80 Years Ago, the Truth Hurt : Johnson’s Victory Over Jeffries Taught Lesson to White America
Eighty years ago, promoter Tex Rickard staged a fight in Reno between a black champion and a white challenger and called it “The Fight of the Century.”
He may have been right.
The event, and a nation’s reaction to it, showed vividly what America was at the time and where it was going. On a sunny, hot afternoon, Rickard matched the champion, Jack Johnson, and Jim Jeffries.
The July 4 bout shocked white America into the reality that white supremacy was a myth. And a dead one at that.
Johnson’s victory over Jeffries provided a lesson much of white America didn’t learn gracefully. Johnson-Jeffries touched off America’s first national race riot--several days of hundreds of violent street clashes between whites and blacks in cities across the country.
On the night of July 4 alone, eight died in street fights.
But Jack Johnson’s victory that day did nothing to open the door of opportunity for black athletes or black Americans generally. If anything, it shut it even tighter. More than a decade later, white heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey refused to fight a black, Harry Wills. And it was 37 more years before blacks were permitted to play major league baseball.
Films of Jack Johnson’s easy victory shown in theaters touched off even more rioting. So violent was the reaction that Congress enacted legislation in 1912 banning the interstate transportation of boxing films, a law not repealed until 1940.
Jack Johnson in 1910 was probably the most hated man in white America, in part because of his apparent lack of concern that many whites hated him. Always, the gold-toothed smile seemed to mock the tenets of the day, which had it that blacks should defer to whites. And above all, a black man should never even look at a white woman, much less marry one. Jack Johnson married three white women.
In 1908, he became the heavyweight champion in Sydney, when police stopped his bout against another outclassed white champion, Tommy Burns of Canada.
Among the writers covering that fight was the young novelist, Jack London. His syndicated story was crafted along racial lines. And his closing paragraph, read by millions, was almost a call to arms.
“But one thing now remains,” London wrote. “Jim Jeffries must emerge from his alfalfa farm and remove the golden smile from Jack Johnson’s face. Jeff, it’s up to you!”
Jeffries, the retired white heavyweight champion, was happy and fat in retirement on his Burbank alfalfa farm.
At first, Jeffries refused all who begged him to return to boxing. He had retired unbeaten in 1904 and by mid-1909 weighed 314 pounds.
Finally, Jeffries was ground down by the pressure of white racists and a guaranteed $120,000 offer by Rickard, plus perhaps close to $1 million more . . . if he won.
In 1910, when blacks made up 10.7% of the population, 76 people were lynched in the United States, 67 of them blacks. Between 1885 and 1910, there were 3,287 U.S. victims of lynchings, 2,276 of them blacks.
In Charleston, Mo., on the day before the Johnson-Jeffries fight, a mob of a thousand whites broke through the door of the city jail with a battering ram, dragged two blacks accused of having murdered a white farmer from their cells and hanged them.
In 1916, per capita annual expenditures for education in southern states averaged $10.32 for white children, $2.89 for black children. In 1900, 728 of the nation’s 114,703 lawyers were black.
In 1896, in Plessy vs. Ferguson, the Supreme Court upheld segregation laws in public transportation. At the time, there were few places in America where blacks were permitted in hotels, theaters, churches, schools or trains occupied by whites without being restricted to the “colored” section.
In 1907, the Supreme Court upheld the right of railroads to segregate passengers on interstate trips, even when such segregation ran counter to the laws of the states in which the train was traveling.
In 1909, film shorts titled “Sambo” and “Rastus,” in which blacks were depicted as childlike and incompetent, soared to huge popularity after their New York debut.
In boxing and some other sports, blacks and whites participated somewhat equally. In the 1875 Kentucky Derby, for example, 14 of the 15 jockeys were black.
Similarly, it seems scarcely to have caused a ripple that in boxing’s lighter weight classes there were black champions such as George Dixon, Joe Walcott and Joe Gans dating to the late 19th Century. But starting with 1880s heavyweight king John L. Sullivan--who refused to fight prominent heavyweight Peter Jackson because he was black--a tradition began of denying blacks opportunity to win the heavyweight title.
As John Lardner wrote it in his 1947 book, “White Hopes and Other Tigers,” “Race seems to have been an issue only when the scales reached 175 pounds.”
