How Jack Johnson Destroyed the Color Barrier

John Arthur "Jack" Johnson

March 31 1878 is the birth date of John Arthur “Jack” Johnson, who became the first African American heavyweight boxing champion of the world. He lived his life so large, in and out of the ring, that he was called “the most notorious African-American on Earth.”

Jack was born in Galveston, Texas, and grew up playing with black and white children. Johnson later said he did not experience racism growing up, which some might find unusual for a black child growing up in the South in the nineteenth century.

But poverty is a great leveler of races. Everyone Johnson knew was dirt poor. With no pretensions to maintain, blacks and whites co-existed and learned to help each other make it through the grind of day to day survival. Jack’s early experience led him to believe there was no difference between black people and white people except skin color. As an adult he discovered how many people disagreed.

Johnson was the first son (and third child of nine) born to  Henry and Tina “Tiny” Johnson, two former slaves who both worked blue collar jobs as a janitor and a dishwasher to support their children and put them through school. Jack learned to read and write, and worked odd jobs to support his family.

Jack was a frail boy who was protected by his two older daughters. He won his first fight at the age of twelve, fighting back against another child who was bullying him. Jack became more confident, and a defiant cockiness emerged – a trait that would follow him during his boxing career and public life.

Jack toughened up more working at the docks in Galveston. He was energetic and worked a variety of other jobs. That was how he started boxing. He won a few fights and got mouthy about his talent. This annoyed the boxing establishment in Galveston, who invited veteran boxer Joe Choynski to Galveston to shut Johnson up. On February 25 1901 Choynski and Johnson had a fight.

It wasn’t close. Choynski beat Johnson up and knocked him out in the third round.  As if on cue the Texas Rangers appeared, arrested the two fighters and threw them in jail. Boxing was illegal in Texas, and in much of the country, although enforcement varied greatly from state to state.

In jail with Joe Choynski

Johnson’s first professional loss was a turning point in his career, because he got to share a jail cell with Joe Choynski for twenty-three days. Choynski had fought all the champions of the day: John L. Sullivan, “Gentleman” Jim Corbett, Robert Fitzsimmons, and the reigning champ, Jim Jeffries. Although only a light heavy weight (170 pounds), Choynski’s courage and ferocious punching power more than made up for height and weight disadvantages. He was a gamer who gave even champions all they could handle in the ring.

Johnson and Choynski

Much later in his career, Jack Johnson would compare Choynski’s power to the legendary power of Jim Jeffries:

“Jeffries number one? No sir. Give me Joe Choynski anytime. I faced both and should know. Jeffries had a powerful wallop, but Choynski had a paralyzing punch. His left hand was a corker. He was the hardest puncher in the last fifty years…I think his left hook was even more effective than  (Jack) Dempsey’s.”

This is high praise from a man many boxing experts consider the greatest heavyweight boxing champion of all time.

The sheriff allowed Johnson and Choynski to spar every afternoon. Soon a crowd gathered. Choynski was generous with his experience, sharing with Johnson the nuances of ring strategy, how to fight tactically, and how to turn defense into offense.

Choynski saw Johnson’s physical prowess and innate ability, and helped Jack realize how important defense was to a fighter. He always remembered Choynski’s remark: “A man who can move like you should never have to take a punch.” Later Johnson attributed much of his success to what he learned from Joe Choynski.

After three weeks bail was reduced to an affordable level. Both men were freed on the condition they left town. Johnson hopped the rails to Denver, where he joined a training camp. Then he moved to California and started fighting in earnest.

Jack in his twenties

By 1902 Johnson was an up-and-coming heavyweight on the California circuit with 27 wins (he actually fought well over fifty fights, but many were ‘off the books’). The next year Johnson won what was called the World Colored Heavyweight Championship. Johnson held the title for five years. He was a busy champion, defending his title seventeen times against most of the black heavyweights of his time.

Johnson was boisterous in his demands to fight the white heavyweight champion, Jim Jeffries. He was quoted in the press as accusing Jeffries of ducking him. Johnson, on the other hand, was accused of ducking talented black heavyweight Sam Langford. The two fought once, and Johnson was given the decision. He refused to ever fight Langford again, despite numerous demands to do so.

Johnson was now a fully developed man: six foot one inch tall, 200 pounds, with well developed muscles, very dark skin, a shiny bald head, and a mouthful of gold teeth. Famed as a defensive tactician, Johnson could punch hard with both hands. His best punches were his left jab and uppercuts. A master counter puncher, Johnson would lure his opponent into letting his hands go, block the blows, and then rain down merciless counterpunches.

