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Index of Topics on Site Backup of A final round for the great Jack Johnson
By Ken Garcia
SOURCE: San Francisco Chronicle
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A final round for the great Jack Johnson
- Ken Garcia
Monday, January 17, 2005

JACK JOHNSON could evade almost any punch, and in his prime, no white boxer could ever defeat him. But outside the ring, he was hardly a match for a blatantly racist society.

There are still many unanswered questions about Johnson's life and times -- he was flamboyant and notorious for telling stories that blurred fact and fiction -- but now, more than a half-century after his death, one question lingers beyond the rest. Will the U.S. government, in the form of a presidential pardon, make amends for its malicious pursuit and treatment of a man who was a legitimate American hero yet was wrongly prosecuted because of the color of his skin?

If the country wants to move forward and take a great leap toward self- healing, it will have to undo this great injustice and rid the official ledger of this shameful chapter in American history. That could happen in the next few months, though sadly, if it does, it will come nearly 100 years after Johnson became the world's first black heavyweight champion and an enduring symbol of opportunity for African Americans .

Despite a colorful life that carried him around the world and brought him riches and fame, it's Jack Johnson's fall from grace that makes him such a tragic victim of the nation's views on race in the early part of the 20th century. At the time he won his 1910 "fight of the century'' against Jim Jeffries, Johnson had achieved a near legendary status for his boxing skills - - and the fear and loathing of much of white America for daring to ignore his "place'' in society.

Johnson's story is told in rich and revealing detail in Ken Burns' superb documentary "Unforgivable Blackness: the Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson,'' which airs on PBS stations nationally tonight and tomorrow. Yet in doing the films, Burns felt so outraged by the horrible treatment of Johnson that he felt compelled to try to drum up political support to overturn the boxer's conviction on a trumped-up Mann Act violation for Johnson's many dalliances with white women that shocked and disgusted many Americans.

"Any investigation of the past reminds us if we are honest of the central theme of race in American history,'' Burns told me during his cross-country trek trying to promote the film and build support for a presidential pardon. "Johnson's story is filled with despicable acts of bigotry, yet one of the most unanswerable questions is how did this poor kid from Galveston, Texas, swim upstream to fight against racism?''

And fight he did. Along with his considerable boxing talents, Johnson was an impetuous, blustery showman who refused to change his behavior to accommodate others. He taunted his opponents, crowds, the press. Long before Cassius Clay was flicking jabs and boasts at the media, Johnson was predicting the round of his next knockout -- or carefully extending the lengths of some bouts so his racist adversaries wouldn't conclude that the fight was fixed.

All during his rise to the top of the boxing world, people would ask Johnson "just who you think you are?'' And the answer was always "Jack Johnson. '' It was a level of brashness -- for a black man -- that biographer Geoffrey C. Ward said was more "than enough for turn-of-the-20th-century American to handle.''

But some of Johnson's acts proved intolerable to the public -- and apparently not worth of mention in most American history texts. The sight of Johnson knocking out a white man was enough to trigger race riots across the country, sparking lynchings and stabbing. After Johnson beat the over-the-hill Jeffries in Reno, Nev., on July 4, 1910, as many as 26 people were killed in race riots, one of the largest incidents of racial violence until the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. nearly 60 years later.

Yet his flaunting of accepted "moral'' behavior led to Johnson's fall. At a time black men were lynched for even looking at white women, Johnson married three and had affairs with a host of others. Overzealous federal prosecutors, armed with the Mann Act -- which made it an offense to transport women across state lines for immoral purposes -- went after Johnson and convicted him on the flimsiest of evidence.

Johnson fled the country to avoid a prison sentence but found himself unable to get another fight. He returned home to face sentencing, eventually doing 10 months in Leavenworth prison. But following his release, his boxing career languished and within a few years, he was all but forgotten.

Until now. With a stroke of the pen, President Bush can restore some of the honor withheld from Johnson during his lifetime and help us come to grip with a long-standing injustice. As most people who watch the film will find, anything less would be truly unforgivable.

E-mail Ken Garcia at

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