Johnson-JeffriesThey called him The Galveston Giant, when they weren’t calling him Ni**er, that is, or throwing him in jail for loving white women and promoting one more hayseed palooka as The Great White Hope to unseat him as the World Heavyweight Boxing Champion. Today is


Born John Arthur Jackson on March 31, 1878, Jack Johnson revolutionized the sport of boxing, both in and out of the ring.

In an era of flatfooted, lumbering strongmen with more brawn than brains trading haymakers for 45 rounds or until one of them fell down, Johnson was a remarkably conditioned athlete who transformed boxing into the athletic dance it is today, floating like a butterfly and stinging like a bee 60 years before Muhammad Ali.

He moved like a smaller man and hit like mule, beating every contender for the heavyweight crown put in front of him, but had to leave the country to fight for the title, traveling to the other side of the world to easily relieve Tommy Burns of the championship in Australia in 1908, a bout halted by police when the crowd rioted over the beating Burns was taking.

American promoters refused to allow a black man to fight for the title at the height of the Jim Crow era, and the brash and confident Johnson was the sort of man racists hated; successful, confident, outspoken… and Black.

Once he owned the title, however, the first Black man to do so, they had to let him fight in his own country, and when he knocked down the best of the Great White Hopes again and again in an easy victory, retired ex-champ Jim Jeffries infuriated his backers by admitting he could not have beaten Jack Johnson on his best day. Sadly Jeffries’ candor and graciousness didn’t prevent the ensuing nationwide race riots.

The rest of Johnson’s life was characterized by public battles with authorities, fights he did not always win. In 1912 he was convicted of violating the Mann Act, accused of “transporting women across state lines for immoral purposes,” the excuse being that the woman in question was allegedly a former prostitute, and Johnson was undeniably Black, despite the fact that the incidents used to convict him took place well before passage of the Mann Act.

After being sentenced to a year and a day in prison by future baseball commissioner and noted racist Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, he fled the country and lived and fought in Europe, South America and Mexico, returning to the USA to serve his sentence in 1920, no longer champion.

While in Leavenworth Federal Prison, he invented and patented a modified wrench that quickly tightened loose rope-fastening devices in boxing rings. He later opened a night club in Harlem, 3 years later selling it to gangster Owney Madden, who renamed it The Cotton Club. Johnson boxed exhibition bouts until age 60, forever denied another shot at the title, and died in a car crash in 1946 driving one of the fast cars he so loved.

•Suggested Activities: Watching Jack Johnson fights on YouTube.

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