The Battle of the Century: Jack Johnson, Jim Jeffries, and Visions of Race War

Editor’s Note: Much has been written about the Johnson-Jeffries fight. The following post is an excerpt from Stephen Ayres’ undergraduate history thesis from the University College London (2014). It serves as a reminder of “the Battle of the Century” and demonstrates the potential of undergraduate sport history students to use their research to engage the public.

By Stephen Ayres

On July 4, 1910, it seemed that the world was converging on Reno. Heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson was defending his title against former champion James J. Jefferies. Johnson was black, Jefferies white, and for many observers their meeting seemed to symbolise a greater collision – not just of the fighters, but of their races. As fight day dawned, Americans were queasy with fear and giddy with hope. Johnson won, a result which flashed around the world within twenty minutes and struck like lightning.

This fight was the first to carry the label “Battle of the Century.” It was an apt name, as the contest embodied the most important and troublesome aspects of early twentieth-century life. Above all, it exemplified the obsession with race which characterised the era. White men in America and the British Empire embraced the theory of “Anglo-Saxonism,” which dictated the racial superiority of white men with British heritage. Black thinkers around the world, led by W.E.B. DuBois, responded by developing a world-view which emphasised the glorious past and potential of the “Negro race.”

In this context, the Johnson-Jeffries fight became a trial of racial strength. Some commentators saw the fight as the prelude to an inevitable race war. Yet Johnson never faced universal white hatred: he found friendliness and support from crowds just as often as he found hostility in the run-up to the fight. The reactions to his victory were also complex: surprisingly generous reactions from white observers sat alongside serious nationwide race riots.

As DuBois famously wrote in 1903, “the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the colour line.”[1] This fight illustrates the complex progress of that line.

White supremacy, Black Resistance

Jack Johnson was born in Galveston, Texas in 1878. Johnson’s parents, former slaves, had moved to Galveston to escape a life of peonage in the Deep South. He was born into a world which was becoming increasingly shaped by race.

The late nineteenth century witnessed the emergence of what Theresa Runstedtler terms a “new religion of whiteness,” driven by the development of scientific theories of race.[2] Between 1850 and 1900, biologists and anatomists developed theories which explained the world’s entire history and (predicted its future) in racial terms. Man, it was argued, was divided into races with distinctive characteristics. The supreme sub-race was the “Anglo-Saxon,” defined by its links to British and thus “Teutonic” racial stock. Anatomist Robert Bean concluded in 1906 that:

the Anglo-Saxon, which was derived from the Primitives of Europe, is dominant and domineering, and possessed primarily with determination, will power, self-control, self-government, and all the attributes of the subjective      self, […] The Negro is in direct contrast by reason of a certain lack of these powers.[3]

Racial science became enormously influential from 1870-1900 in America, then capturing many of the intelligentsia in England, Australia, South Africa and Canada.[4] As this consensus developed, so did the categorisation of anyone who was not an Anglo-Saxon (or pale European) as “coloured” or “black,” terms which were used fairly interchangeably.  In the 1900s all five countries passed restrictive and racially driven immigration laws.

Their fear seems strange at a time when whites were exerting total social control. Yet observers brooded that their race was surrendering the virility that had supposedly helped it to become pre-eminent. One Australian columnist lamented that “in a world of men we cannot do great things wearing lavender gloves.” The Russo-Japanese War of 1905 – in which “coloured” Japanese forces won a comprehensive victory over a powerful “white” empire – had particularly terrifying implications. Even Britain’s Boxing magazine editorialised that “the coloured races outnumber the whites, and have only been kept in subjection by a recognition on their part of physical and mental inferiority . . . but since then [the Russo-Japanese war] there have been signs of unrest among the subject nations.”[5]

Many Americans, however, were far more concerned about the “threat” from south-eastern European immigrants who, they felt, endangered their cherished whiteness. Statistician Francis Amasa Walker scorned them as “beaten men from beaten races” without the characteristics “such as belong to those who are descended from the tribes that met under the oak-trees of old Germany.” The most pessimistic Americans feared that white racial stock would be overwhelmed by the “alien menace,” as the new immigrants were labelled. Ultimately, tensions within whiteness were eclipsed by tensions between whites and blacks, but this was not a fait accompli by 1910. At least 29 Sicilian immigrants, for example, were lynched in the South between 1886 and 1910. The black-white polarity had yet to eclipse all other racial distinctions, although it was threatening to (and Johnson-Jefferies provided advocates with a stark symbolic representation).[6]

Anglo-Saxon supremacy met with a powerful response from black thinkers around the world. No-one was more influential to this movement than W.E.B. DuBois. Like his Anglo-Saxonist counterparts, DuBois was seized by the potential of transnational links, in this case amongst the black-skinned people of the earth. He argued that “only Negroes bound and welded together, Negroes inspired by one vast ideal, can work out in its fullness the great message we have for humanity.”[7] The Pan-African Conference of 1900, in which DuBois was heavily involved, saw speakers from the U.S.A, the Caribbean, West Africa and Ethiopia advocate for black self-determination. It represented an early manifestation of international black solidarity.

