BATTLE CREEK, Mich. (WOOD) — Muhammad Ali, Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano, Mike Tyson: They are four of the greatest heavyweight boxers the world has ever known. But many boxing fans believe another fighter deserves that same recognition had his career not been derailed by the Jim Crow era and a racially motivated FBI investigation — with one of the chapters culminating 100 years ago this week in West Michigan.
Jack Johnson was cocky and brash. But that’s not why he drew the ire of many white Americans. According to filmmaker Ken Burns, who made the PBS documentary “Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise & Fall of Jack Johnson,” he became a target because he was an idol for Black Americans.
“Johnson was everything that a Black man of his era was not supposed to be: Outspoken, articulate, intelligent, powerful, wealthy, good-looking and charming,” Burns said. “This made him a hero to most of Black America, but it also made him a dangerous enemy to much of white America. His mere presence threatened the notion that African Americans belonged to an inferior, subservient race.”
By 1908, Johnson had become the heavyweight champion of the world. And after years of trying to reclaim the belt, his detractors realized they needed to beat him outside the ring.
Using a newly passed law, the Department of Justice went to work building a case against the boxer — even though it took them more than two years to find a violation. But once they did, it derailed Johnson’s life and career.
Like most Black Americans during the Jim Crow era, Johnson started from humble and oppressed beginnings. Arthur John Johnson was born on March 31, 1878, in Galveston, Texas. His parents, both newly emancipated slaves, worked blue-collar jobs.
Johnson dropped out of school as a young teen to work odd jobs and support his family. He eventually moved to Dallas and became an apprentice for a carriage painter named Walter. It was Lewis who first introduced Johnson to boxing.
Johnson returned to Galveston and worked another series of jobs, including time spent as a janitor at a gym where he was able to save up enough money to buy his own pair of boxing gloves.
His first fight was a beachside bout in 1895 against a longshoreman. Johnson won the fight and claimed the $1.50 purse. But it didn’t take long for the boxer to realize he would need to leave Texas to make a career out of the sport.
Over the next several years, Johnson bounced around several cities looking for opportunities to work as a sparring partner and seek his own matches. By 1902, he had found himself in California and was one of the hottest names in the sport.
Still, the Jim Crow era permeated everything, including the boxing world. Most white boxers refused to cross racial barriers, including then-heavyweight champ Jim Jefferies. On May 16, 1902, Jefferies’ brother, Jack, stepped into the ring against Johnson. He used the opportunity to make a statement.
Johnson dominated the fight, knocking Jefferies out in five rounds. After helping carry his opponent back to his corner, he turned his glare to the champ sitting ringside, saying “I can whip you, too.”
By 1904, with several more wins under his belt, it was clear Johnson was the best heavyweight boxer in California and sportswriters openly called for Jim Jefferies to accept his challenge. Instead, Jefferies backed down, deciding to retire, claiming he had already defeated “all logical challengers.”
On his way out, Jefferies even made a point to ensure Johnson wouldn’t take his title. He set up a fight between two white fighters and served as the referee to ultimately determine the next champion. The winner, named Marvin Hart, declared in the ring that he would face “any man in the world in a fair fight” before quickly noting “this does not apply to colored people.”
But Jefferies couldn’t stand in his way forever. In 1906, Hart lost his title to Canadian boxer Tommy Burns. Burns took Hart’s words further, saying, “I will defend my title as heavyweight champion of the world against all comers, none barred. By this I mean Black, Mexican, Indian or any other nationality without regard to color, size or nativity.”
Still, Burns fought exclusively white boxers until an Australian fight promoter finally convinced him to fight Johnson — enticing him with a $30,000 paycheck and the majority of the proceeds from the fight recordings.
On Dec. 26, 1908, Johnson again made the most of his opportunity. He stood tall against Burns, winning by technical knockout in the 14th round, becoming the first-ever Black world heavyweight champion.
BECOMING A TARGET
In the months following his win over Burns, boxing promoters worked overtime to find a challenger that could take down Johnson and “reclaim the crown.” It eventually became known as the search for “The Great White Hope.”