Lardner, in his study of the Jack Johnson years, concluded that the anti-Johnson faction held to two tenets: That rule of the heavyweight championship by a black was somehow a threat to civilization, and that human courage and intelligence were directly related to skin color. But to their dismay, Johnson’s chief asset in the ring was his intelligence. He was not a hard puncher, as was Jeffries. Instead, Johnson was cunning--a brilliant defensive fighter who tried to wear down foes by constantly parrying their charges, slipping their punches, tiring them and finishing them off in later rounds.
Nor did it seem to matter to the anti-Johnson forces that some of the best heavyweights of the day were blacks, such as Sam Langford, Joe Jeanette, Sam McVey and Harry Wills. They seldom fought whites, and when they did it was without the intensity with which they fought one another, because they needed friendly promoters to prolong their careers.
But not Jack Johnson. He was an original.
Jack Johnson not only beat white fighters, he humiliated them. He taunted them as he beat them, and when he had beaten them, he laughed at them.
And he loved it.
John Arthur Johnson was the son of a school janitor, born in 1878 in a tiny house near the docks and cotton warehouses of Galveston, Tex.
One of nine children, Johnson learned to fight early in his rough-and-tumble neighborhood. At 12, he hopped a freight train and lived on the road for five years. He traveled across the South, earning change as an exercise rider at race tracks and, briefly, as a sponge fisherman in Key West, Fla. Often he went days without food.
In his mid-teens, he began showing up at the training camps of prominent black fighters and working as a sparring partner.
He returned to Galveston as a 17-year-old and went to work in a paint shop. One day, he learned that a circus was coming to Galveston with a carnival fighter named Bob Tomlinson, who offered all comers $5 if they could last four rounds with him.
Johnson knocked him out in the fourth round.
He surfaced next in Chicago, earning small purses in club fights. He saw early that he had little hope of ever rising to the top levels of boxing because of his race.
He drifted west and between 1901 and 1904 fought often in Los Angeles, Bakersfield, San Francisco and Oakland.
Meanwhile, the powerful, hard-hitting Los Angeles heavyweight champion, Jeffries, was beating every challenger. He retired with a 20-0 record in 1904.
In 1906 in Los Angeles, Canada’s Burns defeated Marvin Hart for the heavyweight title.
For two years, Johnson pursued Burns around the United States and Europe, pleading for a title bout. Finally, he followed him to Australia, where on Dec. 26, 1908, in a temporary 16,000-seat outdoor stadium, Johnson was trouncing the 5-foot-7 Burns when police entered the ring in the 14th round and stopped the bout.
To many whites, Johnson’s winning the heavyweight championship was bad enough. But when he knocked out the popular middleweight champion, Stanley Ketchel, in 1909, it was the last straw. Actually, it was the way Johnson knocked Ketchel out that most angered whites.
The Johnson-Ketchel fight, held at Colma, Calif., was to have been more of an exhibition, Johnson later claimed. In man-to-man fighting, the 170 1/2-pound Ketchel stood almost no chance against the 205 1/2-pound Johnson.
But Ketchel, with a surprise punch, knocked Johnson down in the 12th round. Infuriated, Johnson knocked Ketchel unconscious with a punch that broke several of his teeth.
Then, while reporters watched, Johnson gleefully removed some of Ketchel’s teeth that had become embedded in his right glove.
That was it. Jeffries had to come back.
Jim Jeffries was the son of an evangelist who had brought his family to Los Angeles from Carroll, Ohio, in 1882, when the future world heavyweight champion was 7. Alexis Jeffries bought 120 acres between what is now Elysian Park and the Arroyo Seco and planted 100 acres of orange trees.
The preacher’s son grew to be a spectacular physical specimen, even by today’s standards. In his prime years as champion, Jeffries was 6-feet-2 and 215 pounds.
His strength was legendary. His friends told the story of how Jeffries, as a teen, shot a deer in the mountains near Tehachapi, field-dressed it, hoisted it over his shoulders and carried it nine miles to a campsite, not once pausing to rest.
Jack London described Jeffries’ physique this way: “His is a perfection of symmetry that is the fruit of the highest organic development.”
As a teen-ager, Jeffries worked as a boilermaker at the Lacy Manufacturing Co. in Los Angeles, and he later was a miner in Temecula, where he easily held his own in foot races, fights and wrestling matches with much older miners.
