Many a time, Johnson could have knocked the guy out. But, if his opponent was white he'd have to suffer... His main object in life was to put the white man in his place.

Boxing historian Henry Cooper
in The Great Heavyweights, 1978

b.1878 d.1946

In 1908 Arthur John "Jack" Johnson became the first African American to hold the world heavyweight boxing championship. In an era of overt discrimination and Jim Crow laws, Johnson refused to be a good quiet "boy". Instead he had numerous affairs with white women, drove flashy sports cars, and lived a wild and flamboyant lifestyle.

In 1903, the Galveston, Texas born Johnson won the "Colored Heavyweight Championship of the World", but despite his repeated challenges, white champions refused to meet him in the ring. Finally, Tommy Burns gave Johnson a shot at the world heavyweight title and the two boxers met at Rushcutter's Bay on the outskirts of Sydney, Australia on December 26, 1908. A partisan crowd of 20,000 watched in dismay as a black man became the heavyweight champion of the world.

Johnson's arrogance and lifestyle - plus the fact that he was black - made him the most hated champion in history. In 1912, while having an affair with a white secretary, Johnson was arrested in Chicago for transporting an unmarried woman across state lines for "immoral purposes."

The arrest was under pretenses of the Mann Act, otherwise known as the White Slave Traffic Act - a law that was drafted primarily to prevent prostitution and the white slavery trade. In 1913 Johnson was sentenced to a year in prison and released on bond pending an appeal. While on bond he fled overseas rather than go to prison. Over the next few years he would fight in Paris, Buenos Aires, Havana, and Mexico City.

For years white boxing fans - including Jack London - sought The Great White Hope to dethrone Johnson, but he successfully defended his title until April 5, 1915, when he was knocked out by white American Jess Willard in the 26th round of a fight in Havana, Cuba. Many believe that Johnson threw the fight in order to have the charges against him dropped. However, the charges were not dropped and when Johnson returned to the United States in 1920 he was arrested by U.S. Marshals and sent to a federal prison in Kansas - Fort Leavenworth - to serve his year sentence.

After prison, Johnson boxed occasionally but never regained his former stature. After his career in boxing, Johnson, an amateur cellist and a connoisseur of Harlem night life, opened his own supper club, Club Deluxe, at 142nd Street and Lenox Avenue. He also lectured, sold stocks, and worked as a movie extra. Johnson died as the result of an automobile accident near Raleigh, North Carolina, in June 1946. The Howard Sackler play The Great White Hope is based on Jack Johnson's life. In 1971 it was made into a movie starring James Earl Jones

Jack Johnson remains one of boxing's greatest fighters. Some consider him to be the greatest heavyweight of all time and most boxing historians have him at least in their top five or ten. Johnson was inducted into the Boxing Hall of Fame in 1954.


A few more things I can add about Jack Johnson:

His father, Henry, had been a slave in Texas, and the family was poor. Jack was the second of six children, and didn't have much schooling; he left after the fifth grade. He worked at odd jobs around South Texas, building his strength through throwing hay bales for white farmers; he also found employment as a dockworker, porter, and barber's helper. He first began boxing as a sparring partner; he fought in "battles royal", which saw young black men box to entertain white spectators who threw money to the winner; he then boxed in private clubs. He turned professional in 1897, but boxing was illegal in Texas, and he spent his first time in jail in 1901 when arrested for partaking in this criminal activity. He soon left Galveston for good.

Johnson, also known as the Galveston Giant - he was over six feet tall - defeated then champion Tommy Burns in Australia in 1908, which technically made him heavyweight champion. However, he wasn't officially recognized until the fight with Jim Jeffries in Las Vegas in 1910; Jeffries had refused to fight Johnson when he had been champ (1899-1904), and had come out of retirement to become the first great white hope who whites wished would defeat this big black boxer. He didn't, though; Johnson won. After the fight there were race riots in which hundreds of blacks and whites were injured and several died; films of Johnson's victories were subsequently banned in Texas for fear that they would incite more rioting. Black poet William Waring Cuney gave a rather different view of Johnson's victory than was held by most whites in his poem "My Lord, What a Morning":

O my Lord
What a morning,
O my Lord,
What a feeling,
When Jack Johnson
Turned Jim Jeffries'
Snow-white face
to the ceiling.