Jack Johnson’s rarely-studied 1911 memoirs provide a fascinating hint that he had absorbed this new intellectual perspective, as he lacerated the whites with words rather than uppercuts for once:

You white men are very proud when you can trace your lineage back to the Crusades…But can you tell me who built the edifices that your ancestors found in Palestine…Who built the pyramids forty centuries ago…when the inhabitants of Europe, dressed in animal skins, were still scraping out a miserable existence in caves?[8]

Johnson clearly sought to resist the tentacles of white supremacy in print and in the ring. It is in this profoundly turbulent racial context that the “Battle of the Century” can best be examined.

“Ethiopia hammering America”

Johnson, a supremely talented boxer with a deep resume, was desperate to meet champion James Jeffries from 1903 onwards, but was thwarted by the “colour line.” Former champion John L. Sullivan, a hero to many white Americans, had refused to fight the skilled black challenger Peter Jackson, an Australian, justifying this decision in racist terms. The colour line became a quasi-sacred rule for heavyweights; Jackson ended up playing Uncle Tom on stage, dying penniless.

Jeffries retired in 1905, declaring that “I do not care if Johnson licks the Japanese army . . . [I] will never battle an Ethiopian.” Many journalists protested, with the Los Angeles Times writing that “the color line gag does not go now.” Nevertheless, Jeffries held firm. Johnson instead chased the new champion, Canadian Tommy Burns, around the world, catching him in Sydney on Boxing Day 1908. Local police stopped the fight in the fourteenth round to save Burns, and Johnson had broken the colour line.[9]

Black Americans swiftly embraced Johnson as a hero for his achievement, with scenes of jubilation in Chicago, New York, and overseas. As Runstedtler says, oppressed peoples everywhere “transformed Johnson’s triumph into a meaningful symbol of local resistance to the racial and imperial status quo,” adopting Johnson as a hero. Many authorities banned displays of Johnson’s fight films, but they were seen in Fiji, Ceylon, Siam, and many other colonies; however, the anticipated turbulence failed to materialise. The Chicago Tribune praised black Chicagoans for their dignified celebrations, concluding that “it surely was a merry Christmas along Chicago’s black Rialto.” The neighbouring Detroit Free Press was less sanguine, wondering whether “the races we have been calling inferior [are] about to demand to us that we must draw the color line in everything if we are to avoid being whipped individually and collectively?” This, though, was a rare example of journalistic hysteria.[10]

The main exception was in Australia. The Melbourne Punch editorialised that “the fight was a case of Ethiopia hammering America,” demonstrating the conceptual link between whiteness and citizenship which held amongst Anglo-Saxons.[11] Jack London’s famous exhortation to Jim Jefferies to desert his alfalfa farm and wipe Johnson’s “golden smile” away was another, important, anomaly. Despite these virulent individual reactions, Johnson received a good deal of support during his trip and racial hostility was far from ubiquitous.

A year later Jefferies reluctantly lumbered off his farm and headed straight for a storm: he signed a contract to fight Johnson. This time hysteria did ensue. The claim of the Indianapolis Freeman during fight week that “perhaps no other event of history has held so universally the gaze of mankind” was not as hyperbolic as it seemed.[12] Few events in the world’s history to this point had seen such saturated coverage; round-by-round telegrams reached Australia in 23 minutes and American cities in seconds. The world had at least one eye on Reno when Johnson and Jeffries went into battle.

For some observers, all roads led ominously to Reno. Englishman Charles Shaw wrote that:

The black and white races recognise, if unconsciously, that this fight is the precursor of    another and greater fight – of the races . . . should the black prove victorious, let there be no     mistake about it, an impetus will be given to the growing ambitions of the black races, the        end of which no man can foresee.[13]

In South Africa, the fight was anticipated in almost apocalyptic terms amongst settlers who, according to Runstedtler, viewed Jeffries with “an intimate sense of racial brotherhood.”[14] They were right to be fearful black South Africans lionised Johnson.

