It’s day three of Black History month and I have already learned so much. It seems like in school they teach you about the same ten inventors each year in February and as I got older realized how much the school system hides or fails to teach you. Today I want to share the story of the first African American heavyweight boxing champion. I really am inspired by those who paved the way for my generation today. Even though some may not be grateful for what they did or understand why they did what they did, I know they wouldn’t be able to withstand the hard times, torment nor racial extremities.
“Born in Texas in 1878, deep in the Jim Crow South, his parents were former slaves. He would go on to be the most famous black person of the era, covered in the press more than every other notable black person combined.
In 1903 he won The World Colored Heavyweight Championship. At this point The Heavyweight Championships were not open to black people. Johnson requested matches with white heavyweight champions but they all refused.
James Jeffries, the then champion stated when asked about a potential fight with Johnson that he “doesn’t fight niggers”.
It was only in 1908 that Tommy Burns, the title holder at the time, agreed to fight after Johnson literally stalked him around the world for two years, taunting him in the press for a match.
The New York Times wrote of the match “If the black man wins, thousands and thousands of his ignorant brothers will misinterpret his victory as justifying claims to much more than mere physical equality with their white neighbors.”
Johnson dominated the entire match while openly mocking Burns and his crew, even holding him up to continue throwing punches when he was about to fall to the mat.
He demolished Burns in 14 rounds in front of 20,000 mainly white spectators in what was the biggest upset to white America of the age.
There was then a desperate attempt to find a white person to take back the title which was seen as a symbol of racial superiority. Johnson beat every one of the five white contenders put forward that year.
In 1910, James Jeffries (the one who said he “doesn’t fight niggers”) came out of a 6 year retirement after having bowed out of the sport, undefeated. He was seen as the greatest athlete of all time and the match was the biggest in history, the very first “Fight of The Century”.
Jeffries stated “I am going into this fight for the sole purpose of proving that a white man is better than a Negro.”
The ringside band played a song called “All coons look alike to me” and crowds of whites chanted “kill the nigger.”
Despite this hostile crowd, Johnson destroyed Jeffries and toyed with him for the
entirety of the match.
In round 15, Johnson scored the first ever knockdown against Jeffries, only to do it again, and then again before Jeffries bowed out.
Jeffries himself admitted after the match that he could never have beaten Johnson, even in his prime; “I couldn’t have hit him. No, I couldn’t have reached him in a thousand years.”
The racial tension surrounding the fight was so tense that after he won there were riots in more than 50 major cities across the country. Celebrations of African Americans were met with violent outbursts from white mobs with over 150 blacks killed.
Congress eventually passed a law banning the viewing of the fight to deter the violence and even debated banning boxing itself. It was the most culturally significant match in American history.
Johnson, who went on to hold the title for five more years, openly challenged white supremacy at great personal risk to stand up for his rights as a free individual and paved the way for generations of others to break color lines in America.”
Source: The Public I
Source: I’m Nothing In Particular
Source: The Fight City