Almost as a whim, someone matched him with an experienced Los Angeles pro boxer, Hank Griffin, in a small arena near Olvera Street. Jeffries, 19, took a beating for 13 rounds, but then knocked Griffin out.
Between 1896 and late 1899, Jeffries won 12 fights, most of them in San Francisco. In 1897, Jeffries, 22, obtained work as a sparring partner for Gentleman Jim Corbett, who was in training for his title fight with Bob Fitzsimmons in Carson City, Nev.
In films of that fight, Jeffries is the tall, broad-shouldered young man working Corbett’s corner.
Finally, in November, 1899, Jeffries was matched with heavyweight champion Fitzsimmons at Coney Island, N.Y. With several hundred Los Angeles-area followers watching, Jeffries won the title on an 11th-round knockout. He remains Los Angeles’ only world heavyweight champion.
Victories followed over former champions Jim Corbett, twice, and Fitzsimmons in a rematch.
Wearying of the training grind and wealthy beyond his dreams, he retired in the summer of 1904.
The gray sign, shaped liked the state of Nevada, rises out of the sidewalk at the corner of East Fourth and Toano streets in Reno.
The sign identifies the site, now a construction materials yard, of “The Fight of the Century.”
The text notes that San Francisco, not Reno, was first selected by Rickard for the fight.
On Dec. 1, 1909, Johnson and Jeffries signed for the fight at the Albany Hotel in New York, where both fighters put up $5,000 good-faith bonds. Rickard had beaten five other promoters who had submitted sealed bids for the fight.
Rickard paid each fighter $10,000 at the signing, agreed to pay each $10,000 more 60 days later and $25,000 each 48 hours before the fight. Later, Rickard also paid both fighters bonuses.
In addition, the promoter drew up the potentially lucrative movie rights deal in which he and the fighters each had a one-third interest.
Later, before the fight, a syndicate purchased Johnson’s, Jeffries’ and Rickard’s movie rights for $50,000 each. It was a canny move by the fighters and Rickard, but a disaster for the syndicate.
Rickard proceeded with construction of an 18,000-seat arena in San Francisco at 8th and Market streets. He visited banks, using tickets to the fight as collateral and borrowed money to buy lumber and pay carpenters.
Meanwhile, religious groups were applying pressure on California Gov. James C. Gillett, demanding that he ban the fight in California.
On June 15, he agreed. He threatened to mobilize state National Guard units if Rickard proceeded with construction of his arena.
Rickard, with only 19 days until the fight, was frantic. Almost immediately, Reno made a bid.
Reno carpenters, 200 of them, quickly put up an 18,000-seat, octagonal wooden arena, finishing it two days before the fight. In 1910, Reno’s population was 11,000. It had only two substantial hotels: the Golden, with 200 rooms, and the Riverside, with 112. Counting boarding houses, hotels and private homes, one reporter calculated there were 2,000 rentable Reno rooms . . . and 100 saloons.
Referring to the “half-naked women” of Reno’s red-light district, a Times reporter wrote: “They pose as candidates for divorce. (But) a man with money would have no difficulty if so inclined, to make a feminine annexation, whether temporary or permanent.”
By June 25, about 300 reporters, the first of 2,000, were already in the city.
Novelist Rex Beach, who covered the fight for The Times and other papers, wrote that Reno was “the focal point for all things terrestrial.”
The fighters left their Bay Area training camps almost immediately after learning of Gov. Gillett’s edict. Johnson set up his new training site west of Reno, at Rick’s Roadhouse, a popular resort.
Jeffries set up shop five miles south of Reno, at Moana Springs, today a city park and the site of Reno’s minor league baseball stadium.
Times headline on July 4, 1910: On the Eve of Battle Men Wait Breathless
Films of Reno taken on the day of the fight show a little city’s streets and sidewalks swarming with excited men in coats, ties and straw hats and smoking cigars. Their animated faces show an eager anticipation, particularly those scenes photographed at the rail depot, where one special train after another disgorged fight fans.
Films taken outside the arena show a long line of ticket-holders moving eagerly inside beneath a gate where ticket prices are shown as $50 ringside, down to $10--monster prices for 1910, when $575 was the average annual wage.