Jeffries retired without fighting Johnson. Jack turned the focus of his public campaign against the new champion, Canadian Tommy Burns. It was reported that Burns finally agreed to fight Johnson when he was guaranteed a payday of $30,000 – a kingly sum at the time.

Burns earned his money. He took a brutal beating from Johnson, who punished the champion for fourteen rounds. Johnson toyed with Burns, taunting him, hitting him with a barrage of punches, then catching Burns before he hit the floor, holding him up so he could punish him some more. The outcome was never in doubt. Jack Johnson was the first African American heavyweight boxing champion of the world. He had made history.

Fighting Tommy Burns

Johnson had also committed two sins: publicly beating a white man, and bragging about it. Public (white) outcry turned to Jim Jeffries, living a quiet retirement on his alfalfa farm. Jeffries was finally persuaded to return to the ring and set things right.

The “Great White Hope” came out of retirement to fight champion Jack Johnson in what was called “The Fight of the Century.” Jeffries declared: “I feel obligated to the sporting public at least to make an effort to reclaim the heavyweight championship for the white race. . . . I should step into the ring again and demonstrate that a white man is king of them all.”

Betting odds were unanimously in Jeffries’ favor. The press advanced all sorts of theories why whites were better than blacks. The hype for the fight was enormous. But in the end the fight was a dud. Jeffries was totally outclassed by Johnson, who knocked out the former champion in the fifteenth round.

Defeating Jim Jeffries

After the fight Johnson was outspoken:

“I won from Mr. Jeffries because I outclassed him in every department of the fighting game. Before I entered the ring I was certain I would be the victor. I never changed my mind at any time. Jeffries’ blows had no steam behind them, so how could he hope to defeat me?”

Whites were by turn devastated and infuriated by the result of the fight. Johnson’s words added fuel to the fire. There were race riots across the country. Property was destroyed. Houses and businesses were looted and burned. Dozens of blacks were killed, and some whites.

Jack Johnson was a hero to American blacks. But many blacks were critical of Jack for rubbing his victory into white faces because this incited violence against Johnson’s own people.

Blacks (or coloreds, as they were known at the time) were also critical of Johnson’s preference for white women. The champion had a string of very public affairs with white actresses and personalities. He was romantically linked to everyone from Mata Hari to Mae West. Johnson frequented brothels and cavorted with prostitutes of both races, but reserved his marriage vows to white women – he said he had been married to black women and they had mistreated him.

In his prime

Johnson went through a seeming revolving door of women. His was a very public life, ushering in the idea of an athlete as a celebrity as well as a champion. Jack Johnson was fearless. He made no concessions to the racial ideas of his time: be it from his own people or from whites.

Sometimes he was intentionally outrageous, like the time he walked a pet leopard while sipping champagne. Other activities included acting on stage, driving gaudy colored sports cars, dabbling in jazz bands, and running nightclubs. Johnson made intelligent use of the press to generate publicity for his fights. But after the Jeffries fight, Johnson’s reign as champion was marred by legal problems, a flight from the country, a life of exile, and countless controversy.

The first controversy was Johnson’s refusal to give other African American boxers a shot at his title. Jack ducked perhaps the three best boxers (black or white) of his time: Sam Langford, Joe Jeanette, and Harry Wills. All were champions in the colored heavyweight division. All tried to fight Johnson, and all were avoided by the champ. Joe Jeanette accused Jack Johnson of drawing the color line against his own people.

The larger controversy was a legal one. In 1912 Johnson was accused of violating the White Slave Traffic Act of 1910. The Mann Act (named for Illinois Congressman James Mann) prohibited interstate transportation of  a “woman or girl for the purpose of prostitution or debauchery, or for any other immoral purpose.” Thus a very wide net was cast to allow prosecution of (mostly) men for most manners of sexual relations – even consensual sex.

The intent of the law was to protect young women coming from rural areas to work in large cities from being exploited, kidnapped, and trafficked in prostitution. The term “any other immoral purpose” allowed prosecution of just about anyone (from Charlie Chaplin to Charles Manson) for just about anything.

The Mann Act was used to prosecute Jack Johnson for his relationship with a white prostitute named Belle Schreiber. Shreiber, who was bitter over being dumped by Johnson, was all too happy to help the U.S. District Attorney prosecute Johnson. An all white jury quickly found Johnson guilty. On June 4, 1913, Johnson was sentenced to a year and a day in federal prison.

Johnson and Lucille Cameron

The trial was manifestly unfair. Johnson was prosecuted for a law that was not in effect at the time of his actions. While an appeal of Johnson’s conviction was pending, Jack disappeared. He met up with his wife, another (former) prostitute known as Lucille Cameron, in Montreal. The two sailed to France. Johnson had trouble finding fights in France due to his status as a convicted criminal. Then the war broke out, and the Johnson’s sailed away from Europe.