Johnson raised the ire of whites in another way: they resented the fact that he liked the good life. He had his own jazz band, owned a Chicago nightclub, drove flashy yellow sports cars, and was said to walk his pet leopard while sipping champagne. He had gold teeth and a gold-handled walking stick and boasted of his conquests of whites - white men in the ring, white women out of it. Johnson was romantically linked with Moulin Rouge star Mistinguette, German spy Mata Hari, and sex symbols Lupe Velez and Mae West. He married three times: Etta Terry Duryea in 1911 (she committed suicide the next year); Lucille Cameron in 1913 (they divorced in 1924); and Irene Marie Pineau in 1925. All these women were white. In spite of all that marrying and carrying on, though, he never had any children.

Here's an odd factoid: Jack Johnson invented and patented a wrench in 1922. Hard to connect this to the rest of his life. There's a picture of it at

Despite the fact that Johnson is Galveston's most famous athlete, he hasn't been much celebrated there. In the 1980s the city erected a black-metal, modernistic sculpture in a park to honour Johnson, but after it became the target of racist attacks and salt air, it was removed.

Perhaps not as famous as the legendary boxer, although that depends who you ask, is the Hawaiian surfer/video producer/singer Jack Johnson. His folksy debut album Brushfire Fairytales is still making waves (and catching airwaves) since its release in December of 2000.

The son of surfing great Jeff Johnson was born on May 18 1975 in Oahu, Hawaii. Jack started surfing at young age, and at age 14 he became the youngest competitor in the Pipeline Masters Tournament. At 16, Jack earned a pro-surfing contract, and even though he had not yet made up his mind about a career, he became one of the most promising surfing talents on Hawaii. However, a serious surf incident marked a turning point in Jack's pro-surfing career: a wipeout on a dry reef resulted in a cracked skull, lost front teeth, and 100 stitches to fix the damage. During his recovery Jack devoted much of his time to the guitar. Some of his early musical influences from are Van Morrison, Cat Stevens, Paul Simon, and De La Soul

But music wasn't Jack's first ambition; he left Hawaii to study math at UCSB, but changed his major to film. His talents for filmmaking can be seen in two surf-films: Thicker than water and The September Sessions. For these films, Jack Johnson also played many songs on the guitar. Both films won awards in the surf film world, both for their direction and music.

Fellow surfer, and singer Garett Dutton, better known as G. Love met Jack Johnson while riding the waves in San Diego. After the surf, Jack played the song Rodeo Clowns for Dutton. He liked it so much that they went into the studio the next day to record it for G. Love's album Philadelphonic. At this point, several major recording labels became interested in Johnson.

But Johnson did not feel much for the severe promotional obligations, and the musical control the record labels were trying to put into the contract. He felt the need to be free to travel, work on other projects, or catch some waves. Instead of signing with a major label, he hooked up with fellow surfer and producer J.P. Plunier under the Enjoy label; Incidentally, J.P. is also the producer for Ben Harper, a big influence and example for Jack Johnson.

The debut album, Brushfire Fairytales was recorded in only one week, featuring a simple lineup (Jack Johnson on guitar, Adam Topol on drums, and Merlo Podlewski on bass). Ben Harper plays slide guitar on Flake. The album comes over as a day of surfing at the beach; dynamic, playful, and sometimes mellow. His songs are like catching a wave, and riding it out with smooth twists and turns. Jack Johnson's style seems carefree and relaxed, but only because of his skilllful guitar play and his soothing voice.

Jack Johnson opened several concerts on Ben Harper's tour, gaining him significant attention for his music. Currently, he headlines in front of crowds of 1000-5000 people. However, Johnson has no extensive ambitions in music. Instead, he'll go with whatever interesting appears at his horizon. Just like the waves he enjoys riding on Hawaii.


Jack Johnson - Brushfire Fairytales, Enjoy Records, 2000 (official website)

Jack Johnson has his own drink named after himself. Now, having never tried it because the thought makes me squeamish (a bad run-in with a combination of gin and fruit punch), I am not able to tell you what it tastes like, though it sounds better than my hellish combo of gin and fruit punch.

To make a Jack Johnson, you combine - in a highball glass:

2 oz. gin (the source recommends Sipsmith Gin)
2 oz. honey
1 bottle of cranberry juice

For garnish, add a couple cocktail shrimp.


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