By fight day, scalpers were getting $25 for the $10 seats.
Inside, movie cameramen began cranking as the ring announcer introduced celebrities. For the first time, six heavyweight champions, past and present, were in one place: Johnson, Jeffries, John L. Sullivan, who covered the fight for the New York Times; Corbett, Fitzsimmons and Burns.
Johnson, fit at 212 pounds, entered the ring first, at 2:30 p.m., in blue trunks. Jeffries wore purple. Both men wore American flag-like belts.
Then came the referee, Tex Rickard, who had first offered the assignment to President William Howard Taft. Turned down, he sought British author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Turned down again, Rickard appointed himself.
Possibly no fighter since Jeffries has surpassed his achievement of driving himself back into fighting shape. When he agreed to fight Johnson, he weighed 314 pounds. Seven months later, at the Reno weigh-in, he came in at 227.
But it didn’t matter.
Johnson was 32 that day and sharp. Jeffries was 35 and hadn’t fought for six years. Nevertheless, he went off as the 10-7 favorite.
Many of those who bet on Jeffries subscribed to the theory that Johnson had a “yellow streak.” However, no one could cite a specific instance in which Johnson had shown a lack of courage.
Said Burns, talking about his 1908 defeat by Johnson: “(Johnson is) game against little fellows like Ketchel and me, but Jeffries is too big and strong. He’ll bring the yellow streak out.”
Instead, Johnson beat Jeffries as he pleased, keeping up a running stream of conversation with both Jeffries and angry, sullen ringsiders. At one point, in the late rounds, in a clinch, Johnson spotted Jeffries’ trainer, Farmer Brown, and shouted: “Hey, Farm, ever see a champ eat leather? You watch Jeff. He just loves to swallow mouthfuls, all day long, don’t you, champ?”
With that, Johnson whacked Jeffries in the face again.
In the 15th round, Jeffries was bleeding badly from cuts over an eye and in his mouth, and the other eye was nearly swollen shut.
Johnson drove him into a sitting position on the ropes with a flurry of punches. When Jeffries got up, Johnson knocked him half through the ropes, on his back. He rose shakily again and tried to flee to the other side of the ring, where Johnson knocked him down again.
Before Rickard could count him out, Jeffries’ corner men rushed into the ring. Technically, that disqualified their fighter, but it’s still shown in the Ring record book as a 15th-round knockout for Johnson.
As Jeffries’ manager, Sam Berger, crawled hastily through the ropes, he said to Johnson, “No, Jack--don’t hit him anymore.”
Immediately, ringside telegraphers began tapping out the news. In the lobby of the Hotel Adlon in Berlin, hundreds of Americans gathered at 1:30 a.m. to hear bulletins.
In front of The Times building, several thousand gathered to hear telegraphed round-by-round bulletins shouted through a megaphone. The New York Times reported that 30,000 had gathered in Times Square for a similar presentation of the fight.
In Kansas City, 14,000 sat in the city’s convention hall to listen to bulletins.
At Sagamore Hill, N.Y., according to the Associated Press, former President Theodore Roosevelt repeatedly telephoned the nearby telegraph office for a fight report. When finally he learned the result, the Associated Press reported that the telegraph operator described Roosevelt’s reaction as “an exploding expletive.”
Suddenly, ringside writers who doubted the abilities of blacks fumbled to explain what had happened. They concluded that Jeffries had been the victim of inhuman, brute strength.
Beach, who frequently referred to Johnson as “the African” in his stories, wrote in his story: “(Johnson) has demonstrated that his race has acquired full stature as men. Whether they will ever breed brains to match his muscle is yet to be proven.”
In the following day’s Times, an editorial addressed to blacks stated: “Do not point your nose too high. Do not swell your chest too much. Do not boast too loudly. Do not be puffed up. Let not your ambitions be inordinate or take a wrong direction. Remember you have done nothing at all. You are just the same member of society today you were last week. . . . You are on no higher plane, deserve no new consideration, and will get none.”
Jeffries broke down and wept after the fight, possibly because of the future income he had lost. A friend, oilman Clarence Berry, had bet $35,000 on Jeffries. But Jeffries lost between $500,000 and $700,000 he would have received for a nationwide tour.
