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23 Jul 2004 00:00
A modern world might find it impossible to comprehend the level of racism in the United States in 1910 when the first black world heavyweight boxing champion, Jack Johnson, inflicted a beating on the so-called ‘Great White Hope” Jim Jeffries, a former champion lured out of retirement to give Johnson the beating white society craved.
Johnson was a brilliant fighter. From the grainy film of his fights, it is easy to see why Muhammad Ali referred to ‘Papa Jack” as one of his inspirations.
But, far from celebrating Johnson, American society despised him.
He was a man who knew he was the best and was determined to live the life he believed was fitting for a champion.
When his first wife, Etta, committed suicide Johnson was already sharing the company of a white prostitute Lucille Cameron, whom he subsequently married. Soon, a racist establishment found its way of nailing Johnson.
Under the terms of the White Slave Traffic Act it was forbidden for any woman to be transported across state or national boundaries ‘for the purpose of prostitution or debauchery, or for any other immoral purpose”. Cameron’s mother was persuaded to say Johnson had kidnapped her daughter. Despite the fact he protested his marital status, Johnson was convicted in 1913 and forced into exile.
Five years after losing his title in 1915 Johnson returned to the US to serve three years in jail. In his later years he alienated many who once supported him by saying their new hero Joe Louis was nothing special. When Johnson died aged 68, in a car crash in 1946, not one boxer attended his funeral.
Now a great fighter’s memory has been revived and a campaign is gathering strength with the boxing reformer Senator John McCain and a committee campaigning for a posthumous pardon.
‘He was an incredible athlete, who made significant inroads for other African-Americans,” said McCain. ‘The use of a law was perverted and sent this decent American to jail.” —
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