Johnson’s last defense of his title was in 1915 at a racetrack in Havana, Cuba. His opponent was an American named jess Willard. Willard was a working cowboy who came to boxing late. At 6 feet 6 inches and 235 pounds, Willard was much larger than Johnson. Yet he chose to fight defensively and counter punch, letting Johnson do all the leading. It was very hot, and midway through the 45 round match Johnson began laboring. Willard’s body shots and the heat overcame the champion and he was knocked out in the 26th round.

Losing to Jess Willard

Later Jack claimed he threw the fight in a deal to avoid the Mann Act conviction. This claim was contradicted by the news that Johnson bet $2500 on himself to win the fight. Then film of the fight was shown. It was clear that Johnson fought hard but lost to a younger, stronger man.

In 1921 Jack Johnson turned himself into American authorities and was imprisoned for his Mann Act conviction. After he did his time he returned to boxing. He never fought for the championship again but had a long career, fighting professionally until 1938. After losing seven of his last nine fights Jack officially hung up the gloves at age sixty.

Boxing in the 1930's

In the last years of Johnson’s career another African American heavyweight boxer rose to prominence. His name was Joe Louis, and he studiously avoided any possible resemblance to Jack Johnson. Trainer Jack Blackburn warned Louis: “If you really ain’t gonna be another Jack Johnson, you got some hope. White man hasn’t forgotten that fool nigger with his white women, acting like he owned the world.”

Johnson took Louis’ career as a supreme insult. He bet against Louis and criticized him publicly. His competitive spirit was still alive, and he did not want another black fighter eclipsing his career. When Louis got a title shot against the reigning champ, Irishman Jim Braddock, Johnson offered to train Braddock. Braddock declined, and was knocked out by Louis in 1937.

Jack and his car

On June 10 1946, Johnson was driving his sports car in North Carolina. He stopped at a diner in a small town near Raleigh to have lunch. The restaurant refused to serve him because of the color of his skin. Johnson sped off angrily down Highway 1 until a violent collision with another vehicle  ended his life at age sixty-eight. He was buried in an unmarked grave next to the graves of two of his wives: Etta Duryea Johnson and Irene Pineau.

*    *    *

Johnson’s life draws mixed reactions from his own people. African American scholar Booker T. Washington said:

“It is unfortunate that a man with money should use it in a way to injure his own people, in the eyes of those who are seeking to uplift his race and improve its conditions, I wish to say emphatically that Jack Johnson’s actions did not meet my personal approval and I am sure they do not meet with the approval of the colored race.”

Only eight years after his death Jack Johnson became a charter member of the Boxing Hall of Fame. His official record was 79-8 with 46 knockouts. Most of his losses came at the end of his career. The venerable Nat Fleischer, publisher of Ring Magazine and guru on all things boxing, named Jack Johnson the greatest heavyweight boxing champion of all time.

In the 1960’s Muhammed Ali saw a play about Jack Johnson’s life. Ali had lost his championship and his boxing license and was battling the federal government over his refusal to fight in Vietnam on religious grounds. Ali said: “That’s my story. You take out the issue of white women and replace it with the issue of religion. That’s my story.”

In 2014 Senator John McCain continued a ten year campaign to secure a posthumous presidential pardon of Jack Johnson for his Mann Act conviction, on the grounds that the conviction was racially motivated and “diminished the athletic, cultural, and historical significance of Jack Johnson, and unduly tarnished his reputation.”

President George W. Bush refused to issue a pardon. His successor, President Obama, has also refused to issue a pardon, and his administration states it is unlikely that Obama will change his mind.


Orbach, Barak, The Johnson-Jeffries Fight and Censorship of Black Supremacy, July 22 2010, NYU Journal of Law & Liberty, Vol. 8, p. 270, 2010; Arizona Legal Studies Discussoin Paper NBo 10-009. See

Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson, a documentary by filmmaker Ken Burns based on the nonfiction book of the same name by Geoffrey C. Ward (2004). The documentary was initially broadcast on PBS on January 17 and 18, 2005. Burns won an Emmy Award for his direction.

The Great White Hope, Howard Sackler’s 1967 theater dramatization of Jack Johnson’s life.

es Black history month -= Wednesday, January 24, 2001, Jack Johnson (title)

Ward, Geoffrey C. Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson.New York: A.A. Knopf, 2004. Print.PG18.

International Boxing Hall of Fame, Joe Choynski.

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