A big winner was Australian Hugh McIntosh, who had promoted the Johnson-Burns fight in 1908. He won $18,000.
Another big winner was Rickard, who announced a paid attendance of 16,528--there were about 1,500 gate crashers, he said--and a gross of $277,775. Johnson earned $110,500, Jeffries $127,166, including $50,000 each for their film rights.
The biggest losers were the syndicate members who had bought film sale rights from Rickard and the fighters. The syndicate was banking on a Jeffries victory, film of which would have commanded dollar-a-ticket showings across the nation for months.
But after race riots broke out in countless cities after the fight, municipal and state governments began banning the film showings. On the morning after the fight, along with its fight coverage, The Times published a wire report that riots had broken out “in practically every big city in the country.”
Two days later, 10 people had died in riots in six states.
Immediately after the fight, Jeffries said his “old snap” was gone. But two days later, on the train from Oakland to Los Angeles, he told a reporter: “I couldn’t have beaten Johnson on my best day.”
Said Johnson: “I outclassed him. He was game . . . but he was only half the trouble Burns was.”
Grudgingly, almost painfully, some of Jeffries’ followers conceded respect for Johnson. An AP reporter, describing the the mood after the fight in the arena, wrote:
“Hope had lived in thousands of breasts until the last minute, and then their idol had crumbled. And this black man stood above them, peerless. They could not help but admire him, and there was little animosity shown toward him. For the most part, the people were silent, readjusting things in their minds.”
As Johnson left the ring and walked down an aisle, the writer reported: “The crowd stood and cheered, as much from the pent-up excitement as anything else.”
After Johnson lost his heavyweight championship in 1915 to Jess Willard, there was not another black champion until Joe Louis won the title in 1937.
Louis, who defended a record 25 times, was instructed early in his career by his black manager to conduct himself in and out of the ring in a manner as dissimilar to Johnson’s as possible.
Poker-faced and seemingly shy, Louis didn’t so much as smile when he knocked out a white opponent, not even in the most important victories of his career.
After Louis, Johnson receded into history. Since Louis, there have been 14 undisputed heavyweight champions, 12 of them black.
After Reno, Johnson returned to Chicago and embarked upon a spending spree that left him broke within three years.
Reviled before, he was hated even more after his demolition of Jeffries, particularly after he married two more white women, his first wife, Etta Duryea, having committed suicide in 1912.
The federal government filed trumped-up charges of violating the Mann Act against him. The Mann Act was a 1912 federal law making it illegal to transport women across state lines “for immoral purposes.” He was convicted and sentenced to a year in federal prison.
Johnson fled the United States, disguising himself as a member of a black Canadian baseball team. He spent eight years in exile in Europe, South America and Tijuana, Mexico, before surrendering to federal authorities in 1920 at the U.S.-Mexico border at San Diego.
Johnson claimed his fight against Willard in Havana was rigged in Willard’s favor. It was a deal he had made with federal authorities to avoid prison, but they double-crossed him, Johnson said.
Johnson served his sentence at Leavenworth and spent the rest of his life making public appearances, often on the New York stage.
Lardner found Johnson working at a small New York museum one day in the early 1930s.
“I used to call on him at the museum occasionally,” Lardner wrote. “He talked freely and once he paused, stared at me coldly, and said: ‘Just remember, whatever you write about me, write that I was a man, and a good one.’ ”
Johnson died on June 10, 1946, while driving from Texas to New York to attend the Joe Louis-Billy Conn title fight. A notoriously reckless driver, Johnson lost control of his car on a country highway near Raleigh, N.C. He crashed into a power pole and was pronounced dead shortly afterward. He was 68.
In Chicago, his funeral was attended by thousands. He was buried at Chicago’s Graceland Cemetery, beside his first wife.
Jeffries also went broke after Reno, although not as quickly as Johnson. He retired with more than $300,000 in 1910 but lost most of his fortune in bad mining ventures in Texas, Arizona and Mono County, Calif.
He filed for bankruptcy in 1923, righted himself and later recouped much of his fortune by speculating on San Fernando Valley real estate.
He died at 77 in 1953 at his sprawling home at 2422 W. Victory Blvd. in Burbank. He left an estate of $80,000.
Jim Jeffries is buried at Inglewood Park Cemetery, across the street from the Forum.
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