Over the next two years, Johnson faced several challengers, including Grand Rapids’ own Stanley Ketchel, then the middleweight champion. Ketchel fought Johnson and even managed to knock him down once but was knocked out in the 12th round.
By 1910, Jim Jefferies had seen enough and decided to come out of retirement to reclaim his title, but it was too little, too late. Cameras rolled, hoping to see Johnson’s downfall, but all they captured was a boxer in his prime beating down the man who used to hold him at arm’s length and retired instead of giving him a shot at the title.
Jefferies managed to hold on through 14 rounds but was out of gas by the 15th. Johnson didn’t show any mercy, knocking out his opponent and sparking celebrations in Black communities across the country. Angry and embarrassed, groups of white people attacked the celebrations, sparking race riots in several cities, including Atlanta, Cincinnati and New Orleans. All told, more than 20 people were killed and countless others were hurt.
Following his win over Jim Jefferies, Johnson’s fame grew even bigger and his disdain among white communities grew along with it. According to the International Boxing Hall of Fame, Johnson “flaunted his fame and wealth,” which didn’t sit well with many white people. Johnson didn’t kowtow to the racist Jim Crow policies, openly breaking the written and unwritten rules of that time. His biggest offense in the eyes of some: he dared to date white women.
THE MANN ACT
All while Johnson was hammering opponents in the ring and building his hero status, lawmakers in Washington D.C. were working on the legislation that ultimately led to the boxer’s undoing.
The Mann Act, known as the White-Slave Traffic Act of 1910, passed after years of work to crack down on the number of immigrant women who were brought to America and sold into sexual slavery. The law, phrased vaguely, made it illegal to transport “any woman or girl for the purpose of prostitution or debauchery or for any other immoral purpose.”
According to Burns’ documentary, federal investigators began looking into Johnson almost immediately after the law had been filed. Johnson didn’t do much to hide his personal affairs. It was an open secret that he dated white women and many people in the know also knew that Johnson had many friends in low places, including prostitutes.
For two years, investigators couldn’t come up with enough evidence to bring charges against the boxer, until a woman came forward accusing Johnson of kidnapping her daughter.
Mrs. F. Cameron-Falconet contacted Chicago police and accused Johnson of kidnapping her daughter, Lucille Cameron, from Milwaukee and bringing her to Chicago. He was arrested days later on Oct. 11, 1912.
It turns out Cameron wasn’t kidnapped. She was Johnson’s girlfriend and she refused to cooperate with investigators. Still, prosecutors moved forward, bringing the case before a grand jury. Even with the deck stacked against him, Johnson and the truth managed to win out. Cameron testified that she wasn’t kidnapped. She moved to Chicago on her own free will and lived there for three months before even meeting Johnson.
The Cameron charges were a bust but the federal investigators knew they could get a conviction if they could find a willing victim. They found one in Belle Schreiber.
Schreiber worked as a prostitute in Chicago and had become one of Johnson’s favorite confidants in 1909. However, the relationship spoiled when Johnson moved onto a new woman, Etta Duryea. Because of her ties to Johnson, Schreiber struggled to find work among the city’s madams and eventually convinced Johnson to help her open her own brothel.
According to prosecutors, Johnson paid for Schreiber’s train fare from Pittsburgh to Chicago and paid for all of the furniture and the first month’s rent for the brothel. It was all the evidence they would need.
Exactly one month after his arrest for the alleged Cameron kidnapping, Johnson was brought in again and charged with a new set of Mann Act violations.
After working to post the $30,000 bail, Johnson disappeared from the public eye until one early January morning.
RIDING THE RAILS
Roughly a month after getting married, Johnson and Cameron bought one-way tickets to Chicago and boarded a train. Authorities say a reporter for the Chicago Tribune tipped off officers in Chicago, who reached out to Battle Creek police.
Officers made the arrest at approximately 5 a.m. on Jan. 14, 1913. According to a reporter from the Battle Creek Enquirer, the boxer said he was heading to Toronto for a couple of days to talk to his former manager about a potential fight in Paris.
“I couldn’t afford to let my mother’s house go, besides the bond that I have up,” Johnson told the Enquirer. “I couldn’t afford to turn down the fight offers I have.”
