His Fists Couldn't Protect Him


The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson

By Geoffrey C. Ward

Knopf -- 492pp -- $26.95

The sports world of 1908, the year in which Jack Johnson demolished Tommy Burns to win the heavyweight boxing title, would strike many today as odd and unrecognizable. Babe Ruth was 13. Basketball hadn't turned 20. And the U.S. Open Golf Championship, which teed off for the first time in 1895, didn't attract even 100 entries.

Yet what might seem like an age of innocence was anything but that for black athletes. Outside of the Negro baseball leagues and Johnson's game, prizefighting, black sportsmen had little chance to display their talents. Those who did often felt the fury of a suffocating racial prejudice. John L. Sullivan, the first boxing champ of the gloved era, once famously declared: "I will not fight a Negro. I never have and never shall." Overwhelmingly, America applauded.

Into this world came the defiant, ebullient Johnson. His struggles to cope with racism and overcome his self-destructive impulses are deftly chronicled in Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson, an unsettling portrait of the boxing legend and his times. Author Geoffrey C. Ward has written several works of history and is a frequent collaborator with documentarian Ken Burns. This volume is a companion to a soon-to-be-aired Public Broadcasting System film of the same name.

Johnson, though often overlooked by today's boxing fans, deserves a pedestal as lofty as the ones reserved for such champions as Joe Louis and Muhammad Ali. A 79-8 career record in the ring established him as the dominant pugilist of his era. But his true legacy is as the first black heavyweight champ, a distinction earned in his demolition of Burns. That status was affirmed in a 1910 defense against the popular James J. Jeffries, who came out of retirement intending to return the title to White America. Johnson pummeled the ex-champ, winning a technical knockout in 15 rounds.

Ward hasn't unearthed mounds of new information as much as knitted together Johnson's story from published materials. These include Johnson's 1927 autobiography and newspaper accounts of the early century -- when no one was making more headlines than he was. Far from a stale rehash, though, Unforgivable Blackness is engrossing and, at times, disturbing. Its only flaw is also a strength: a plethora of detail that may overwhelm some readers.

Johnson's personal story is as flamboyant as Ali's and as earthy as Pete Rose's. Born to ex-slaves, Johnson grew up in Galveston, Tex., yearning for money, possessions, and, above all, attention. Before his death in a car crash in 1946, he had them all. For whomping Jeffries, Johnson earned $121,000 -- an amount, Ward surmises, that "may have been larger than any black American had ever earned in a single day before."

Johnson needed such checks to support lavish habits that included a fleet of luxury cars, stays in posh hotels, champagne, and hand-tailored clothes. Arriving in England a year after defeating Jeffries, the champ met the British press attired in one of 20 new suits made for the trip "at a cost of $3,480 -- roughly $64,000 in today's terms." Such ostentation infuriated whites and worried some blacks, who feared the reaction of White America. "The wisest among my race understand that agitation of questions of social equality is the extremest folly," warned Booker T. Washington, the Tuskegee Institute president and prominent black intellectual.

Johnson bowed to no one's idea of proper conduct in a segregated society -- except his own. Ward's most compelling storytelling, in fact, deals with the champ's relationships with white women, a challenge to a powerful taboo of the times. Marriage between blacks and whites was outlawed in many states. And the mere sight of a black man in the company of a white woman was a provocation, the author explains.

Yet Johnson's three wives were white, as were many of the call girls he befriended. He and these women were often ostracized from both their worlds. Long Island socialite Etta Duryea never heard from her father again after her 1911 marriage to Johnson, Ward says. Etta killed herself a year later, miserable over stories that Johnson was cavorting with other women.

Johnson's bravado resulted in frequent brushes with the law. He bought his way out of most legal troubles. Then, in 1912, he was tried for an alleged violation of the Mann Act, which barred transportation of women across state lines for "immoral purposes." Sentenced to a year in prison, Johnson fled the U.S. and didn't return for seven years. It marked the end of his high times. Within three years, he had lost his title -- in a fight stained by rumor of a fix -- and what remained of his fortune.

No doubt bad personal judgment was the cause of many of Johnson's setbacks. But Ward excels at putting such events in the broader context of the times, which were overtly hostile to an ambitious, unapologetic black man. As Ward tells it, that was Jack Johnson.

By Mark Hyman

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