prostitution.
Should this antiquated Federal law be done away with since adults and minors can have sex and prostitution is now legal? < /sarcasm >
40 odd years ago, Jimmy Jacobs collected a large number of old boxing films. He compiled some of the highlights of those films and showed them to the boxing writers of the time. The writers were shocked at the relatively primative styles of legends like Jim Corbett, Bob Fitzsimmons, and Jim Jeffries. One writer said, "I didn't know whether to laugh or cry."
It was the consensus of the writers that of that group, only Jack Johnson could have competed with modern fighters.
Lets just face the facts here. Jack Johnson , his history and any crime he may have committed dont mean a thing to Ted Kennedy and McPain. Why has this come up? Because McPain and Ted Kennedy want to make a few points with the black community and figure they can us this against President Bush, who faces a lose-lose situation. Either way he goes someone will get offended and Ted and Mcpain hope he turns it down.
Jack Johnson is being used again just as he was used when they arrested him. Mcpain and Kennedy will use anyone from any era. Its Shameful.
Impossible though it may be, I'd like to see a round robin tourney involving the greatest heavyweights in history at their respective primes: Jeffries, Johnson, Dempsey, Louis, Marciano, Clay, Frazier, Foreman, Holmes, Tyson, and Holyfield. .....each fighting every other fighter in the field twice. It would be interesting to see who came out of that field with the best record, but I suspect it would be the fighter with the most dimensions to his game, both physically and mentally. .....and Johnson would be up there. Tyson would probably be at or near the bottom.
Terrell Owens? People dislike Terrell Owens because he's an asshole. I'm sick of this "people hate us and mistreat us because we're black." No, they hate you because you're a complete jerk and deserve an incredible stomping at the hands of the other team.
And puleeeeze! O.J. Simpson. Simpson couldn't have found his way to the 'hood with a map and a flashlight. He projected himself as a victim of a racist police department just long enough to secure an aquittal at the hands of one of the dumbest juries in American history and then tried to run back to white society. Who told him to stuff it. Not because he was black. But because he killed two people.
How could Johnson possibly be in danger of being "forgotten"? Hasn't anyone ever seen "The Great White Hope" starring James Earl Jones? The movie was made in 1968, and is replayed all the time. Great flick, well made, yet another great performance by Jones. And Ken Burns "discovered" this guy for the libs to cry over? Puh-leeez!
"He was prosecuted for the crime of having sex with a white woman. He served a year in Leavenworth.
That's your idea of freedom?"
For 14 years he carried on as the finest boxer alive, and maybe the best boxer in the century.
And he didnt live like some coward, hiding in a corner; he stuck his chin out and dared anyone to take him on.
If white society was so racist, as to be comparable to the Nazis, or so ruthless as the Communists, or such liars as are todays academian neoMarxists that run Americas humanities departments, then why did Johnson get away with this for so long?
For 14 years he was free to live large, and then some axeholes put him in prison on trumped up charges.
Hmmm, wanna bet that they were DEMOCRATS like Earl Warren or Senator Byrd?
America is free and more free then than Europe is today.
And Jack Johnson would not have whined about it and would not have consorted with those willing to whine on his behalf.
I'd put my money on Marciano, Johnson and Ali for top three.
What about you?
Say what you will about the nutball thug, but Mike Tyson in his prime has to be ranked in there as well. Nobody could even touch him. Too bad he didn't have superior rivals to define him, as the greats you mention had.
Those would be my top three as well, although it would be difficult to pick an order. .....Holmes could also be up there.
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