The racial angle was emphasised in America by journalists and boxing insiders – Sullivan wrote that Johnson “the contest is really between representatives of two races rather than between two individuals.”[15] It was also absorbed into popular culture through songs and cartoons. Dorothy Forrester’s vaudeville doggerel, “Jim-a-da-Jeff,” concealed a serious message, suggesting that a victory for Jeffries could be profoundly helpful in shoring up the white race’s dominance:

Who give-a da Jack Jonce one-a little-a tap?

Who make-a him take-a one big-a long nap?

Who wipe-a da Africa off-a da map?

It’s da Jim-a-da Jeff.[16]

A handful of black observers wanted the fight cancelled, while an equally small number of militant individuals embraced visions of war. Reverend Ransom of New York preached imminent chaos: “what Johnson seeks to do to Jefferies in the roped arena will be more the ambition of Negroes in every domain of human endeavour.” In this vision, Johnson was symbolically and literally leading the “darker races” into battle. However, the vast majority of black Americans wanted to see a Johnson victory because they believed that it would be garner respect for their race. The Defender brought news of international support for Johnson, reporting that a “Prince Itzebo” had “deposited 500 elephant tusks with a local banker in Bacubaland [sic] that Jack will win.”  Johnson sensed the mood, reflecting in his 1927 autobiography that “it wasn’t just the championship that was at stake – [it was] in a degree the honor of my race.”[17]

Johnson was commonly labelled with lazy journalistic shorthand as “the Ethiopian.” Rex Beach wrote that “out from the jungle shadows of Ethiopia had stalked an Afric [sic] giant.”[18] Ethiopia had always stood as a special symbol of black heritage, and it took on much greater significance in the 1890s. (One suspects Beach wasn’t aware of this.) The Ethiopian army had routed Italian invaders at Adwa in 1896, preserving their independence within a continent that had been captured by white colonisers. Because of its military defiance and impressive development, Ethiopia was now celebrated as the prototype of a strong black nation. When white journalists tried to put Johnson down as “the Ethiopian,” they were unintentionally linking him to the most potent symbol of black strength.

Many white observers, however, were sympathetic to Johnson, although they could not always ignore his race. An often-quoted Tribune article which seems to endorse the “race war” angle actually states that the “white man’s hope” idea [has been] exploited in ingenious showmanship, stating its “real hope” was that no-one was cheated.[19] The writer was criticising the frenzy surrounding the fight, not endorsing it.

Previews ignoring or downplaying the race issue came from a wide cross-section of society. Rabbi Charles Fleischer of Boston expressed his hope that a Johnson victory would be “a knockout also to the racial feeling which has been stirred up by this contest.” The Tribune meanwhile carried an intriguing “worker’s opinion” that the fighters would be wasting 11,000 horsepower, enough to supply 50,000 lightbulbs. The message – unlike the calculation – was clear: the fighters should put their collective power to work in the service of industry. The Richmond Times-Dispatch, a prominent Southern newspaper, even supported Johnson: “Pride of section rather than pride of race would enable us to stand with philosophic composure the triumph of the coon.” Hardly a colour-blind message, but racial feeling was subordinated to regional loyalty. In Reno, Boxing reported that as Johnson drove to the arena on fight day, he “received an ovation that belied all suggestions of antagonism from the crowd,” while after the fight he was cheered by a crowd appreciative of his mastery.[20]

It would be foolish to deny that Johnson was confronted by significant prejudice before and (especially) after the fight. However, it is also clear that Johnson received a good deal of support from unexpected places throughout his career.[21] The narrative of Jeffries-Johnson as a symbolic race war should not be overturned: it explains, more than anything else, the importance of the occasion. However, it should be revised to take account of the surprising diversity of opinion that surrounded the fight.

Defending the Color Line

Reno was calm after the fight, but it was the eye of the hurricane. Johnson’s victory was the signal for nationwide race riots which claimed at least fifteen lives, disabused black spectators of any notions that they might now enjoy the white man’s respect, and reflected the dreadful prophecies issued before the fight.

Frustratingly little information exists about the “Jack Johnson riots,” but it is clear that most aggressors were white and responding to minor, or non-existent, provocation.[22] Violence was extensive, nationwide. Conflicts in cities like Washington D.C. and Pittsburgh (where black Americans fought with Greeks and Russians) should be seen as an early manifestation of the hostility that the Great Migration of black Americans to the north-east and mid-west would engender.