The police documents reflect the terms and viewpoints of the early 20th century. The booking document listed his nationality as “African,” but by all accounts, Johnson was treated well by Battle Creek police. In a recap of the arrest, former Enquirer journalist Nick Buckley noted that Johnson wasn’t brought to jail and was allowed to visit a former acquaintance in town. He also stayed the night at the home of John Patterson, the city’s first Black police officer.
The prize fighter’s stay in West Michigan was a short one. By Jan. 16, Chicago officers had arrived to extradite the boxer and brought him back to Illinois to face federal charges and sort out his bond violations.
ON TRIAL & ON THE LAM
Arguing the merits of the law or the charges against Johnson was beside the point. Federal investigators and the prosecuting attorney made it clear that the goal wasn’t any sort of justice.
Said Burns: “The real object was to punish Johnson for daring to engage in romantic relationships with white women.”
During the trial, one prosecutor stated Johnson committed a “crime against nature” for having sex with a white woman. Following the guilty verdict, which took less than two hours of deliberations from the all-white jury, the district attorney simply stated that “it was (Johnson’s) misfortune to be the foremost example of the evil in permitting the intermarriage of whites and Blacks.”
Johnson was sentenced to one year and one day in prison. But true to his roots, he didn’t go down without a fight.
Once again, Johnson headed for the border and this time he was successful. Disguised as a member of a black baseball team, Johnson was able to cross into Canada and reunite with his wife in Montreal.
Despite his legal troubles, Johnson was still the world champion. He competed in several fights in Paris and held onto his heavyweight title until 1915. He agreed to fight the 6-foot-6 Jess Willard on April 15, 1915, in Cuba. That’s the day the now-37-year-old Johnson climbed into the ring for the last time as heavyweight champ.
Boxing historians credit Willard for a solid gameplan entering the fight, telling reporters that he had planned to “take punishment for the first 15 rounds or so, but would then come on and wear the champion down.” His prediction proved correct.
Fighting under the hot Havana sun, Johnson came out swinging, hoping for an early knockout. But he couldn’t land the decisive blow against Willard — who was 5 inches taller than Johnson and had a longer reach. Johnson won the early rounds, according to the judge’s cards, but as the rounds piled up, Johnson hit his limits. The momentum shifted and Willard took control of the fight.
By the 26th round, the champ was on the ropes (figuratively, not literally). Finally, he cracked. Willard landed a hard right and Johnson dropped to the canvas.
A CRUEL END & REDEMPTION
After living another five years on the lam and racking up more wins and purses, Johnson agreed to turn himself in to U.S. authorities and serve his prison sentence.
He struggled to get back in the ring following his release in 1921 but was welcomed back to the fold after a fourth-round knockout of Farmer Lodge in 1923. Johnson continued to fight off and on until 1931. At 53 years old, he defeated Brad Simmons with a second-round knockout, just two months after Simmons had bested him on a judge’s decision.
In the following years pro boxing was in the rearview mirror, but much of the world stayed the same for Jack Johnson — notably the Jim Crow laws that targeted Black Americans.
He died in 1946, allegedly after speeding away from a diner in North Carolina that either refused to serve Black people or tried to force him to sit outside. His car hit a light pole and Johnson was seriously injured. Because he was Black, he wasn’t allowed at certain hospitals. Despite his grave condition, Johnson was brought to a hospital more than 25 miles away from the site of the accident.
Decades after his death, Linda Haywood, Johnson’s great-great niece started an effort to rectify his image and clear his name.
“(Family) didn’t talk about it because they were ashamed of him, that he went to prison,” Haywood told the Los Angeles Times in 2018. “They were led to believe that he did something wrong. They were so ashamed after being so proud of him. … Knowing that he was treated unfairly, and unfairly convicted and targeted because of his choice of companions, who happened to be Caucasian. That’s wrong.”
After years of fighting, Haywood’s work paid off. President Donald Trump issued a presidential pardon for the late boxer who he said was “treated very rough.”
“I am taking this very righteous step, I believe, to correct a wrong that occurred in our history and to honor a truly legendary boxing champion,” the former president said.