Black pride nevertheless manifested itself in unprecedented celebrations. For millions of Americans, Johnson’s victory had not only provided them with a hero: it had demonstrated to the world that blacks could compete on an equal footing. William Pickens defiantly wrote for the Defender that it was “a good deal better for Johnson to win and a few Negroes be killed in body for it, than for Johnson to have lost and all Negroes to have been killed in spirit.”  International celebrations happened in Cuba, the Philippines and London’s Leicester Square. Sierra Leone Weekly News bizarrely reported that “Johnson is said to be the son of the late [steamship] Pilot Johnson of Sierra Leone . . . Johnson left Sierra Leone years ago and was never heard of till he became notorious by his physical prowess.” This attempt to claim a direct connection to the black hero, based on an imagined back story, is a fascinating example of the way in which Johnson was seen by many black Africans as one of their own.[23]

White observers reacted in one of three ways. Some lamented that the fight had been turned into a racial trial. Boxing’s editor mourned that “a new chapter in the history of the world was opened at Reno, for this . . . [became] a gigantic trial of strength between the white and coloured races.” This fear led to the farcical attempt to find a “great white hope” to become heavyweight champion, rightly remembered as one of the most embarrassing episodes in boxing history. Volunteers included a 44-year-old James J. Corbett, wrestling champion Frank Gotch, and footballer Earl Long, whose talents barely extended to his chosen sport: he was “substitute center” at Harvard. Black observers, including Johnson, laughed at this spectacle.[24]

Others tried to deny the social significance. Jack London, who had done more than anyone else to make the fight a race war, wrote that that “with all due credit it may be said that Johnson’s victory is a personal achievement rather than a racial one.” Still others reacted positively to Johnson. The Tribune wrote, again admittedly not in a colour-blind message, that Johnson was “met by a huge crowd and no display of racial antagonism . . . any number of white men generously cheered their fellow American, fellow Chicagoan, in recognition of skill and physical prowess, and in disregard of the oversight of Providence in wrapping it up in a black package.[25]

Two fascinating incidents exemplify the post-fight turmoil of the Anglo-Saxons. A July 17 report of a “riot” at Pentridge Prison in Victoria, told in the Queensland Times, bound up white Australians’ worst fears of immigration, criminality, and racial turbulence in a vastly exaggerated portrait of the rioting “shady Negro King,” who “made no bones about letting all and sundry know his views concerning the undoubted superiority of the race, as proved by the victory of Jack Johnson.”[26] A similar story surfaced in New York later, featuring a drunk and disorderly black man boasting about Johnson, and being put in their place by a smaller white male. Any story of black violence now required a reference to Johnson, and a white, male hero on the scene to restore order.

The Los Angeles Times, finally, published a highly revealing cartoon featuring a bruised Jeffries limping away from the scene of the beating. The cartoon was captioned “The Latest Victim of the ‘Black Hand’”- a synonym for Italian mafia operations – depicting Johnson and southern European immigrants together as “others” who threatened the social order. What, the Anglo-Saxons wondered, had they unleashed?

Hope and Solace

The Johnson-Jeffries fight was enormously significant. As Les Walton wrote for the New York Age, many cared more about it than about recent Presidential elections.[27] This is because it was an explosive distillation of key contemporary social issues, perhaps more so than any other sporting event. Top-level heavyweight boxing matches are intense, visceral spectacles which can end violently at any moment, or become a prolonged form of torture for the badly-beaten loser. The Johnson-Jeffries fight was an example of the latter. It is easy to imagine that when white observers saw “Ethiopia hammering America,” they also apprehended a terrifying vision of the future.

Johnson challenged the racist pseudo-science that was shaping the world. He gave hope to the oppressed non-white masses and inspired racial pride. Johnson’s example provided a measure of hope and solace to oppressed black Americans despite the furious attempts to re-impose white supremacy on them.

Millions of people around the world poured their hopes and fears into the Johnson-Jeffries fight. On Independence Day in 1910, then, the twentieth-century world truly was converging on Reno.

Stephen Ayres studied History at University College London from 2010-14, also spending a year in the U.S. at the University of Pennsylvania. He completed a longer version of this paper for his undergraduate dissertation in 2014. After graduating he taught History in English high schools from 2014-17, and is now moving into the U.K. civil service. He can be reached at stephenayres1991@gmail.com.


Notes:

[1] W.E.B. DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk (Oxford University Press, 2007, orig. 1903), 15.

[2] Theresa Runstedtler, Jack Johnson, Rebel Sojourner (University of California Press, 2012), 18.

[3] Robert Bean, “Some Racial Peculiarities of the Negro Brain,” American Journal of Anatomy, 5 (1906), 379.

[4] Mark Haller, Eugenics (Rutgers University Press, 1984), 50.

[5] “Emperor of the Ring,” The Daily News (Perth, WA), July 5 1910, 7; Theresa Runstedtler, Journeymen (unpublished PhD dissertation, Yale University, 2007), 164.

[6] Francis Amasa Walker, “Restriction of Immigration,” The Atlantic Monthly, 77 (1896), 824; Clive Webb, “The Lynching of Sicilian Immigrants in the American South, 1886-1910,” in William Carrigan (ed.), Lynching Reconsidered (Routledge, 2008), 177-79.

[7] DuBois, Souls of Black Folk, 183.

[8] Jack Johnson, My Life and Battles (ed. and trans. Christopher Rivers, Praeger, 2007, orig. 1911), 2.

[9] Quoted in Ward, Unforgivable Blackness, 68; “It’s ‘Up to You,’ Champion Jeffries,” Los Angeles Times, October 29, 1903, 12.

[10] “As Jack London Saw It,” Baltimore Sun, December 27, 1908, 10; Runstedtler, Journeymen, 128; “Plan Big Doings in ‘Black Belt,'” Chicago Tribune, December 26, 1908, 8; “Is the Caucasian Played Out?”, Detroit Free Press, January 1, 1909, 1.

[11] Quoted in Runstedtler, Journeymen, 111.

[12] “On the Nation’s Birthday,” The Freeman (Indianapolis), July 2, 1910, 1.

[13] Charles Shaw, “The Beginning of the Race War,” Penny Illustrated Paper, July 2, 1910, 11.

[14] Runstedtler, Jack Johnson, Rebel Sojourner, 91.

[15] John L. Sullivan, “‘John L’s’ Views on the Big Fight,” New York Times, May 1, 1910, S1.

[16] Quoted in Sammons, Beyond the Ring, 38.

[17] Quoted in Gilmore, Bad Nigger!, 38; “Jack Johnson 32 Years Old,” Chicago Defender, April 9, 1910, 4; Jack Johnson, Jack Johnson – in the Ring – and Out (National Sports Publishing Co., 1927), 183.

[18] “Johnson and Age Defeat Jeffries,” Chicago Tribune, July 5, 1910, 6.

[19] ‘H.E.K.’, “The White Man’s Real Hope is that the Better Man is Not Cheated,” Chicago Tribune, July 4, 1910, 10.

[20] “Parsons Favor Jack Johnson,” CT, June 7 1910, 11; “Big ‘Mill’ from View of Worker,” CT, June 12 1910, E4; Quoted in Gilmore, Bad Nigger!, 35-6; “Age Will Tell,” Boxing, July 9, 1910, 440.

[21] As Gregory Bond argues, for most of his career Johnson had ‘”defenders and supporters in the white supporting community, who . . . routinely protested his persecution.” Gregory Bond, Jim Crow at Play (unpublished PhD dissertation, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 2008), 352.

[22]Anything other than subservience from blacks was regarded as a serious provocation, particularly in the south. Two black residents of Macon, for example, were adjudged to have “attempted to take the town” and sentenced to thirty days’ jail time. The sum of their offences was that they “swore too loudly as some ladies were passing,” celebrated “with drink and a revolver,” and “said Jack Johnson could beat any white cracker.” The reporter’s final sentence was as unequivocal as the judge’s: “There will be no more celebration.” “Johnson Shouters Get Stiff Doses”, AC, July 6, 1910, 4.

[23] William Pickens, “Talladega College Professor Speaks on Reno Fight,” CD, July 30, 1910, 1; “Boxing Contest at Reno Nevada,” Sierra Leone Weekly News, July 9, 1910, 7.

[24] “The Tragedy of Jeffries,” Boxing, July 9, 1910, 441; “Harvard Man After Johnson,” CT , July 11, 1910, 9.

[25]“The Nubian Tiger,” LAT, July 5 1910, II4; “Cheering Throng Greets Johnson,” CT, July 8, 1910, 13. The races mixed cordially, with the Freeman noting that whites “were made the butts of black folks’ boisterous wit, and all replied in a happy and responsive way.” “City Wild Over Result,” IF, July 9, 1910, 1.

[26]“A Compatriot of Jack Johnson,” Queensland Times, July 18, 1910, 7.

[27] Les Walton, “Johnson Is Now Undisputed Champion,” New York Age, July 7, 1910, 6.

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